Friday, September 30, 2011

Larsen visits Community Transit

Congressman Rick Larsen stopped by Community Transit's operations base in Everett today to talk to employees about federal transportation funding.

Larsen sits on the House Transportation Committee that oversees the surface transportation authorization bill.

The House is in the midst of a debate over whether to reauthorize spending for two years or the usual six, Larsen said. The House also is debating a possible reduction in federal transportation spending.

After a Q&A with employees, Larsen rode Swift from the Aurora Village Transit Center to his district office at the Snohomish County campus in downtown Everett.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Tool in Fare Enforcement

About a month ago, Community Transit drivers started handing out a small business-sized card to riders who fail to pay their full fare. The card informs the rider that fares are mandatory and that s/he is riding at risk of a $124 citation.

For years, there have been complaints that drivers don't do enough to make people pay their fares. In fact, the agency's policy was for drivers to ask for fare once then not argue with a rider. The policy is to ensure the safety of the driver and other riders, and to keep the driver focused on driving the bus.

If you ask some people, they'll say fare evasion on buses is rampant. On some routes, in some areas, with some riders, it is a problem. But we had our drivers and monitors do a survey recently and found that on all Community Transit buses the fare evasion rate (those who underpay or don't pay at all) is about 2 percent. One can say that's a small number, 2 out of 100 people, but with ridership in the millions it adds up.

When we started Swift bus rapid transit, with its off-board fare payment and no fare box, we stepped up the practice of having deputies ride on buses. In the past it was more a symbol of security, but with changes to state law authorizing civil citations for non-fare payment, the deputies had a new job - fare enforcement.

Our drivers started keeping logs of fare evasion, filling out forms to indicate which routes, which locations and which times of day fare evasion was occuring most often. The deputies use this information to decide which buses to ride, in uniform or in plain clothes. A problem arose, however, when deputies encountered a fare evader and their excuse was "Well, the driver let me ride anyway."

By handing the fare evader the new card, the rider is warned and has no excuse. In fact, one supervisor told me last week that a driver handed a card to a gentleman who had underpaid. The guy sat down, read the card then came back to the front and paid the rest of his fare. Good call!

On Swift, the ambassadors are there to check fares and educate riders about how to pay fares on this different type of service. Because it's an honor-payment system, fare evasion is higher than on the rest of the system (up to 6 percent), but there is also a greater risk of getting caught as we have more patrols checking for fare evasion.

Our hope is, with this new reminder, more people will pay their fare without hassle. Drivers can remain focused on the road and deputies can do their job without worrying that a fare evader "has an excuse."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

National Recognition for Curb the Congestion

By Tom Pearce, Public Information Specialist

The Curb the Congestion program has taken thousands of trips off busy streets in Snohomish County. Now it has been recognized with a national award. The Association for Commuter Transportation (ACT) presented a second-place Marketing and Outreach: Partnership Award to Community Transit and Snohomish County for their innovative and highly successful Curb the Congestion program.

Curb the Congestion is a community-based approach to reducing traffic congestion on three specific corridors in Snohomish County – 164th Street between Lynnwood and Mill Creek, 128th Street between Everett and Mill Creek, and 20th Street SE between Everett and Lake Stevens. Through financial incentives and a lot of legwork, people who live, work and/or travel on those roads every day are making pledges to change their commuting habits.

The national honor recognized the success of the 2010 Curb the Congestion program. Through the end of last year, 361 people were signed up and participating in the program, removing an estimated 18,000 drive-alone car trips from these three crowded corridors. A follow-up survey reported that 90 percent of those who signed up for the initial three-month incentive vowed to continue to use an alternate commute method.

The program’s strategy has evolved in each of its three years. For 2011, Curb the Congestion offers a $50 monthly incentive to help participants pay for alternative transportation for the first three months they get out of their single-occupant vehicles and take the bus, bike, walk, carpool or vanpool instead. After three months, those who stay with the program are eligible to win a $150 monthly random drawing.

The program started when Snohomish County decided it could not afford to build more infrastructure on 164th Street to handle traffic. The county turned to Community Transit for a solution. The county funds the program through development mitigation feeds and federal grants, and Community Transit does the legwork, like holding community fairs, promoting the program to apartment complexes and businesses and administering the program’s incentives. The county’s original goal was to take 100 trips off the road each day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Transportation Funding Roundtable

This week I attended a roundtable discussion on state transportation funding at the Machinists Union Hall in Everett, one of many that are being held around the region. There was a small, but good group of participants, including State Reps. Marko Liias and Mike Sells, Snohomish County Council Chair Dave Somers and Edmonds City Council President Strom Peterson.

People were focused on priorities for the 2012 Legislature, which is supposed to take up the issue of state transportation funding, including possible money for transit.

Somers discussed the county’s planning efforts, which include both a six-year transportation plan and a 30-year multimodal plan. He was proud of the fact that county planners worked collaboratively with transit and the various cities in creating their plans. But, purely from a capital perspective, he said there is already a $60 million funding gap for the six-year plan.

Fixing the infrastructure we now have and looking at road projects is a priority for the county heading into the legislative session. Somers, who is a member of the Community Transit Board of Directors, also made his pitch for transit funding.

Liias said that coming out of this Great Recession the impacts to families will be great as people who have lost jobs, and especially those who faced long-term unemployment, will be playing catch-up for the earnings they missed out on. For many of those families, the impacts may mean no money for college or similar life-changing decisions.

He said the number of people with no options has increased, and that will spill over to transportation choices, as fewer people can afford to buy or drive cars and more people turn to transit as their way to get around. The transit cuts we have faced here in Snohomish County have been devastating, and for those who will turn to transit in the future, we want to do our best to have a strong system for them to use.

Liias sponsored the legislation that ultimately resulted in a car tab fees that Metro got to sustain its service the next two years. The bill was originally written to help Community Transit, but by the time the session was done, our agency was dropped.

Which led to one of my points I made to the legislators: even if the Legislature grants local option funding measures for transit agencies to take to voters to raise sales taxes or car tab fees or whatever, Community Transit may well end up with no new money. Voter sentiment is not keen on taxes these days, which is why Metro supporters did whatever they could to avoid going to voters for the car tab fee.

The hope for next year is another steady revenue source for transit. One that is distributed by formula so that agencies get their fair share based on the numbers they serve.

Twelve years ago, Washington state apportioned motor vehicle excise tax revenues to transit agencies based on how many riders we carried. That steady funding source helped offset the volatility of the sales tax, our other main revenue source. After Initiative 695, the Legislature eliminated MVET funding for transit agencies. Community Transit had to cut its service by 27 percent and laid off hundreds of workers. In September 2001, ten years ago, Snohomish County voters approved a sales tax increase that took this agency to the 0.9 percent level we are at today, the maximum under state law.

Of course, when recession hit in late 2007, the volatility of that single revenue source was put on display as we lost 18 percent of our funding that still hasn’t come back. In all, between 2007 and 2013, the funding that was expected from that source that never materialized will total $207 million.

So, we are hopeful for a new state plan for transportation funding, but we must accept the fact that there could be one or several ballot measures to secure transit funding, and it may be mixed with road infrastructure funding as well.

At least two groups are talking about this right now, the Connecting Washington Task Force assembled by Governor Gregoire to put together a plan for transportation funding that will be sent to the Legislature, and Transportation for Washington, an advocacy coalition that seeks to promote new transportation funding.

Community Transit and our riders have a great deal at stake in next year’s legislative session. We will keep you updated on news as it develops. As a public agency, we cannot organize a constituency or endorse a ballot measure, but we can answer questions on how various proposals might impact this agency.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Van GO: Spreading the wealth

Community Transit just launched its latest round of the Van GO van grant program. This year, up to 10 eight-passenger Chevy Astro vans that are being surplussed from the agency's vanpool fleet will be awarded to nonprofit agencies in Snohomish County.

The Van GO program started in 2000 after passage of Initiative 695 led to the State Legislature eliminating motor vehicle excise tax (car tab) funding for transit. Community Transit lost a third of its funding and had to cut service and lay off hundreds of employees.

The notion of Van GO was to grant surplus vehicles to groups that could use them to help offset the transportation trips in the community that had been lost by the service cuts. Since then, 96 vehicles have been granted under this program. Sometimes there are surplus mini-buses awarded (former DART vehicles like the one pictured), but not this year.

If you wonder why I keep using the term "granted" it's because a public agency cannot simply give away equipment. These surplus vehicles are awarded through a competitive process and the winners must in turn use them to provide a specified number of trips the following year. When these surplus vans go to auction, as is the standard practice for surplus items, they net about $1,500-2,500. Not all surplus vehicles go to Van GO; most Community Transit vehicles are put up for auction to help recover our public investment, per state law.

From now through Oct. 31, nonprofits in Snohomish County can apply for one of these vans. Eligibility requirements and the application are available online. One thing that has worked well in recent years for applicants is partnering with another agency. For instance, some social service agencies have partnered with churches to ensure the van is used seven days a week. The number of trips an applicant says they will provide counts for 20 percent of the grant request.

If you know someone at an agency that can use these vans, or you can think of a good use at an organization you belong to, check it out. A pre-application workshop for interested groups will take place at 11 a.m. Sept. 29 at Community Transit. Send a note to vango @ for more information.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Board Adopts Hybrid Alternative for 2012

The Community Transit Board of Directors this afternoon selected the so-called "Hybrid Alternative" as the service plan for the agency's 2012 System Change.

The Hybrid Alternative combines the commuter route network proposed in Alternative I with the local route network proposed in Alternative III, with some modifications to each. The Hybrid Alternative does not include Sunday service.

Community Transit will reduce bus service by 20 percent in February 2012 due to low sales tax revenue as a result of the recession. A public outreach period this summer generated more than 2,000 public comments about the original three alternatives for service reductions, plus the hybrid alternative that was added in early August.

Board members were divided over the service plan, with Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Gossett, Lynnwood Councilmember Ted Hikel, Mountlake Terrace Mayor Jerry Smith, Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Somers, Mill Creek Mayor Mike Todd and Stanwood Mayor Dianne White voting for the hybrid alternative, and Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine, Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring and Gold Bar City Councilmember Steve Slawson voting against the hybrid alternative.

Although several board members said their first choice was another of the alternatives, no motion was made for a vote on any but the hybrid alternative.

In coming months, schedules and maps for the new service plan will be created. An extensive public outreach effort will take place early in 2012 to help riders get familiar with the new routing and schedules. The new service plan will take effect on Monday, Feb. 20, 2012.