Guest Opinions

Point-Counterpoint: Is it time for Ben Franklin Transit to cut its taxes and revamp services?

Ben Franklin Transit fixed route bus service

Ben Franklin Transit provides public transportation throughout Benton and Franklin Counties, and has a service area with a population of approximately 228,992 residents.
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Ben Franklin Transit provides public transportation throughout Benton and Franklin Counties, and has a service area with a population of approximately 228,992 residents.

Point: Ben Franklin Transit ridership continues to plunge while the agency takes more tax money

By Mariya Frost

New transit data from the Federal Transit Administration shows that from 2017 to 2018, Ben Franklin Transit’s total ridership decreased by 5.5 percent.

Ridership just on BFT buses, which are the heart of the agency, dropped by 7 percent. Meanwhile, ridership on van pools increased by half of a percent.

The public use of, and need for, BFT’s tax-funded services has declined 40 percent in nearly 10 years and continues to plunge.

Based on our extensive research and studies, we have been calling for a reduction in the sales tax that the agency collects from Tri-Cities residents since September. Six months later, we are still calling for that sales tax cut.

Recently, we met with BFT’s leadership team and Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins. They did not dispute our findings, and instead tried to explain why the numbers were so low.

Chris Cargill of the Washington Policy Center gives an overview of the organization's most recent study on Ben Franklin Transit.

They attributed decreases in ridership to several factors including decreased transfer rates and changes in rider counting technology that may have resulted in inflated ridership counts.

Additionally, in an October 2018 memo, BFT leadership attributed downward ridership trends to “economic prosperity.”

But in 2015, responding to our previous study, BFT leadership said ridership was beginning to rebound across the state from the “economic downturn.” In other words, BFT has blamed declines in ridership on both a strong economy and a weak economy.

None of these reasons adequately explain the consistent decline in the number of people who choose to use their services.

Whether you look at numbers over a decade, or over three years, or just in the last year — the story is the same. The need for tax-funded bus service at current levels continues to decline, no matter how much public money BFT officials spend to make their services more attractive to Tri-Citians.

A sales tax cut in the Tri-Cities, along with a revamp of BFT services, is long overdue.

This should not be controversial. It is the logical next step for any public agency that is taking in record tax revenues while serving fewer people.

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Ben Franklin Transit needs to grow with the expanding Tri-Cities, say transit officials. Tri-City Herald

When we suggested BFT contract out some of its services to find cost savings that would make the sales tax reduction easier to process, BFT leadership resisted, saying instead “we value our partnership with Teamsters in providing service to the community, including all of the public transportation professionals who operate and maintain our fleet and facilities.”

How much are taxpayers willing to spend to subsidize that cozy relationship? Do subsidized riders value the agency’s Teamster relationship more than they would value better service? Why couldn’t the service relationship with contract workers work just as well?

The agency’s political relationship with unions is a choice with trade-offs, like anything else. BFT officials could renegotiate their agreement with Teamsters or open up negotiations to the public — after all, it is working families in the community who are paying the bill.

In our meeting, BFT leadership said that contracting out or changing operations to save taxpayer money was unlikely to happen because of the union’s close relationship and powerful influence.

Perhaps BFT — and all government agencies — need to be reminded that they have a responsibility to negotiate those contracts with the interest of taxpayers in mind.

BFT executives and the union they are negotiating with should not be sitting on the same side of the negotiating table.

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Ben Franklin Transit headquarters in Richland File Tri-City Herald

Although BFT leaders are resistant to our recommendations, and are intent on defending their system’s decreasing popularity, we are hopeful they will reconsider.

The transit agency serves an important, limited role in the Tri-Cities community. However, continuing to collect record amounts of sales tax money from the public while prioritizing their relationship with the labor union, even if this increases the financial burden on Tri-Cities families, raises serious questions about the fairness of BFT’s taxing authority.

Mariya Frost is the Transportation Director at the Washington Policy Center, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank with offices in the Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia.

Counterpoint: Transit says it is moving forward

By Gloria Boyce and Matt Watkins

Ben Franklin Transit leadership has put forth significant time and effort over the past several months addressing questions and criticisms posed in a September 2018 Washington Policy Center report.

As a community servant and recipient of public tax dollars, it’s important to us that we remain transparent and answer the tough questions we’re asked regarding our operations and performance.

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Ben Franklin Transit should not be increasing spending as ridership declines, says the Washington Policy Center. File Tri-City Herald

It is equally important that we clear up misconceptions and provide meaningful context where it lacks, which is why we invited WPC representatives to meet in person and talk through the finer nuances of their assertions.

Statistics provide snapshots and data to help us make a variety of comparisons. However, they only tell part of the story and can be presented in different lights to support or discredit, depending on the perspective taken and parameters chosen.

For instance, comparing bus ridership in 2018 to 2017 (or prior) is apples to oranges until the fourth quarter 2018, at which time one could first compare ridership on the same improved system design and using the same improved counting methods.

If WPC had compared fourth quarter statistics between these two years, they would have seen a small uptick in ridership on BFT’s fixed route system rather than another reported decline. We’re hopeful, watching closely and working hard to see that become a trend.

Data showing a positive farebox revenue trend suggests more people are paying to use the system, even though service design changes have altered usage patterns, including reduced transfers and other factors that affect total rides counted.

In all, we believe our recent discussion with WPC yielded improved understanding between the two agencies not achieved during similar past cycles, a positive step despite our very different perspectives in this conversation.

That questions remain is not surprising given the complexity of our operations further complicated by regulatory, economic, competitive, and ever-changing consumer behavioral factors.

Ben Franklin Transit is staying focused on efficiently and effectively leveraging our resources and expertise in service to our community, and more specifically on the things we can control.

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One of the Ben Franklin Transit electric buses. File Tri-City Herald

This includes continuing down a path of tremendous forward progress that began with our comprehensive service overhaul in September 2017.

Further technology implementation and refinement will enable improvements across all facets of our operations including on-time performance and accuracy of ridership counts.

Capital investments including for new, modern shelters and other amenities will roll out across the system. Three new strategically located multi-modal public transportation hubs will be made possible by a recent grant award.

And the next phase of service design for better connectivity, frequency, and convenience has begun. These are things within our sphere of influence that drive increased utilization of public transit over time.

The Tri-Cities region continues to grow and urbanize faster than most other areas in our state. There is no question as to the legitimacy or need for public transit growing along with it.

Our job is to keep evolving and to further integrate into jurisdictional infrastructure planning to improve all forms of mobility and their interconnection.

BFT and WPC ultimately want the same thing, which is to ensure public funds are used wisely and to the maximum benefit of the community we serve.

We will continue taking that responsibility to heart and striving to make our community — and our critics — proud.

Note to readers: Ridership and other information is regularly posted at www.bft.org/Resources.

Gloria Boyce is general manager of Ben Franklin Transit and Matt Watkins in the Pasco Mayor and Chair of the BFT Board.
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