Everett Transit, Ct Merger Meets Resistance -- Momentum To Join Bus Systems Coming Out Of Olympia

In most shotgun marriages, the bride and groom at least know why they're being joined.

But in the case of Everett Transit and Snohomish County's Community Transit, the reasons behind their proposed merger aren't so simple.

Few local officials seem to be pushing for the merger, which would add Everett's 52-vehicle fleet to CT's pool of 310 buses and vans. Instead, the momentum is building in Olympia, where a hearing was held yesterday on a bill that would join the two transit systems.

The House Transportation Committee was expected to vote this afternoon.

"I guess it goes back to, `If it ain't broke, why fix it?' " said Everett Mayor Ed Hansen at a breakfast meeting yesterday among the CT board and elected officials from Snohomish County, Everett and other cities served by CT.

"If (Everett Transit) is working well, then why take that away from the citizens of Everett?"

No one had an answer.

"Obviously, this thing hasn't been thought through in Olympia," complained Snohomish County Councilman Bill Brubaker, who opposes the bill.

But Lynnwood Mayor Tina Roberts offered a lonely statement of support. It may be "wonderful" for a city to have its own bus system, but the issues are larger than one city's interests, she said.

The Legislature's interest in joining the agencies traces back to the late 1970s, but the new push for a merger is linked to a 1991 state study of public transit systems. A key recommendation, fueled in part by the state Growth Management Act, called for merging systems such as CT and Everett Transit.

State Sen. Larry Vognild, D-Everett, blocked a 1992 bill that would have combined the two agencies. The reprieve was to give Everett and CT a chance to work voluntarily toward regionalized transit services, said state Rep. Jim Johanson, D-Mill Creek, a co-sponsor of the new bill.

Instead, CT is embroiled in a new set of problems: a grand-jury investigation into alleged kickbacks involving bus-transmission repairs plus the November resignation of CT's executive director, Ken Graska, who quit under fire.

State Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, is prime sponsor of the bill, which seeks to force the Snohomish County Council to hold public hearings on the merger proposal. The bill also is co-sponsored by Rep. Paull Shin, D-Mukilteo.

If the council hearings turned up no significant problems, the merger proposal would be placed on the ballot.

Everett now charges a sales tax of three-tenths of a cent to support Everett Transit, which last year logged 1.9 million passenger trips. In areas served by CT, sales tax of six-tenths of a cent is charged to support bus services. CT logged 5 million passenger trips in 1993.

If the merger takes place, Everett's sales tax could increase.

As a city-operated agency, Everett Transit is not eligible for receipts from motor-vehicle excise taxes that are distributed to agencies such as CT. But if the agencies merge, Everett's ridership could increase the joint agency's tax share by $500,000 to $2.5 million, Johanson said.

At yesterday's Olympia hearing, the proposed bill was opposed by Everett bus drivers and an Everett official.

"There are 200,000 citizens in the county and only about 78,000 in the city of Everett," said Pat Downes, representing an Everett bus-drivers union. "That's a 3-to-1 ratio, and we don't think that kind of vote is fair."

However, a lobbyist representing the Snohomish County Committee for Improved Transportation and the Edmonds, Everett and South Snohomish County chambers of commerce spoke in favor of the bill.

Ray Lloyd, CT's lobbyist, said no one wants to force Everett into the merger.

"We do not want to do a hostile takeover of another transit system," he said. "We are not a Fortune 500 company, and the Everett voters should decide what they want."

Dozens of local officials attended yesterday's meeting at Community Transit's headquarters at Martha Lake. The 7 a.m. gathering attracted more than 40 participants, including Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, all five Snohomish County Council members, Hansen and five Everett City Council members, and Roberts.

"If it's had one positive effect, it's gotten all these different agencies together to talk about transportation," Johanson said. "The taxpayers of Snohomish County demand a more efficient service and also more accountability."