Ref. 49 Vote Fuels Everett's Bus System -- Approval To Bring Additional Money For City-Operated Transit

The 23-year-old question of whether Community Transit (CT) should swallow Everett's city bus system has been settled by unlikely judges: state voters.

Referendum 49, a $2.4 billion transportation-funding plan approved last week, included a prize for Everett and Yakima, the only Washington cities that operate their own bus systems.

By 2003, Everett Transit expects to receive more than $4.5 million a year in new funding, authorized by the referendum via the motor-vehicle excise tax. Yakima will get nearly $3 million a year in new revenues by then.

That goes against the intent of a 1975 state law that created state funding for public-transit systems. By denying cities access to auto-tax money, the Legislature hoped to encourage them to join larger bus systems and avoid duplicating services.

Over the years, Everett and Yakima tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to change that law.

Now voters have changed it.

Referendum 49 contains language added by state Sen. Gary Strannigan, R-Everett, that applies only to Everett and Yakima. The two cities now will qualify for money from the motor-vehicle excise tax.

CT, which serves all of Snohomish County, including Everett, was caught off guard.

"It was like a Christmas ornament for Everett on that bill," said Jeanne Edwards, chairwoman of the CT board. Edwards, a Bothell councilwoman, was elected last week to the state House.

Everett officials strongly endorsed Referendum 49, promoting its passage in public forums, and Everett Mayor Ed Hansen co-authored the "vote yes" statement for the state voters pamphlet.

Now rumors are circulating that Everett plans to use its new bounty to compete directly with CT, perhaps by launching its own commuter service into Seattle or by offering "free fare" services.

Everett Transit already has ordered five articulated buses, expected to arrive in late 1999, said Ken Housden, Everett's director of transportation services. They could be used on the city's route between the Boeing plant and the Mukilteo ferry, or along Broadway in downtown Everett, he said.

Critics are skeptical.

"If they're ordering some articulated buses, I would presume that means they are going to do some long runs into Seattle or Bellevue," Edwards said.

Housden declined to discuss in detail his city's long-range plans, which he said would include more routes, better van service for the disabled and stronger security measures. He's preparing recommendations to present to Hansen and the Everett City Council, he said.

CT's executive director, Joyce Olson, was dismayed by passage of Referendum 49. As a public agency, CT was unable to campaign against it.

"We were always concerned about Everett getting motor-vehicle excise taxes because it weakens the (public-bus-agency) legislation," she said.

"The whole point was to encourage them to join. There is no longer any encouragement.

"Through Referendum 49, Community Transit is going to lose about $1 million (over five years). And we're operating $2 million worth of service in Everett every year."

Early this year, longtime South Snohomish County leader Pat McMahan threatened to sue CT unless the agency stopped spending money on Everett services.

People who live within CT's service area pay a 0.6 percent sales tax, while Everett residents, instead, pay a 0.3 percent sales tax for Everett Transit.

But CT can't avoid Everett, the county seat, because it's the only logical transfer point between South Snohomish County and cities to the north and east of Everett. To serve its own customers, CT has a major transfer hub in downtown Everett.

Diane Brooks' phone message number is 425-745-7802. Her e-mail address is: