Bus-merge proposals die in committee

A shotgun marriage between Everett Transit and Community Transit (CT) is unlikely as long as state Rep. Ruth Fisher controls the trigger in the House Transportation Committee, says the Tacoma Democrat.

"We've talked about this for 10 years. I've spent time with Everett, I've spent time with CT. There's really no reason to do it," said Fisher, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee with Maryann Mitchell, R-Federal Way. "It's in my committee, and it's not going to get out."

Rep. Dave Schmidt, R-Bothell, yesterday conceded that his proposal to force a merger of the transit agencies is dead. Last week it missed a crucial deadline for moving out of Fisher's committee, and yesterday was the cutoff for moving House bills over to the Senate.

This is the third time since 1992 that Everett has cheered the quashing of a merger bill. CT serves an area that includes nearly every other city and town in Snohomish County, including portions of Everett. Nowhere else in the state does a regional transit agency overlap with a city-run service.

The last two merger bills were proposed in 1992 and 1994, during Fisher's previous stint as Transportation Committee chairwoman. Neither bill cleared the committee.

Schmidt introduced his bill, to require a public vote on a merger, in response to Gov. Gary Locke's budget proposal to earmark $200 million for bailing out public transit agencies hurt by Initiative 695, which pared automobile-licensing fees to $30 per vehicle. CT is losing $18.7 million in state support, or about 30 percent of its annual operating budget, because of I-695 cuts.

CT last year spent more than $3 million on bus and van service within Everett, Schmidt said, adding that state taxpayers shouldn't have to rescue agencies that wastefully duplicate services.

"There's been a lot of support and momentum building for the merger," he said.

Last week the South Snohomish County Chamber of Commerce endorsed the bill. The CT board, composed of elected officials from throughout the county, endorsed it as well.

Voters who lived in Everett or within CT's service area would have been eligible to cast ballots on the merger question.

Everett officials questioned the constitutionality of such a vote. CT collects a 0.6 percent sales tax within its service area, double Everett's sales tax for transit. If voters approved the merger, Everett's taxes also would have risen to 0.6 percent. That would give people outside the city the power to raise Everett taxes, Everett Mayor Ed Hansen said.

"It's called a merger, but it's really a hostile takeover," he said. "CT is trying to solve its financial (problems) through Everett citizens. That's what's at the heart of all this."

Joyce Olsen, CT's executive director, said if Everett joined CT, sales taxes collected within the city for transit would increase to $15 million from the current $7.5 million. That might allow CT to restore weekend bus and van service, recently eliminated because of I-695 budget cuts, she said.

"One-eighth of our boardings are Everett residents. They drive to our park-and-rides," Olsen said. "They don't pay our tax, but they get the benefit."

When told of Fisher's stance against a forced merger, Olsen said she's not surprised.

"Ruth is a very strong woman, and she has strong opinions," she said. "There's other ways for bills to become law; it doesn't have to come out of (Fisher's) committee."

Schmidt said he plans to retool his bill and give it another try next year.

"It's very obvious it's a political issue (for Fisher). It's a protection of the Everett member who is on the Transportation Committee," he said, referring to Rep. Pat Scott, D-Everett, who is community-relations officer for Everett Transit.

Fisher said Scott did not lobby her on the merger issue this year.

"She didn't have to say anything. She knew I've disliked the bill for 10 years," Fisher said. "She knew I wouldn't change my mind."

Scott also said she didn't try to influence Fisher, although they did share a brief conversation about the merger bill.

"I probably said, `I can't believe this has come up again.' And Ruth probably said, `I can't believe it, either,' " Scott recalled.

Mitchell, the Republican co-chairwoman, could not be reached for comment.

Diane Brooks' phone number is 425-745-7802.