It’s 3:00 p.m. on a recent workday, and Buddy Yates sets off on the first leg of his long commute home. He and his guide dog, Palmer, step through the fast-food containers that litter the street on the way to Rainier Avenue South where he will catch his first bus.
“No sniff, no sniff,” says Yates, pulling back repeatedly on his dog’s harness. Even for a guide dog, those containers are hard to resist. It’s only one of the many hurdles Yates, 61, will face over the next two hours.
Five buses and three trains. Every day. That’s the basic commute he’s done for nearly a decade to get to his job at The Lighthouse for the Blind Inc., where he makes canteens and other equipment for the military. He likes to get there by 6:30 a.m. so he has time to settle in and take care of Palmer before his shift begins. To do that, he has to leave his Tacoma home at 3:00 a.m.
Like thousands of other residents of Pierce and King counties, Yates depends on a transit system that’s been turned sideways by the recession. More changes are on the way. As Pierce Transit prepares for its third round of reductions since 2009 and as King County Metro Transit warns of cutbacks next year, Yates is worried that he and his wife may have fewer transportation options. That could affect everything from where they work to where they live. Yates says he wishes he could work closer to home but he hasn’t been able to find a job. “A lot of places won’t hire blind people,” he says. “They think we’re too stupid because we can’t see.”
Fallout From The Recession
Pierce Transit has been slammed by the recession. Most of the agency's operating revenue — 71 percent — comes from sales tax. Since 2007, sales tax revenue for Pierce Transit has plummeted by about 25 percent. To cope with the shortfall the agency has raised fares, delayed capital improvements and laid off workers, cutting about a third of its managers. The agency has asked voters to raise the local sales tax, but the ballot measures have failed twice. Pierce Transit made service cuts in 2009 and 2011, and plans to do so again on September 29. After this next round of reductions, Pierce Transit will have cut about half of the service that it offered before the recession.
The cuts will affect a ridership that's already disadvantaged. About 56 percent of Pierce Transit riders make $20,000 a year or less. Agency spokesman Justin Leighton said they’ve heard complaints from riders who say they’ve lost work because of the cuts. “That’s a challenge for our workforce,” he said, “especially for those who work in the restaurant industry or in retail, who often work evening or weekend hours. It’s a struggle for them and we recognize that.”
The Commute As Community
For Yates, the commute is a big part of his social life. As he waits for the train at the Sounder commuter platform a man in Carhartt pants and a bright orange vest approaches. Before the man says anything, Yates calls out, "Hey Matt," and they make small talk. On the train, as people familiar to Yates board, he says hello to them before they even sit down. Yates can identify them from the sounds of their footsteps. “It’s like fingerprints,” he says. “Everyone sounds different.” Over time, he has cultivated a core group of friends on the buses and trains. For Yates the camaraderie is the best part of his daily journey. “We have our own little community,” he says. “We talk about pregnancy, politics, God, sex, everything.”
Sometimes there are headaches. Yates doesn’t like taking the Sound Transit express bus. Unlike the commuter train, the express bus does not have a lot of space if you’re traveling with a fully grown Labrador guide dog. Yates usually sits in the disabled seat and puts Palmer on the chair next to him so the dog won’t block the aisle. But’s that’s led to a few confrontations from passengers who want Palmer’s seat. “I had some guy, 6-foot-5, he pushed his way in; pushed me. He wanted to spread out,” he says. “I said, ‘Well I’m getting off at the next stop,’ because he’s bigger than I am; he was being a jerk.”
More Transit Cuts
Dealing with difficult passengers isn’t nearly as much of a concern, though, as looming cuts by King County Metro. The nation’s tenth-largest bus agency is slightly less dependent on sales taxes than Pierce Transit, but it still receives the majority of its budget from the sales tax; about 54 percent this year. Metro has also maxed out its credit card; it has reached the state-imposed limit on how much sales tax it can collect and needs other options. It has additional funding tools; namely, a $20 vehicle license fee. But that authority expires next year, and Metro is also bracing for a drop in funding from the Washington State Department of Transportation’s viaduct replacement project.
Other transit agencies are also feeling the pinch. Community Transit in Snohomish County has already made cuts. Since 2010, it has cut about 37 percent of its service, including completely stopping the buses on Sundays. Sound Transit has had to scale back its expansion plans that voters approved in 2008 and will not be able to deliver everything it promised. Clallam Transit might also make cuts; General Manager Terry Weed said they’ve asked the federal government for increased assistance. If that doesn’t pan out, they’ll have to reduce service or ask voters to raise sales taxes.
Local officials around the state are asking the Legislature for new funding options. They’re requesting a share of the proposed gas tax increase and a new motor vehicle excise tax, which is based on the value of your car. But it's unclear if lawmakers will take up the request. Both ideas are unpopular with voters, according to a recent Elway Poll.
The End Of The Journey
Two hours after he first left Seattle, Yates and Palmer finally reach home. Yates gets his mail, greets his wife and changes clothes. Palmer hurries over to his water bowl; Yates’ wife gives the dog a few carrots as a pre-dinner snack.
Sitting back in his living room, Yates reflects on why voters rejected the sales tax increase that would have prevented the upcoming bus cuts. He says voters probably didn’t think about the consequences. “Who’s going to take your elderly mother and father to the doctor? Who’s going to take your elderly mother and father to the grocery store?” He says, "They’re going to have to come up with another tax to support them that’s probably going to be worse.”