‘Vital to our community:’ Ben Franklin Transit board to discuss reducing sales tax collection in Tri-Cities

TRI-CITIES, Wash. — Members of the Ben Franklin Transit (BFT) board are looking into the possibility of reducing the sales tax collection, citing a lack of riders on buses.

BFT currently receives a six-tenths (6/10ths) of one percent (1%) sales and use tax. Under two potential options, that would be reduced by one-tenth (1/10th) of one percent (1%) to five-tenths (5/10ths) of one percent (1%) within portions of Benton and Franklin Counties.

The first option is a temporary reduction that “simply requires a majority vote from BFT’s Board of Directors,” a news release said.

However, the second option would be a permanent reduction that requires the Benton and Franklin County Auditors to place the proposition on the ballot for the next general election.

“The average taxpayer pays about ten dollars a month in sales tax. If you want to reduce that down by 1/10th of 1%, they would effectively receive a savings of about $1.66 per month,” said Marie Cummins, BFT’s interim director for marketing and communications.

However, if the board decides to move forward with either option, BFT would stand to lose $75 million dollars in grant funds from Move Ahead Washington, a “16-year funding program to support and grow the state’s transportation sector.”

To qualify for the program, BFT must keep sales tax authority at the rate that was in effect on January 1, 2022. 

“This means obviously no reduction in local sales tax,” Cummins said. “We also have to adopt a new policy allowing all riders under the age of 18 to ride for free.”

If BFT became ineligible for the grant funds, Cummins said “it would probably result in a loss of any reduction of service, any reduction of transit staff and/or a reduction of capital transit projects,” including three planned transit hubs in Tri-Cities.

A reduction of service would affect people like Pasco resident Jaime Torres, who suffered a brain bleed in 2015 that left him disabled.

“Part of my disability is I don’t drive. So I depend on DIAL-A-RIDE,” Torres said. “This is something that’s vital to our community.”

Torres, who is also the founder of the Tri-Cities Justice Alliance, said advocating for those who don’t want to speak is important as cutting funding would affect those who rely on public transportation.

“This is an attack on the poor. This is an attack on minorities. This is an attack on people who can’t drive if financially they can’t or they don’t have a license,” Torres said. “A lot of people are refugees. You got migrants that rely on the transit system because they’re learning how to move around this area.”

Torres added that Tri-Cities “is built for people with cars.”

“It’s like people with disabilities and pedestrians are an afterthought, unfortunately,” Torres said. “It is completely unfair and I feel like [the board] is disconnected. Not everybody has a Monday through Friday job and has weekends off.”

Adam Whittier, another Tri-Cities resident and a cartoonist for Tumbleweird, agreed, adding that he thinks “[the board] has this idea of being fiscally responsible.”

“I think they’re going to do something very irresponsible for the people who they serve,” Whittier said.

With the current rise in gas and fuel prices, Whittier said more people are deciding to ride the bus to work.

“If funding is cut and your route is cut and you need that route to get to work, how is that helping constituency?” Whittier said.

Cummins noted that BFT needs to develop at the same pace the Tri-Cities is.

“We need to grow along with it in order to provide quality public transportation at an affordable price so us being able to capitalize on those grants is essential for us achieving our mission,” Cummins said.

The BFT board meeting will begin at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 14.

Board Meeting Information: 

Meeting Link:  https://zoom.us/j/98962178731?pwd=OGg1amhEQXA0RG5QRTdqNnFpRGN5dz09

Phone: 253-215-8782 / Toll Free: 877-853-5247

Meeting ID: 989 6217 8731 / Password: 833979

To sign up to speak during the Public Comments portion of this meeting, click here. Please note, that public comments are limited to three (3) minutes.

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