Pierce Transit could learn a thing or two from Tacoma Power. As a public utility, Tacoma Power has built and maintained a rock-solid electricity system that provides power to over 150,000 customers spread across urbanized Pierce County. To accomplish this feat while accounting for differences in costs to serve various customers, Tacoma Power has a rate structure in place that takes into account geography and land use. Areas outside of the City of Tacoma, where densities tend to be lower and more infrastructure is required (in the form of power poles, transformers, and substations), customers are required to pay higher rates for electricity.
On the other hand, the now 30-year-old Pierce Transit charges fares and taxes at equal rates for different geographic areas and provides service mostly without respect to geography. This is despite the fact that characteristics of land use and distance greatly impact transit's ability to serve riders. For instance, on Tacoma's 6th Avenue, where there is a moderate degree of density, mixed uses, short blocks, and connected pedestrian streets, ridership is healthy and service is cost effective at less than $3/rider. However, in other parts of Pierce County where the exact opposite is true, where low-density single use zoning, cul-de-sac's and the automobile are the rule, transit service is very expensive to provide. It costs taxpayers $6.31 a rider for a route on South Hill, $10/rider for Gig Harbor, and $17.34/rider for Ft. Lewis. An important calculation to understand here is that in order for the agency to come up with enough sales tax revenue to replenish the subsidy of every single rider on a bus route on Ft. Lewis, someone else in Pierce County needs to purchase the equivalent of a used car. (~$2,887)
Since the costs and supply and demand are so mismatched, Pierce Transit has become a two-tiered system that provides an expensive and geographically disproportionate subsidy in areas that yield only minimal social benefits and then another system in urban areas where underfunded and perpetually late buses are bursting at the seams, leaving mothers and infants stranded because a standing-room-only bus is too full to fit the baby stroller onboard.
This begs the question of "What is Pierce Transit trying to accomplish as an agency?" and "Who are they trying to serve?" In their present mode, it seems like they are trying to reach every single passenger they can, by practically ignoring whether geography, the built environment, and land use stack the deck against ridership. Their target passengers at present are essentially those who will use the system for what it is and likely have no other choice. That kind of a situation is problematic, since it caps ridership growth and encourages existing riders to choose a more convenient mode as quickly as they can afford it.
An alternative policy choice might be to do, as Tacoma Power does, and actually pay attention to geography and land use when locating service and facilities - placing them where supportive policies and infrastructure exist and where ridership is likely to grow along with future economic growth. In that type of a scenario, operating subsidies actually decrease rather than increase. Another step further than just paying attention to geography and land use, Pierce Transit could actually be a voice for the good land use policies that make public transit work better.
Think for a moment if inclusion in the 'core' Pierce Transit service area worked a little like "fair trade" agreements. In order to be served by fixed route service, municipalities and the County would need to meet certain (land use) standards to ensure that public funds aren't being used to subsidize riders who would be better served by paratransit anyway. Imagine then if levels of fixed route bus service were provided according to a set of publicized criteria that encouraged a mixture of uses and more density, a reduction or removal of parking requirements, and inclusion of sidewalks and roads with bus priority. Local governments across the County might actually sit up and listen and make different choices about their policies and investments.