Thursday, February 22, 2024
WHIDBEY ISLAND — Six bucks doesn’t go very far these days. But it can get you from Mukilteo to Deception Pass State Park. That’s because Island County buses are free, one example of a growing trend around the state of transit systems getting rid of fares altogether. Here, bus rides have been free since 1987. As a newcomer, that was news to me. In Everett, adults pay $2 to board the bus. Or $2.50, if you’re boarding a Community Transit bus. Kids now ride free in Snohomish County, and much of the state, thanks to the Move Ahead Washington package that took effect in 2022. To see the entire length of Whidbey Island, all I had to pay for was a walk-on ferry ticket out of Mukilteo. Deception Pass, one of the most popular parks in the state, is an ideal winter day-trip destination, for its beaches, trails and the awe-inducing 180-foot-tall bridge at the northern tip of Whidbey. We wanted to see what it was like to get there, from Mukilteo, solely using public transit and our walking shoes. So this week, I went on a 104-mile round trip, with ORCA card in hand out of habit. I had a lot of questions about the fare-free world and set off looking to answer them on a random Tuesday: What were the buses like? Would there be lots of people? How long would it take? Finding free parking for a whole day in Mukilteo turned out to be a hassle, but it is possible. The city’s website tells travelers to use either the south Everett Park and Ride or a Lynnwood Park and Ride. There’s a bunch of reasons for this — one of the main ones being Mukilteo’s aversion to turn into a parking lot for Whidbey Island. Even most of the paid parking in town has a four-hour maximum, with one notable 72-hour exception along the waterfront. You could catch the bus or even the Sounder into town. Or you could seek a free out-of-the-way parking space a bit of a walk from the ferry terminal. Let’s just say I got my steps in for the day. It was my first time riding the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry without a car and I was stunned walking up to the new terminal in Mukilteo. The new $187 million facility opened in 2020, and it was designed to resemble a Coast Salish longhouse. It’s gorgeous, with huge cedar beams and a clean, modern feeling as you enter the building. After swiping my ORCA card, the 8:30 a.m. ferry took me to Clinton in less than 20 minutes. I was a little confused on how to get off, as maybe the only passenger without a car. A Washington State Ferries employee had me cross right before the cars and I walked over to Clinton’s terminal. ‘Attitude is contagious’ I puttered around Clinton for a little bit, grabbing a delicious everything bagel and coffee at Salty Sea Coffee. The next bus I needed was the Island Transit 1 northbound at 9:50 a.m. Eleven stops later, it would take me to Oak Harbor. Island 1 has Saturday and Sunday routes that differ a bit from its weekday routes. Island Transit’s full schedule can be found on its webpage. There is also a seasonal bus route that hits several worthwhile destinations: Fort Ebey State Park, Ebey’s Landing and Fort Casey State Park. The bus soon pulled up, affording me the pleasure of meeting Tino Gutierrez, the driver who would take me to Oak Harbor. Daily Herald photographer Ryan Berry and myself were his only passengers to get on at the ferry stop. We told him our little plan and he made sure we were on the right bus. I had mapped this out the day before, but when you’re actually en route, it certainly helps to have friendly people guide you along the way. Gutierrez and I chatted for about two hours as he drove and enlightened me on his job. He gets up at about 2:20 a.m. and starts his route at 4:30 a.m. “I love my routes,” Gutierrez said. “The reason I love it is because I get up early in the morning, get to see the sunrise. I see the usual people, they got their smiley faces on already. There’s some that are grumpy, of course, but that’s where your attitude is contagious. If I’m friendly, they’re friendly back.” The first thing I learned about Gutierrez was that after 20 years in the U.S. Navy, he’d decided to spend 20 more years driving buses. He has fun with it. He wore a green elf hat and bright red shoes as he drove on this December morning. One passenger later in the day asked to take his photo. He obliged. “The last 20 years here on the island, driving people around, it’s been fun as hell,” Gutierrez said. He winded us through the Whidbey Island countryside, picking up a few people here and there as we headed to Coupeville. ‘Never seen so many people on the bus’ While some passengers waited at stops, Island Transit also allows them to flag down the bus on the side of the road. By the time we got to the end of our Coupeville stops, there were about 20 people on board. Gutierrez greeted many by their first names. One woman, sitting at the back of the bus, announced to fellow riders she’d “never seen so many people on the bus.” Oh, and on the free fares? “I think it’s a good thing to have,” Gutierrez said. Nine-tenths of 1% of Island County’s local sales tax goes to fund the free fare program. That money is supplemented by state and federal grants. We rolled into the transfer station near downtown Oak Harbor on time, around 11:15 a.m., and walked around for a bit. I’d passed through Oak Harbor before, but this was the first time I’ve had time to kill in the city’s downtown. That was when I realized that this is a viable route to explore just about all of Whidbey Island, especially on long summer days. The last bus to the ferry on weekdays from the Oak Harbor transfer station leaves at 5:15 p.m. The ferry runs deep into the night, with the last trip from Clinton at 12:30 a.m. There was more than enough space for luggage on the bus, if you wanted to spend the night on the island car-free. That was exactly what Chris Stefanovich was doing. We got on the 411W bus with Stefanovich at 1 p.m. That bus got us to Deception Pass State Park within 15 minutes. On an excursion from Seattle, Stefanovich was staying at a cabin near the last bus stop on the island, just north of the Global Food Mart. Stefanovich flew from Alaska to Seattle for a vacation. When he heard about the free buses on Whidbey, he added that to his trip. On the day we met him, he said he took the bus down to Oak Harbor for groceries. “I don’t have to worry about renting a car,” Stefanovich said. “I don’t have to worry about driving in traffic. I don’t have to worry about making my own itinerary. I get to the train station, I’m on the train schedule. I get to the bus station and I’m on the bus schedule.” A $6 tour After a brief chat, we waved goodbye to our new Alaskan friend and followed Highway 20 down to a stoplight to cross over into Deception Pass State Park. A network of trails is hidden in the trees, and there are shoulders on the side of the road, but there isn’t much buffer for pedestrian safety. We walked along the service road and met a state park ranger. She said walk-ins are somewhat rare during the offseason, but common in spring and summer. There were few people in the park as we hiked down to West Beach. I’ve been here before — lots of cool rocks on the shore, U.S. Naval Air Base jets overhead doing their best Top Gun impression, and a beautiful view of the Salish Sea. Gazing into that wild blue yonder, I reflected on how I got there. Could free bus service be in the future for more places on the mainland? Clallam Transit on the Olympic Peninsula recently joined Island County with a free public transport program, an initiative that has spread to a number of communities across the state. But transit systems in the five most populous counties in Washington all still charge fares, with Thurston’s Intercity Transit being the biggest to go fare-free. Sound Transit has no current plans to drop fares, as state law requires they recover those costs and it would take a major effort by the board to change agency policy, spokesperson John Gallagher said this week. But free transit has not worked everywhere. Kansas City is looking at walking back the free-fare program it launched three years ago after struggling to find funding to replace fare revenue. After finishing our Whidbey Island beach-walk reveries, we got back on the 2:50 p.m. southbound bus with service to Oak Harbor. By 3:30 p.m. we were headed to Clinton. Just before 5 p.m., we caught a ferry with seconds to spare. Shoutout to our bus driver, who got us there early. I thought we might be sitting at the Clinton ferry terminal for a while. Counting the cost of a couple coffees and some bagels, the whole day cost about $20. After a quick, smooth ride across the water, we were in Mukilteo. The return trip on the ferry was free. Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jordyhansen.