Island Transit pondering decision to charge fares

COUPEVILLE — Leaders of Island Transit know what must be done to receive state money to restart a popular commuter route to Everett.

Now they must decide if they want to do it.

State lawmakers agreed earlier this year to give Island Transit roughly $500,000 for the Everett Connector which, until its cancellation in June 2014, carried passengers between Camano Island, Stanwood and Everett Station.

But the state won’t send any of the money until it’s assured the district is covering some of its operating expenses with revenue from fares.

The Office of Financial Management informed the board earlier this month that the district must put policies in place to ensure a farebox recovery ratio of at least 8 percent of the district’s operating costs. For example, it would work out to $856,000 in this year’s district budget which has $10.7 million in operating expenses.

The state agency isn’t dictating how much to charge nor is it requiring fares be collected on any specific routes. Island Transit leaders will make those decision if they want the money.

And they may not. Today, Island Transit does not make bus riders pay a fare except those traveling in vanpools and directors have not decided whether they’re ready to abandon that tradition.

“It’s a culture change for even one route,” said Ken Graska, Island Transit’s interim executive director. “They want to adequately review all the strings that are attached.”

Island Transit started out fare-free in December 1987 and has been fare-free ever since. Its leaders have long insisted fares are contrary to the mission of providing efficient and convenient services for all county residents. Past leaders argued that collecting a fare generated virtually no extra revenue once all the costs associated with the collection system are subtracted.

The district survives on a share of the sales tax, state and federal grants and periodic earmarks in the state’s transportation budget.

Earlier this year the Board of Directors began talking about the possibility of implementing fares. At a study session Aug. 10, directors decided to gather a whole bunch of information on what other districts charge, which fare collection devices are best to use and how this would affect the overall timing of the bus schedule.

The state Department of Transportation is going to help get answers. Brian Lagerberg, director of the public transportation division, attended the study session at which he offered to assist Graska.

Island Transit is not under pressure to act quickly. The state money is included in the 2015-17 transportation budget which means it is available until June 30, 2017.

“It is all up to Island Transit,” said Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Stanwood, who authored the amendment to provide money for the Everett Connector.

“I think it’s motivating them to consider fares on the route. It is my feeling they are moving to farebox recovery systemwide and this may help get them there faster,” he said. “I hope that’s what they do.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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