Island Transit’s free bus service may end

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers might give cash-strapped Island Transit money to restart a popular bus route from Camano Island to Stanwood and downtown Everett.

Under one condition: Island Transit must make those riders pay a fare.

That might not seem like a big deal, but it is, because no one pays when boarding an Island Transit bus, and they never have. It’s been a fare-free bus service throughout its existence.

“Riders need to have skin in the game,” said Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, who secured money for the Everett Connector service through an amendment to a two-year transportation budget passed by the state House of Representatives on April 9.

“All other transit systems are charging a fare,” he said. “Many people who were using the Island Transit Everett Connector before it closed told me they would have gladly paid the fare, especially if it would have kept the route open. They’re willing to pay, so this amendment makes that a requirement in order to release those funds.”

While the requirement would only apply to the Everett Connector service, it would set a precedent and could prod district leaders to start charging fares on other routes.

“Whether the transit service collects fares or not is up to them,” Hayes said. “I think that’s a local issue that they need to determine for themselves.”

Fares do appear to be in the district’s future, although there’s no timeframe for when.

“The message has been loud and clear to us from our representatives that the Legislature expects us to help ourselves,” said Rick Almberg, the board chairman and a member of the Oak Harbor City Council. “We all realize we’re going to have to help ourselves.”

Island Transit started out fare-free in 1987. Its leaders have long insisted charging a fare is 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 were subtracted.

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

During the recession, sales tax revenue plunged and state aid dwindled. Then Island Transit found itself engulfed in a financial crisis made worse by lack of oversight, according to a state audit. In that period, former leaders spent reserves, slashed service and laid off workers to cut costs. This year, a new board of directors embarked on a long-term recovery plan and began talking about implementing fares.

“I think there’s a pretty strong feeling that it was only a matter of time that it was going to happen,” Ken Graska, interim executive director of Island Transit, said last week.

The Everett Connector began service in July 2006, carrying passengers between Terry’s Corner Park and Ride on Camano Island and Everett Station. There were four round trips during the morning commute and four during the afternoon drive home. Service ended June 30, 2014, due to a lack of money.

Hayes’ amendment would provide $470,000 for Island Transit to try again. Those dollars would not be released until the Office of Financial Management determined that a fare policy was in place that would achieve a fare box recovery ratio similar to comparable routes of other transit agencies.

Graska said it wasn’t clear if the allotment would be enough to restore service to the same level as before. He also wasn’t sure if the district must match the amount to receive the money.

The House version of the budget is awaiting action in the Senate.

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, supports Hayes’ amendment.

“We as a state realize Island Transit is trying very hard to recover,” she said. “I think the time has come for them to charge fares. The cost of operating a transit system that is very much needed needs to be shared by everyone.”

Staff writer Melissa Slager contributed to this report. Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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