Island Transit Big Bus Somewhere on Whidbey Island
Island Transit Photo by author

Although not in receipt of the audio yet from the August 22nd Island Transit Board Meeting, initial reports and a review of Island Transit’s 6-year Transit Development Plan (TDP) indicate Island Transit has a dangerous dependency on grants and a debt problem.  A review of the TDP indicates for 2015 alone budgeting for $3,174,612 in state & federal grants out of budgeted revenue of $12,350,648 – for a whopping 25.7% grant dependency.

This is also an agency with $739,149 in budgeted 2015 debt service costs.  So if, say, the State of Washington doesn’t grant the projected $600,000 or the Federal Government decides not to grant the projected $685,000… or if the $1,889,612 in “transit allocation grants” are below budget… or if the interest goes up on the debt for a multitude of reasons… then transit service is going to be in trouble.

According to the Whidbey News-Times, Island Transit Boardmember Jim Campbell reiterated his concerns given recently to the Oak Harbor City Council about Island Transit’s fiscal planning stating, “Something can go to hell in a hand-basket real fast. We don’t have a plan if it fails.”  With a 25.7% grant dependency and most if not all grants requiring matching funds, something can go to hell.  As Island Transit Executive Director Martha Rose is attributed as saying, “At least one of those grants can’t be applied for until November and is not completely guaranteed.”

IT is seeking these grants under the assumption of only a $600,000 match in 2015.  See page 3 of Island Transit’s TDP.  Imagine if those grants require more matching funds or other items – such as a forensic audit – that will stress Island Transit’s budget?

Also, grants can be denied.  The downfall of Island Transit began in no small part because the Camano-Everett Connector grant was not renewed. While a great Republican advocate for transit, Representative Dave Hayes, fought nobly for the grant, it was intended to be start-up – not operating – money.  In his op-ed, Representative Hayes stresses that Skagit Transit’s county connectors will operate regardless of state legislative activity or inactivity.  Food for thought.

Perhaps as one attendee, a Facebook blogger at Common Sense wrote, “It is clear that there is no sure plan in place to recover fiscal stability. In spite of Ms. Rose repeatedly claiming that she is completely optimistic that we have a clear path ahead of us and should be able to re-establish our reserve funds, pay off our $2.3 million in debt, re-establish jobs and routes that have been or will be cut, we should see a complete reversal of our current problems, as soon as September 2015.”  In short, Island Transit is too grant-reliant and now is in a deep fiscal hole with a ladder made of hope.

Ultimately, Island Transit is in a deep fiscal hole of its own making.  Firing the Executive Director will not resolve confidence in Island Transit alone, as the Whidbey News-Times Editorial Board wrote on August 23rd – all Island Transit Board Members are to blame too and cannot shirk responsibility.  Not to mention the many transit users – me included – who did not keep tabs on our local transit agencies and sound the alarm about over dependency on grants.

Ultimately new management, a route restructure coupling priorities to currently existing revenue with fallback plans, and perhaps new revenue (after regaining public trust) will all be necessary to restore Island Transit’s luster.

[Editor’s Note: Island Transit did not reply to a request for comment prior on this post prior to publication.]

37 Replies to “Island Transit Budget Is 25.7% Grant Dependent In 2015”

  1. Obviously depending on state grants is troublesome when the state doesn’t seem to have much of a transit effort.

    Federal programs aren’t so great either, since many programs expired in 2012.

    Does Island Transit qualify for the rural formula grants?

    I’m not sure what other grants on the list they would qualify for.

    1. Glenn;

      Sadly Island Transit cannot anymore get Rural Formula Grants as Island County has a population of 78,801, “The Formula Grants For Other than Urbanized Areas is a rural program that is formula based and provides funding to states for the purpose of supporting public transportation in rural areas, with population of less than 50,000“.

      I, like you, am pessimistic on the grants situation. I need some more data, then I will write one helluva editorial. In the tone of “If I were a loans officer…”


  2. With this fiasco how willing would state and Federal governments be willing to give grants to Island Transit? Martha has always depended on grants to assist with the system and I don’t think any fiscally responsible entity would give money until all the dust settles. I also don’t believe their will be a change in management without a lot of pushing from outside the IT board.

    1. Formula based federal grants are just that: based on routes and operating hours. The methods used to provide those hours doesn’t seem to matter too much. The only time I have ever heard of an agency getting into trouble with the formula based grants was when one agency back east (MBTA maybe?) was reporting deadhead runs as in-service runs, since deadhead runs were open to passengers if they asked to be taken to a spot near the garage.

      Bad news is that I am not sure Island Transit qualifies for the formula grants anyway. There are ones for rural areas and ones for urban areas, but no obvious in between population areas. They might be able to say that, for example, Whidbey Island is a separate population or that Oak Harbor is a separate area or something. It seems like there should be some sort of formula based grant they would qualify for.

      1. The 268 extension to Maple Valley on weekends is funded by a WSDOT grant, which is expiring around now. That shows WSDOT’s priorities, since there are no similar grants to beef up the E or 150 or 169. All of which run on state highways, would serve more people, and would be more effective in convincing people to switch to transit for both work and non-work trips.

  3. Was it realistic in the first place to develop sustainable connectors without ongoing grants, given the state caps on transit taxes over the past decade? Would it have meant deleting all non-connector routes (if there are any), and what impact would that have on the communities? Would there have been enough revenue even the only thing Island Transit did was the connector routes (and companion paratransit if required)?

    1. Mike,
      “Was it realistic in the first place to develop sustainable connectors without ongoing grants, given the state caps on transit taxes over the past decade?”
      Yes, as the plan was to make the funding permanent but resistance from various State Senate actors (scuttlebutt is State Senator Curtis King and a few others) stopped that in 2013.
      “Would it have meant deleting all non-connector routes (if there are any), and what impact would that have on the communities?”
      Highly unlikely.
      “Would there have been enough revenue even the only thing Island Transit did was the connector routes (and companion paratransit if required)?”
      Very much so.

  4. Maybe they should change the management or allow the county to take over it. I also think they should charge a $1 fare per passenger to help with the budget problems.

    1. Problem is, two Island County Commissioners sit on the board.

      As to a fare – it would cost more in additional buses and fare recovery gear than collect in fares since schedules over the long distances are so tight.

  5. Joe,

    CHARGE. A. FARE. Most of these bus rides are miles long; some as many as thirty or forty.

    Give people a low income free pass, but CHARGE. A. FARE.

    1. Charging a fare makes sense when the benefits of doing so outweighs the costs. For instance, Sound Transit has, until September 2014, resisted the notion of charging fares on Tacoma Link because of the thought that it would cost more to collect then the revenue it would bring in (a business association is paying for fares for another 1.5 years).

      So in Island Transit’s case, the only thing I would suggest is maybe putting in a donation box where people could put whatever money they thought appropriate and could afford. One time I’d put in $5 because previously I skimped on fare payment. Noone needs to know but each fare is their own.

    2. Joe,

      What is so different about Island County that its residents aren’t willing to pay for their rides? For heaven’s sake, land is through the roof on Whidbey Island; I don’t know about Camano, but Whidbey is world famous and in demand!

      Is everyone land rich and cash poor that they can’t afford a couple of dollars to continue to ride a bus which presumably they depend upon. Because if there’s anything rural people would rather do than anything else, it’s drive around on errands. At least, that’s my observation. Almost nobody stays home for more than a day at a time.

      1. It’s more a matter of Island Transit has routes that have to make connections with ferries and other transit systems. Change fumblers – as in I have had this happen to me within the last month where a dollar bill won’t read and coins get jammed – can easily sink those connections.

        There are continual studies and certainly this serious crisis means revisiting this conversation. I will post an audio clip within 7 days of what Island Transit Martha Rose said on this.

  6. Please keep on this story. The loss of the Connector to Everett has really impacted people up this way.

    Another angle is to ask why Skagit Transit won’t budge by adjusting its 90X Connector route to stop in Stanwood and pick people up who have no options now that the Island Transit bus isn’t running. It would add minimal time to SKAT’s route. Early on last spring they said they would try to help, but then changed course and refused. The SKAT busses are not full busses.

    1. Megan, I’ll see what I can do. However many SKAT Everett-MV-Burlington buses I ride on near capacity. I do however share your frustration at the situation – Island Transit has clearly not been fiscally responsible.

      1. One of the times I took the 90X they were very close to having to not let any more people on in Everett due to some regulation that they can’t be on the freeway with standees, and nearly every seat taken.

      2. Metro and Sound Transit buses operate on the freeway with standees all the time. How do they get away with it?

      3. Joe, Glenn,

        Here in Clark County C-Tran has carried this “nobody stands” thing to a ridiculous point. Even on local routes they won’t move the bus until everyone is seated, and if riders get up and move toward the door in anticipation of their stop, some drivers will yell at them.

        This makes for some awkward interactions at Delta Park occasionally when the Yellow Line has “too many” riders for the #4 Fourth Plain. Most drivers will allow standees but some tell people to wait.

        So it seems like it is an agency thing; maybe it is “insurance”.

      4. Last I knew the larger transit agencies were usually self insured. That is, they are large enough that it is cheaper to just pay out of their own funds since paying an insurance company would cost more than just paying accident claims as they happen.

        Island Transit is tiny, and Skagit isn’t that much larger. Agencies that size probably can’t self insure since they probably just don’t have the resouces for, say, $5 million or so in savings to cover a major accident lawsuit or whatever.

    2. It doesn’t affect just people who live in those areas, but also people who want to go to those areas, or to take transit to Bellingham.

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