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Island Transit Gillig Parked in Oak Harbor...

Full Disclosure @ the Outset: At an early point in the crisis, I publicly voiced a willingness to pay a fare for Island Transit services.  Especially if I could see & hear OLF Coupeville.  However, the fact it seems the “fare free” policy is being used by some to blame riders for the fiscal crisis Island Transit has entered, it’s time to push back against this dangerous narrative of blaming riders for management failures.

I am now taking the refined view that before asking us transit users that already subsidize roads through general taxes (SOURCE 1, SOURCE 2)… please note we transit users do not:

  • Have a single representative on the Island Transit Board – only elected officials with other responsibilities such as First Responders, land use, parks, etcetera which diminishes the importance of transit and the ability of transit riders to write policy and influence election debates for these positions.
  • Have hire/fire power over the Island Transit Executive Director Martha Rose or her staff
  • Hire finance directors who fail to produce a monthly balance sheet the Executive Director ignores
  • Write transit budgets
  • Produce budgets with failed/incorrect numbers
  • Have a Board Chair to authorize an additional 100 Hours of Washington State Auditor’s Office (SAO) staff time to help conduct the most important accountability audit in Island Transit’s history
  • Cause Island Transit board members to be confused and befuddled at times during recent meetings (I’ve listened to the audio)

Therefore how can the tone of the debate be turned to blame US the transit users for and also demand we transit users subsidize fiscal mismanagement?  Seriously.

Yes a fare may be a good idea but we transit users are mainly being relegated to the sidelines.  Most Island Transit users aren’t able to attend 9 AM or 9:30 AM Island Transit Board meetings and yet everybody wants a quick fix to Island Transit’s problems.  There also have been public promises made by the Whidbey Tea Party blog Island Politics to repeal the Public Transportation Benefit Area (PTBA) if a fare is implemented and right now is the worst time possible for Island Transit to agree to a public vote without new leadership and rebuilding public trust.  Even Island County Commissioner Helen Price-Johnson – no Democrat-In-Name-Only – who sits on the Island Transit Board is applying the pressure to seek a study into transit fares.

But we transit users know the truth that if you collect fares, you’re absolutely going to add time and physical resources into collecting those fares.  First when you have to insert change that takes a few seconds – and if a few dollar bills possibly a minute per rider if the machine doesn’t like the dollar bill.  Trust me, I’ve had that embarrassment at 6:30 AM in a Sedro-Woolley parking lot enough to the point I change dollar bills into coin the night before and preload my ORCA for trips south of the Snohomish-Skagit County line when I can.  Not everybody’s going to be that thoughtful.

Therefore, transit schedules are going to get hurt – which means missed connections from Island Transit to Skagit Transit and Washington State Ferries.  Not to mention stresses on multiple Island Transit runs.  Why have Tri-County Connectors funded by state taxes if the connections cannot be made to keep Washington State counties connected?

Or Island Transit is going to have to buy, fuel, operate and maintain many more buses to expand the transit fleet adding costs that would easily eliminate any farebox recovery?  More buses just to provide the services Island Transit already provides but with a fare added with the cumulative time needed to collect the fare – a major problem when Island Transit has to go farther than Everett to Seattle but connect directly Oak Harbor with the Washington State Ferries’ terminal in Clinton.

Then there’s the security risks of driver assault and highway robbery.  Risks no security camera can eliminate, only fare-free.

Finally, remember when I noted there is not a single transit user representative on the Island Transit Board – only elected officials with other responsibilities?  Perhaps the groupthink has blinded Island Transit to a revenue raising solution that would not punish riders and would give business opportunities called advertising on the exterior of the buses.  Perhaps the fact is in a brisk Seattle Transit Blog interview, Island Transit Board Chairman Bob Clay stated “No” he did not “believe fare free policies contributed to Island Transit’s fiscal problems?”  Perhaps it is time come mid- to late-October, when the State Auditor’s Office audits of Island Transit are made public, some difficult decisions are made about Martha Rose’s future with Island Transit – if not sooner.  Perhaps finally it is time to restructure the Island Transit Board and other transit boards around this state so folks are directly elected to transit boards.

One last time, I am unopposed to a fare on the principle.  I am raising concerns about the logistics of an Island Transit fare.  Logistics of an Island Transit fare that seem bordering on insurmountable but being greased in the name of political expediency and championed by some in the general public to punish riders.  Perhaps other revenue-raising options ought to be seriously sought out like wrapping buses (Example 1- King County Metro, Example 2 – Pierce Transit) or putting signs below the windows of buses (Example 1 – Sound Transit) before putting more stress on Island Transit balance sheets – as part of a backup plan if grants don’t materialize in the works somehow.

Finally, I would like to thank Island Transit Board Chairman Bob Clay for briskly answering a few quick questions today to help with this editorial and debunk some reports out there.  Much appreciate.

12 Replies to “North by Northwest 14: Fare Free Did NOT Cause Island Transit’s Fiscal Crisis…”

    1. Joe,

      Well, then, don’t accept cash. Sell punch cards or tickets or passes and let it be known that’s the only way someone gets on. Provide free passes for truly poor folks.

    2. Continued

      There are a lot of wealthy folks on Whidbey Island, and there are a lot of genuinely rural folks who supply a good portion of their own needs from their land but also need to get to the doctor or shop from time to time. If they are truly “off the grid” then give them free passes.

      Now maybe that’s most of your ridership; the rich folks aren’t riding, that’s pretty much a given since “traffic congestion” is an oxymoron on Whidbey Island. So maybe a fare won’t work, but if it absolutely won’t work then the question has to be asked, “Can Whidbey and Camano actually support a transit system?” Are the voluntary primitivists — I’ve been one myself long ago — truly sustainable or are they just playing at it while depending on the “crumbs from the rich man’s table”?

      Sorry, but them’s the knocks.

      1. I think with NEW MANAGEMENT Island Transit is sustainable. Island Transit survived the early 1990s recession, the dot-com implosion/9-11 recession and most of the recent Great Recession with no serious damage.

        It’s truly sustainable.

  1. Good article, Joe. Rural agencies should not rush into charging fares without considering all the consequences, and not as a band-aid to a fiscal crisis. The first question should be, how much would a fare raise, and how does that compare to operational costs, the shortfall, and desired service expansions? I assume it wouldn’t raise much, and it may all be lost in the cost of collecting the fare. Another factor is that rural and small-city fares everywhere tend to be low, and there’s probably a good reason why all the other agencies do that. You can’t apply the same fare-per-mile between large cities and rural areas because their needs are completely different. Rural people intrinsically travel longer distances, more on highways, and have lower average income. So rural transit has to take that into account, and it does that by offering more highway service but with a shorter span and frequency (no evenings or Sundays, maybe no Saturdays, and no half-hourly except peak).

  2. Once again, simply, Island Transit is burdened with heavy management, specialty positions with perks. Vehicles provided for and all electronic toys supplied which do not help keep buses on the road. Every management position and the qualifications of the people in these positions needs to be reviewed. Cut the FAT first then look at routes. Spending money on studies and new financial board subcommittees just puts more waste on a system already burdened with too much administration. Martha’s “Yes Men” must now be purged from the bloated administrative payroll.

    1. I agree it is time to take a very painful look at the administration of Island Transit and that it is best the hiring of the CEO NOT be from within Island Transit for ANY reason. I would also add 4 percentage points to somebody who was OUT of Whidbey Island politics.

      I also hold the view the replacement of Oak Harbor Councilmember Jim Campbell with Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley needs to be permanent – for starters. It is time that Mayor Dudley’s uncanny ability to create fireworks and fire people continue to be put to good work. Perhaps we should ask him to turn the Island Transit Board into a business “reality” show… and just whallop the whole bunch of enabling “YES MEN”.

  3. Mismanagement under any “reason” is still mismanagement.

    Fraud? They might just prove that too. Then what?

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