Since November, Mr. North by Northwest has been dreading the day final decisions will be made on the “Tri-County Connectors” Island Transit commuter routes linking Camano Island with Mount Vernon and then linking Mount Vernon with Oak Harbor and points beyond. Those decisions impacting about 10% of the Island Transit ridership will be made at the end of a Special Island Transit Board Meeting at Island Transit HQ Monday starting at 9:30 AM.
Now together, the Island Transit participation in the Tri-County Connectors comprised 13.5% of the Island Transit ridership in 2014 – that’s with 411W (Oak Harbor to Skagit; 92,190 riders), 411C (Camano to Skagit Station, Mount Vernon; 29.851) & the now-suspended 412C between Camano Island & Everett Station, Everett (18.419) – you can check my math HERE if you wish. For the first three months of 2015, that’s dropped off to almost 9.8%. So it’s easy to understand the temptation for a county-level transit agency in dire fiscal straights to reduce or eliminate long-range capability for about 10% of the ridership. But that’s ridership commuting to/from work and arguably federal & state grantors are more gracious to funding commuters than students and tourists.
A Representative Hayes Fix for County Connectors
Today, Representative Dave Hayes (Republican, 10th District) got a proposal through the State House that just might solve a few problems with one piece of legislation. The plan is for $1 Million to be given to Island Transit & Skagit Transit. Furthermore, the money will be held by the State Office of Financial Management (OFM) until, “a fare policy has been adopted for the Everett connector service that achieves a farebox recovery ratio similar to comparable routes that charge a fare” as per the proposed legislation.
Multiple sources, including Island Transit Board Member Jill Johnson, believe the solution is to use this million plus fares to leverage a link between Camano & Whidbey Islands, the two main islands of Island County – and we’ll revisit this. Furthermore, it’s very clear the state legislature and even Seattle Transit Blog commenters have extreme discomfort with Island Transit not charging a fare – aka “fare free”.
The Beginning of the End of Fare Free Island Transit?
Even though “fare free” neither created the current Island Transit fiscal fiasco nor was any different than sales tax subsidies to roads (SOURCE 1, SOURCE 2), there is a serious question as to how to replace grant dollars that now are being withdrawn at least in part. There is even the credible threat to withdraw county connector service completely – a decision that will be made deep into a 13 April special meeting at Island Transit HQ starting at 9:30 (link to agenda packet).
When it comes to transit, it’s important to realize this author’s bias is to serve more destinations – even if several transfers are necessary. The alternatives are to deny access out and outright or put the financial barrier of a taxi fare in the way. So obviously I’m not a “save my bus” or “one seat ride” guy.
Since the state legislature is in no mood to give direct funding to transit and the current Senate Transportation Committee Chair has said direct support of county-level transit agencies would be a “black hole that we will never, ever fill”, this may just have to do. Obviously when the State Auditor’s Office was requested to testify in front of the State Senate Transportation Committee about their audit of Island Transit; the state legislature has deep concern in investing in Island Transit.
At least now with the carrot & stick approach with funding contingent on Island Transit charging fares, this just shows that when Representative Dave Hayes said at one point last fall, “Shifting the focus back over to the state and saying the state needs to come in and support this is not a fair statement. Until Island Transit starts charging fares and operating in a more responsible manner, it will be a huge challenge to get additional state dollars;” Representative Hayes is a man of his word.
Potential Camano to Whidbey Connections
The problem is, these proposed connections are highly problematic. That’s if Island Transit Board Monday at their 9 AM special meeting decides to keep the Island County Connector. One option, called “Proposal 2” and page four (4) of this Scribd link shows a proposal to only serve Deception Pass. For Skagit Transit (Skagit County’s county level transit net), they’d have to make it to Cornet Bay to link up with Island Transit at all.
The other option best explained on page 8 shows a schedule that allows commuters to get off the main islands of Island County, but not necessarily get back. Commuters seeking to leave Whidbey would have to be ready to accept a 3 PM departure from Harbor Station, Oak Harbor to arrive at Skagit Station at 4 PM. The bus would then depart at 4:10, run to Camano and arrive at 4:40 PM – passing the bus going the other way. To get from Camano to Whidbey you’d have to leave Camano at 3:30 PM, arrive Skagit Station at 4:05 PM, then leave Skagit Station, Mount Vernon at 4:15 to arrive at Harbor Station, Oak Harbor at 5:15 PM. So if you work in Everett and need to get to Camano in the afternoon but miss that first northbound Skagit Transit 90X connection from Everett to Skagit Station, Mount Vernon which supposed to arrive at 4 PM but can easily be delayed… you are totally stranded.
So what is the solution? One option may be delaying these runs until starting at 5 PM or 6 PM. There already are plans for a northbound run starting at 6:35 AM and another southbound run at 6:45 AM. Or chucking the 9:35 AM northbound & 9:55 AM southbound routes and making another late afternoon or early evening run.
With this Proposal 1 in play thanks to Representative Dave Hayes, the focus should be on commuters. Doubly so with fares being required to get the $1 million state match for the biennium. Gone are the days when a $6 million biennium start-up grant could be lobbied for this route. Make sure to e-mail info-at-islandtransit.org your thoughts on this or attend the Monday, 13 April Island Transit Board 9:30 AM meeting at Island Transit HQ.
Oh and one more thing as I wrote recently, if a Republican State Senator with the last name of Bailey, first name of Barbara that Seattle Transit Blog endorsed in 2012 could please publicly apply pressure on her caucus leaders to not just support Representative Hayes’ fix but also give more money maybe the State Senate Republicans might just realize they need to remember their reluctant transit user allies and protect a vulnerable seat come the 2016 election cycle. But that polite request to help us in Northwest Washington needs to come from you – transfer from anti-spam barbara.bailey-AT-leg.wa.gov and shoot off a quick e-mail please.