Island Transit, a long held example of fare-free transit, may adopt its first fares for regular routes since it began service 30 years ago. The agency has been financially unstable since the recession, during which voters rejected a 0.3 percent sales tax increase to fund service, and has determined that current sales tax revenues would not be able to cover current operations without outside grants. In 2017, the transit agency raised $10.476 million from its sales tax and $674,000 from other non-grant sources, while its operating expenses totaled $10.502 million.
The proposed fares would be set at $1 for regular service, a $0.50 reduced fare for youths, RRFP holders, and seniors, $2 for an all day pass for service within the county, and $25 for a monthly pass for service within the county. Inter-county routes 411 and 412 would be charged a $2 regular fare, a $1 reduced fare, $4 for an all-day pass, and $50 for a monthly pass; this fare is already charged on route 412, which was implemented in 2016 when the route was revived. Paratransit routes would have a $1 regular fare and $25 monthly pass. These fares are similar to other rural and semi-urban transit providers in Western Washington, like Skagit Transit and Grays Harbor Transit.
Island Transit predicts that implementing a fare would increase boarding times at busy stops, thanks to cash fumblers, and decrease ridership by 30 to 40 percent before rebounding in three to five years. It would also introduce about $220,000 to $300,000 in one-time costs, ranging from the physical fare boxes to armored car services and staff training, as well as $103,000 in annual costs. The fares would cover about 5 percent of operating costs, similar to the farebox recovery ratios of other rural and semi-urban agencies, and would bring in about $200,000 under the projected five-year ridership. On top of all that, the question of social equity looms large, with Island Transit proposing one-day passes to low-income residents and nonprofit organizations and government agencies to benefit those in need. If approved, the fares could be in place by the end of the year or slightly later than that.
Whether or not ridership will rebound to current levels after the fare shock wears off on the Islanders remains to be seen, but Island Transit seems to be a poster child for the troubles associated with the heavy reliance on sales taxes for transit agencies across the state. A more stable funding source for smaller agencies, perhaps doled out by regular state grants, may be needed to help give rural areas the kind of transit they need.
Island Transit is taking feedback until May 21 through an online survey and several community meetings:
Wednesday, May 16, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Freeland Library
Thursday, May 17, 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Camano Island Library
Friday, May 18, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at Oak Harbor Library
Saturday, May 19, 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Coupeville Library