An Island Transit bus at Everett Station

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

27 Replies to “Island Transit May Ditch Its Fare-Free Buses”

  1. What they need to do is implement orca so people don’t have to fumble cash and post the cash fare on the bus stop sign.

    1. How much does it cost to implement ORCA for an agency that small? Intercity Transit, a much bigger agency, rejected ORCA implementation due to cost, if I recall. Add that on top of the $200k – 300k one time costs and it would probably be a non-starter.

    2. Someday I’d love to see ORCA implemented from Bellingham to Olympia. Although with NFC phone/credit card payments maybe that’s already an obsolete idea.

      1. For ORCA to be implemented regionally….

        1) ORCA Next Gen must be done. No agencies can be added before then. So 2020s folks.

        2) Transit agencies must be able and willing to share their revenue with the ORCA consortium for fare processing – not an easy lift

        3) The State Government will probably have to wade in. Having suffered through a few legislative bienniums as a transit activist, I don’t recommend this until we get a state legislature with more of a… transit caucus.

    3. More likely would be some sort of joint use of Skagit’s magnetic card transfers. It’s not such a bad system for a small agency.

  2. I’ve ridden Island Transit a few times, and it’s quite a bit more popular than one might think, given the rural nature of the area.

    I’d ride it more, if the connections in Clinton and Mt. Vernon didn’t involve 30-60 minutes of waiting (on top of the very slow and very infrequent Community Transit service to Mukilteo), and, if the bus ran a schedule that doesn’t force you to take off work in order to ride it.

    The fares are going to slow things down considerably, and with half the fare revenue simply covering the overhead of collecting it, this looks more like a political thing, hoping that collecting fares will result in voters being will be more willing to fund a sales tax increase in the future.

    1. It would be nice if Everett Transit didn’t limit the possibility of an all-day Mukilteo route to the “coverage” restructure option, and included the option of a half-hourly (and short!) all-day Mukilteo connection in the frequency plan timed with the ferry.

      In fact, timed and matching frequency connection to ferries doesn’t really seem to be a thing outside of King County. In Steilacoom, PT212 connections to the ferry are often quite bad, on top of it’s somewhat bizarre 50% of trips serving Steilacoom on weekdays (every hour), 25% on Saturday (every two hours), and 33% on Sundays (every three hours).

      I feel like there’s also a potentially convincing case to be made about converting the preserved PT route 13 into a full time version of the short-lived point defiance shuttle route 15, for the stated purpose of a fast ferry connection with the added benefit of quick access to Point Defiance and the beach.

      1. The best hope for better access to Mikilteo is probably a shuttle to Paine Field Link station. Until then, there’s Lyft and Uber.

      2. I’ve never had a problem with Island Transit in Clinton. The 1 has always been either waiting for the ferry passengers or about to arrive when I have gotten there.

        The issue I have always had is the terrible CT connections. It looks like this may have finally changed, but for several years the 113 would depart just as the ferry was arriving, then the 113 would arrive in a similar manner to a failed connection with the 500 series bus that actually go somewhere.

      3. If the #1 does wait in Clinton for arriving ferries, the Island Transit website doesn’t make it clear that that’s the case. So, in order to be sure that the bus won’t drive off without you, you have to take an earlier ferry and sit at the terminal for half an hour.

        In the other direction, coming from Mt. Vernon, the 412 has horrible timing with the 90X, requiring a 30+ minute wait in Mt. Vernon, plus another transfer at a deserted P&R of March Point.

    2. Uh the Community Transit 113 is NOT infrequent. Runs every half hour during the week, hourly on weekends.

      Everett Transit Route 18 on the other hand is infrequent during non-peak weekday hours and doesn’t run on weekends. My understanding is that’s going to be pared back even more.

      Plan is hopefully Community Transit by 2020 will connect Seaway Transit Center, Future of Flight and the Mukilteo Multimodal Terminal with a new bus route. Then fast & frequent connections to Everett Station & the Swift Green Line from Seaway.

  3. 30 to 40 percent ridership fall for two years? If that’s the case, why does anybody think lost passengers will ever come back? Because considering actual amount of these fares, I sense a quiet message that people who aren’t debilitated by illness or poverty are already a couple dollars a day short of exchanging transit for their cars anyhow.

    And the paper day passes I’ve been riding LINK with since getting tap-slapped last year are quicker “read” than the ORCA card I still carry for buses and streetcars. ST’s nasty, hard-fought defense of a system so confusing it’d outweigh the King James Bible and require the Systine Chapel ceiling to post; has turned me into a worse serial tree-killer than Scott Pruitt.

    And for exact same fares as Island proposes, Olympia’s Intercity Transit drivers also issue all-day passes. Though I do think that for somebody who can’t afford a monthly pass can, and should, have its cost brought down to where they can.

    Panic over increased loading times makes me suspicious. What about paper passes on sale at every store and gas station in the county, with a break on the fare justified by faster loading time. Tell me: will passenger loads be so heavy that rear-door loaders will ever be necessary? If holding up a pass while passing the driver allows too much evasion- make the pass bigger.

    Or actually have passengers line up and pass loader at busy stops. Orderly line loads faster than frantic rush…Island in question isn’t by any chance Manhattan, is it? As for fare-related service delays as a breed, second-worst ones by far on Intercity Transit result from ironclad rule that bus doesn’t move ’til every single boarding passenger is seated. In five years, never heard an audible complaint.

    But first-prize for Thurston County worst re: every single delay is exploding regional increase in single-occupancy cars. While still assuring that everybody can afford to ride, some transit-friendly signals, and reserved lanes might repay everybody concerned with time saved. For an hundred percent likely future.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Some price points are more psychological than unaffordable. Retailers have known this for eternity, hence prices that end in .99 or .95. For most people, “I actually have to take out my wallet” is a major price point. (Even if “free” stuff is not really free). How (and if!) a transit agency can deal with it is another story. 5% of operating expenses sounds like “not with the expense and hassle to collect it” territory (contrast Metro which I believe is closer to 30%), but on the other hand communities have a limited budget and the State and Feds are not necessarily accommodating.

  4. There’s no way ridership will ever rebound after implementing a fare. There is no historical precedent in this – just look at the ridership trends for other fare free systems that converted. Is the paltry net revenue gain worth gutting your ridership?

    1. Where would the money come from? Island Transit says it can’t afford to maintain the current level of service without additional money. The agency almost fell apart a few years ago because it was running an unsustainable budget and not telling anybody and plugging the holes with short-term grants. That made the state especially unwilling to give it additional tax authority or grant, and the state also pointed to the lack of fares as an additional negative factor. (“Why should the rest of the state subsidize it when its passengers are paying nothing?”)

      A 40% drop may also be a high estimate. If people don’t take the bus because of the fare, then (A) they switched to driving, (B) they decided the trip isn’t that important, or (C) they’re foregoing a needed trip due to poverty. It’s only the latter case that’s critical. There may also be a difference between long-distance trips (across the county or multi-county to the ferry) vs short-distance trips (from a rural stop to the nearest town). Short-distance trips would probably disappear more than long-distance trips. Driving tor a mile or two to a free parking lot may cost less the fare, while driving five or ten or twenty miles costs more, and if you have to take the car on the ferry it costs a lot more.

      “every single delay is exploding regional increase in single-occupancy cars.”

      This is Whidbey Island. There’s no traffic except at the ferry terminal. The small buses only fit like thirty people, so at most that’s thirty more cars an hour. It’s not like Tacoma where it might be a hundred or a thousand additional cars.

      1. Whatever service is going to have to be cut is, by and large, going to have to be cut anyway. Unless charging fares is a condition from above to get grant money, it seems not worth it.

        Or, if you’re going to charge fares, at least charge a higher amount so more money gets raised. Even $3-5 fares would still be a huge savings over Uber and Lyft (if they even exist out there).

      2. Cutting a route or reducing coverage will ultimately affect less riders. Politically, it’s tougher though. asdf2 nails it – if they think that charging a fare will somehow help their system, chances are they are wrong. And will be cutting service anyway in a year or two.

    2. 2Tall, I think reason systems go away when free rides cease is that both passengers and system itself have decided simultaneously that one side has found better transportation, and the other, better returns, elsewhere.

      If vote fails, I’d worry less about bus service lost, and more about the cars that passengers have now decided to drive instead. Lot of that going around lately.


      1. The reasons that fare free systems end up having fares are almost entirely due to political reasons. There is huge pressure (witness the legislature here and Island Transit) for passengers to have skin in the game. Of course, this ignores the basic premise of why we provide public transportation – which is to carry people. Both Link and SKAT lost 30%+ more riders after fares were implemented. This usually does not end well.

  5. For years the FTA gave somewhat higher grants to operate lines with no fares, which was often the reason that smaller agencies found no value in charging a fare: increased grants plus the costs of handling the cash made it more expensive to charge a fare than just not charging.

    Has the Trump administration changed the FTA grant policy?

    1. Glenn, I wouldn’t waste any time on anything called “policy” out of this Administration. Just be ready for anything, the more destructive the more likely, and respond coolly and effectively whatever happens.

      Analogy I’d use for our part of the country is an earthquake drill lasting until our country actually has a Federal Government again. Working as if the US Department of Transportation isn’t there is outlook both most effective and most literally accurate. Also maybe best we can hope for.

      “If you see something say something” is phrase of the past. Now superseded by: “If you see, hear, or smell something, be ready to prevent, rescue, repair, and extinguish.”

      Recalling what happened to Train 501 last December 18, every one of us in any way connected with transit needs to be ready to report in detail any threat to operating safety far up the command chain as possible, while bracing yourself.

      And keep detailed personal record of time, location, and situation, ready to forward, save, and secrete as needed. First aid pretty much mandatory from here on. As to your question about fares: be ready to drive long hours at no wages ’til we get everybody out.


    2. One of the main incentives for fare free systems to increase ridership is the ability to access STIC funding. That has not changed with the current administration.

  6. A few thoughts from Mr. North by Northwest:

    1) I suspect this crusade to charge fares on Island Transit is being fueled by those whom will never ride Island Transit. But demand riders pay something for the cost of their ride. Yeah, sure…. like gas taxes cover 100% of the cost of roads. Like this hit on ridership and therefore the tourist sector of Whidbey’s economy – a substantial and emotionally attached part of Whidbey’s economy – is a good thing.

    2) It’s very true Island Transit is at the mercy of the sales tax revenues and two special operating grants for two routes from the state. I agree, “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.” So I support charging fares on those two routes out of fairness and for solidarity with my region’s Seattle area allies, but not in-county. Not just ridership issues but also Route 1 making that connection with the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry.

    3) As to, “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.” Sure great idea. I’d love to see the state help run more transit routes on state highways. Problem is, how much support should say Community Transit get with a $505 Million Annual Budget…. A question you guys are going to have to answer before proposing this to the state legislature.

    4) As to Island Transit (or Skagit Transit) joining ORCA anytime soon, I’m going to be blunt: This is a non-starter. Let me explain:

    a) ORCA requires special equipment that costs more than the total fare collected in a year. Or even two years…

    b) We don’t know how much it will cost to have ORCA Next Gen equipment on buses. Hopefully less than ORCA Gen I. Some transits in the North by Northwest want to consider phone apps.

    c) Some fare money collected by ORCA goes back to pay for Seattle offices – not Coupeville, Seattle – managing the money. That doesn’t go over well with North by Northwest transit staffs nor the municipal non-transit riding politicians on their boards (tsk, tsk I support either electing or having the county councils/commissioners appoint the transit boards so we in the North by Northwest can have a new conversation!).

    d) The ORCA Joint Board will very likely hit pause on accepting any applications to join until ORCA Next Gen is online. At least with ORCA Next Gen we can hold hope for policies to charge for parking without cost-prohibitive parking meters in more places. For those like me who want more density on Whidbey and less parking lots & homes under naval aviation flight paths, this gives me a ton of hope & energy. Sadly see a & b & c for why other changes will have to happen.

    5) One of the worries I have is a fare could very likely reduce ridership so much that Island Transit becomes a social service, something that goes from giving Whidbey a sense of place to something done out of charity. I suspect with the tiny profit from fares this is not going to end well…

    I’ve said enough. You all have a lot to digest.

    1. Thanks for perspective, asdf2. Here’s what I get out of it.

      1. The bus system is ” quite a bit more popular than one might think, given the rural nature of the area.”

      2. However, the schedule has some serious failings especially, and fatally, very bad connections.

      3. Fare collection is likely to cost more in operating time than it gains in fares. And could just be a ploy to convince voters they need a sales-tax increase.

      Fact that people in the service area do like the system means they’re not going to vote it down out of spite. But we also need to know how many present passengers will be unable to ride at fare level offered.

      However, in return for the new fares, it’s fair to promise that people finally be able to use the buses without having to waste time (which is also worth money, especially if you’re going to work) waiting on a connection. Pretty sure there are some other things to take out of the drawer and offer in return for a positive vote.

      Probably six years or so before you need to put Island into ORCA. Which by then, like if ST gets a new contract, should be seriously improved over now. Meantime, regular Island passenger can get an ORCA card with pass or e-purse for mainland service.

      Having to pay separate fee for Island shouldn’t be a deal-killer. Before my first LINK ride any day, I buy a paper All Day pass, and stick it back to back with my ORCA card in a clear plastic envelope. Takes care of discrepancy to mutual satisfaction.

      Maybe wrong, but I just get the sense that at those prices, especially if any improvements are added to the package, no reason vote shouldn’t pass.


  7. This article might have a sliver of credibility if costs ever went down in recessions. But with the government, it’s always “Heads I win, Tails you lose”.

    1. So, Island Transit is supposed to pay it’s drivers less during recessions?

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