North by Northwest View 19: Time for Camano Island to Pivot to Community Transit?

A Quick Snap of Island Transit Route 411C
My recent photo of an Island Transit 411C Camano Bus

Full disclosure: The below letter to the editor by me ran in the Stanwood-Camano News today.

Bus service

Camano should switch to Community Transit

Dear Editor:

Island Transit is removing its county connector services from Whidbey to Skagit.

This is after the unilateral withdrawal of the Camano to Everett Island Transit connector service last June. Without state support, Island Transit cannot continue to provide those services. Representative Dave Hayes has finally proposed a fare on Island Transit in return for some state support.

But perhaps I have a thought for my Camano Island friends: Maybe with the lassitude that Island Transit board meetings are run, where charging a fare to reenlist state support in many meetings since November when the county connector crisis came to light has not happened and with the Island Transit board being so inaccessible to Camano Island.

Perhaps the time is right for Camano Island to change to Community Transit as your transit provider.

At least Community Transit’s finances are in great shape. has good public communications and is about to seek a three-tenths of 1 percent tax increase to dramatically increase service. Can you say any of those things about Island Transit?

Just something to debate – namely changing transit taxing districts to get a better provider.

Figured some of you in the transit advocate community would want to discuss this.  Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold also told the Stanwood-Camano News in part:

The board is not sure how long the routes will be cut. Hannold said they are investigating the initiation of a fare system that would help to alleviate the burden of the 411 routes’ additional expense.
“I’ve been pushing for a fare system since the get-go,” Hannold said. “Riders need to have a stake in this; it doesn’t come for free.”
A fare system, he said, would be helpful in many ways.
For one, the House and the Senate have approved funding for the Everett connector, Hannold said, though it is awaiting the governor’s signature. To benefit, though, Island Transit is required to include fare boxes in each of their buses.
Additionally, if fare boxes are installed, Island Transit can apply for Medicaid reimbursement for paratransit expenses –a special service for disabled individuals not accommodated by the regular bus service.
Paratransit costs Island Transit approximately $1.5 million per year.
In April alone, Hannold said, the cost for paratransit services was $70,000, while Island Transit spent $180,000 on all other services combined.
“It’s costing us so much, and we’re required by law to provide it,” he said. If they could alleviate some of the cost associated with that service, Hannold thinks money could be redirected toward other things, which may include reintroducing the 411 routes down the road – a service that has cost them around $500,000 over the past six months.
“We just don’t have it,” Hannold said.

Figure this will help fuel the debate that should have happened, like oh, last November.  I even had inside information on 2 July of 2014 this was a distinct possibility.  Yet no action until too late… the blame falls on both Skagit Transit & Island Transit for not being proactive with contingency planning for this day.

North by Northwest 56: An Uncertain Future for the Island Transit Tri-County Connectors

Island Transit 411W @ Night
My Photoshop Showing Island Transit Route 411W at March’s Point at Night

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 1SOURCE 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 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 and shoot off a quick e-mail please.

North by Northwest 33: Island Transit Staff Decide to Cut 411W Tri-County Connector Without Public Input? No Island Transit Link to Anacortes, Mount Vernon & Points Beyond After…?

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My photoshop of my photo

Part I: Island Transit Staff Withdrawal of Grant Application Without Board Input

Island Transit, once again engages in a modus operandi of withdrawing Island Transit services without Island Transit Board input or public scrutiny. Just as Island Transit supposedly did not inform its board of its declining finances (e.g. report, STB Report on the State Auditor’s Office lashing of Island Transit) or of its second rounds of cuts where Commissioner Helen Price-Johnson said “she wanted to reopen the agency’s service cut decisions because the board was not allowed to provide direction” to the South Whidbey Record; an Island Transit bureaucrat – most likely Executive Assistant to the Director – on 18 November contacted the Skagit-Island Special Needs Transportation Committee to withdraw its, “Specific Operating Assistance to Preserve Existing Service project” application which according to a Skagit Council of Governments (SCOG) document, “would continue operations of the 411 County Connector express service from Whidbey and Camano islands” and “is the highest priority of their agency.” Basically the process to apply for state support for Island County’s participation in the Tri-County Connectors of Whatcom-Skagit-Island-Snohomish has stalled even before reaching the state legislature due to Island Transit staff unilaterally withdrawing the funding request without Island Transit Board input.

Island Transit through this process did apply and get forwarded the request for 10 new vehicles, as per Skagit-Island Human Services Transportation Project Descriptions, 2015-2017, “This project would replace five 30’ buses and five vans in Island Transit’s fleet. 70% of Island Transit’s vehicles are at the end of their life cycle according to the application.”

Island Transit did also apply and get forwarded the request for human services grants – basically grants to help disabled persons – for according to the same source, “technology replacements for security cameras and tablet computers. Project would also repaint Oak Harbor transit station, which has never been repainted, add bus shelters and provide needed maintenance tools and engine rebuilds.”

However, in a 2014-11-26 Island County Sub Region RTPO Hearing of which the audio is now online, Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson voiced concern about Island Transit’s lack of priorities. For Commissioner Johnson – a Chamber of Commerce Republican – it was about how Island Transit was taking a “human service transportation projects funding list and we’re going to paint buildings with that money? That’s odd to me. … How is paint helping anybody with a disability?” Commish Johnson went on to bemoan the lack of funds for disabled persons and besmirched Island Transit to be “not creative” with these funds.

Finally, in a through, thoughtful smackdown of the grants process, Commissioner Johnson said she’s, “sad, slash disappointed there’s money there for a community of people we try so hard to help and we’re using it to buy paint and the only thing that came forward was paint. … Just shameful, I guess, the focus I hear is the impact of the Paratransit and we can’t get enough of these routes and shoot, this was designated just for this purpose.”

Island County Commissioner Helen Price-Johnson – no relation to Jill Johnson – noted how Whidbey Island “had a high percentage of veterans that depend on the services in Mount Vernon for medical care” and “there’s no project to help that” with her hand hitting the table. As Commissioner and an Island Transit Boardmember, she wants “other opportunities in the near horizon” while looking for a strategic fix. NAS Whidbey Island Community Liaison Jennifer Meyer immediately suggested other transit providers work for the “combination of needs” in a “broad sense” for our vets, before the discussion moved on to other grant applications.

Commissioner Price-Johnson said sincerely she was, “sad about the Tri-County Connector, very sad, hopeful we might find some creative way to continue that service outside of this grant cycle because its vital.” In the past, Commissioner Price-Johnson has fought for the route but is denied the opportunity so far this time.  More after the jump for Part II: The forewarnings of this development…

Continue reading “North by Northwest 33: Island Transit Staff Decide to Cut 411W Tri-County Connector Without Public Input? No Island Transit Link to Anacortes, Mount Vernon & Points Beyond After…?”