North by Northwest 63: Barring Rep. Dave Hayes Amendment Passing, the Tri-County Connector Will Die 31 July

Black & White of an Island Transit 411W at Oak Harbor
My photo of an Island Transit Route 411W Tri-County Connector

On 22 May 2015, the Island Transit Board made the gut-wrenching decision that due to Island Transit’s fiscal troubles, the lack of state support and the refusal of Skagit Transit to serve to Deception Pass to unless Representative Dave Hayes’ amendment passes stand down the Tri-County Connector on 31 July.  That means no Island Transit service not just to March’s Point, but also no Island Transit service to Skagit Station in Mount Vernon.  Island Transit will however serve North Whidbey in a limited way up to Deception Pass and provide services for Camano Island residents to link to Stanwood & Community Transit services flowing from Stanwood to points south.  Overall, although Island Transit Boardmembers were audibly if not visibly distraught at making this decision – and there’s video below, without the Hayes Amendment to provide some state funding connected to charging a fare, the money is just not in Island Transit coffers to provide linkage services between Whidbey Island & Camano Island.

To spare our Seattle Transit Blog e-mails as I too am on e-mail subscription, I’ve put in a Read More jump below.  Also figure some of you may not be interested…

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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 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.

North by Northwest 10: Zero Accountability to the Community by Island Transit?

Yes, Island Transit has seatbelts!
Island Transit Bus Seat Photo by Author

Seems as if KING 5 has finally joined the Accountability Convoy heading to Coupeville.  We sure welcome KING 5 participation in seeking the truth from Island Transit.  One thing caught my eye in their half-complete report – namely nobody from Island Transit would go on-camera to explain the Island Transit financial mess nor has Island Transit posted to its website statements to its Board about these events.

Already Bob Pishue of the Washington Policy Center has tweeted his policy paper to KING 5Perhaps with their silence, Island Transit 100% agrees with Mr. Pishue that ultimately, “Instead of trying to secure more money from state taxpayers, Island Transit officials should better manage public tax dollars to rebuild the public trust and restore reliable and efficient bus service.”

Recently I asked Martha Rose, Executive Director of Island Transit the following questions – which I will post here.  When I get a response, I will copy-paste the replies:

BTW I listened to the audio from Friday’s meeting last night and put it online a moment ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OjjagGkHzE&feature=youtu.be.  The following questions arise from my listening to the audio:

  • What would have happened if Island Transit not gotten a loan for its operating budget shortfall?  More cuts?  Insolvency/bankruptcy?
  • What exactly are these state operating grants to help transit agencies with shortfalls?
  • Who provides these grants?
  • Who assured Island Transit officials the grants would be likely dispersed to Island Transit?
  • When will the grants arrive, if provided?
  • What if the grants do not arrive and the soft money disappears?  Any backup plans such as renegotiating the loan terms?
  • Why are Island Transit statements given to Board Members about the fiscal crisis/morass not on the Public Information tab of the Island Transit website yet?

That e-mail to her and Island County Commissioner & Island Transit Boardmember Helen Price-Johnson was sent Tuesday at 12:40 PM/1240 Hours.  I am still writing up the notes of the Island Transit meeting, and have other work.

Before calling for action, I would hope if Island Transit cannot answer these questions a through review by the Washington State Auditor’s Office can answer these questions.  State Auditor Troy Kelley has promised State Senator Barbara Bailey – with my hyperlinks:

Thank you for sharing your concerns about Island Transit. I appreciated reading the attached news article and letter containing serious allegations relating to Island Transit. Although we had been in contact with the Transit’s Executive Director and seen the news article, we had not received the letter until you forwarded it to us. Additionally, we are evaluating the questions posed in the letter sent by the elected delegation for the 10th Legislative District.
Based on our communications with the Executive Director, we are scheduled to start an audit at Island Transit on August 11, 2014. Our financial and single audit will review the Transit’s fiscal year ending December 31, 2013 financial statements and federal compliance. After examining the documents you provided along with the District’s activities, we will also conduct an accountability audit to evaluate their internal controls that ensure compliance for the safeguarding, and use of, public resources.
As part of our audit work, we will evaluate the questions you have identified in your letters. Upon the completion of our audit work, we will be in contact with you to discuss our conclusions.

Without alleging anything but to be proactive one would hope since state legislators are exempt from the Public Records Act, the State Auditor’s Office will make full and immediate disclosure of their audit results – not just findings but also any management letter(s) and verbal recommendations.  Because it sure appears Island Transit HQ doesn’t feel accountable to the community… or to even its rank and file.

Your relevant comments and observations are always welcome.  Spammy comments will be deleted without warning.