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Island Transit celebrates 20 years

What started with five buses running between Oak Harbor and the Clinton ferry is now an organization with a large fleet of vehicles that can get a passenger just about anywhere they want to go on the islands and off.

Since hitting Whidbey Island roads 20 years ago, Island Transit has transported 15 million people. Yes, they actually count people when they get on the bus.

On its first day, Dec. 1 1987, 161 people rode the four buses that drove the route, which was mainly up and down the highway. The bus system’s popularity grew quickly due in large part to the fact there has never been a fee to take the bus. It’s absolutely free, with operating expenses paid primarily by an islandwide sales tax approved by voters.

Martha Rose, executive director of Island Transit, said it only took a few months for ridership to expand to 1,400 people a day. Currently approximately 4,500 people use Island Transit buses daily on Whidbey and Camano islands.

While used by many as a way to get to and from work cheaply and efficiently, Island Transit buses are also the sole source of transportation for a lot of people to get around the island. Many are young, old or infirm.

“I’ve been using the bus for six years,” said 17-year-old Chad Merrill as he awaited the bus at Harbor Station in Oak Harbor. Living near Sleeper Road, he uses the bus for everything from going to school to shopping.

Greg Greenwood was using Island Transit to pick up his son, Austin, from preschool on Goldie Road. He was heading home to the Rolling Hills area south of Oak Harbor.

With proper planning, nobody has to wait long for a bus. The longest Greenwood said he has had to wait is one hour and that’s when he missed a bus.

Getting Island Transit off the ground in the late 1980s proved difficult. Originally funded by a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax, it took three tries and a legal battle that ended up in the state Supreme Court.

The sales tax funding sparked a bit of controversy, with some questioning why a fare isn’t charged for riders.

Saranell DeChambeau, who was involved with Island Transit’s formation, said that critics saw the funding system as too socialistic. However, supporters point out that the transit system wouldn’t make any money on the fares that would be charged due to the high cost of collecting and accounting for cash on a relatively small, rural bus system.

“The only thing we’d be doing is charging money to pay for collecting money,” Rose said.

Additionally, DeChambeau said that, being a rural county, there are too many places on the roads where bus drivers could be robbed of the money they collect.

To get the tax funding passed, the boundary of the Public Benefit Transportation Area was redrawn to exclude the island north of Oak Harbor, which had voted heavily against the proposal. Despite charges of gerrymandering that were ultimately rejected by the high court, the issue passed on election day. By 1991 the northernmost part of Whidbey Island had a change of heart and voted to be included in Island Transit’s territory.

Island Transit’s services offered, numbers of riders and the territory covered have been increasing over the years.

During the same year Island Transit started service north of Oak Harbor, paratransit service started, which greatly improved the lives of disabled people by giving them a way to get around.

Then in 1995, Island Transit started operations on Camano Island. To fund that expansion voters on Camano Island approved a sales tax increase.

Island Transit ran into a funding problem in 2000 with the repeal of the motor vehicle excise tax but voters eventually increased the local sales tax to make up for the deficit.

Rose said the system was considering adding Sunday service when the funding loss happened due to one of Tim Eyman’s initiatives. It took years for Island Transit to recover.

When 2005 rolled around, Island Transit again started adding services, most notably the County Connector service with Skagit and Whatcom counties. That arrangement allows someone to take the bus from Whidbey Island and get as far away as Bellingham. A year later, Island Transit started a connector service to get to Everett.

As for Sunday service, that’s still somewhere in the future. Rose said that offering routes on Sunday is expensive and ridership would probably be low, and there are scheduling and maintenance issues to consider.

Island Transit’s fleet is currently more than 100 buses and other vehicles, including carpool vans, and officials are still looking to continue growing with the county. A transit facility recently opened on Camano Island and plans are in the works to build a new headquarters and maintenance facility on its Central Whidbey headquarters property. Once money is acquired, that’ll be the first major project of Island Transit’s next 20 years.

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