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I-695 effects: Transit faces cuts in routes

"About the only thing that seems certain now in the wake of Initiative 695 is that annual car tabs will cost $30 starting in January. For Island Transit and other transportation agencies, the future is unclear. At a Thursday afternoon meeting of Island Transit’s Citizen Advisory Committee, it was as if a big, yellow, diamond-shaped, curvy-road sign had been placed on the door. The caution was over what to do now that half the system’s operating budget may disappear in the new year.“We don’t have anything in concrete yet. We don’t know what we’ll be working with,” said Phyllis Brett, Island Transit’s system development manager. Brett said the system’s Route 11 to Mount Vernon and many of its off-highway “feeder” routes may soon have to be cut.For the time being, however, it’s wait and see. Brett said it would be unwise to make quick changes without knowing the cuts Washington State Ferries and other transit systems will put in place.Also unclear is whether state legislators will start re-allocating funds to local transit systems that are in trouble because of I-695. Gov. Gary Locke said this week that the state cannot allow public transit to suffer. He went as far as to say the state’s budget surplus may have to be used to keep transit growing.I-695, which was approved by 58 percent of voters earlier this week, eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax and about $750 million annually from the state budget. The motor vehicle excise tax was a major funding source for transit and ferry systems as well as criminal justice, public health and road projects. As much as 60 percent of Island Transit’s operating money came from the tax. Even with budget shuffling however, the agency’s executive assistant Sandy Styrk told the citizen board that cuts will probably still have to be made.“People are going to lose service,” she said, “but we’re going to try to impact as few people as possible.”The first to go will likely be the Island Transit/Skagit Transit joint route from Oak Harbor to Mount Vernon and the main campus of Skagit Valley College. Ridership on the route has been building steadily since it was started in June. It currently carries about 80 people per day. The next routes on the chopping block will be what are known as feeder routes that carry passengers to and from the main north-south highway. Feeder routes currently carry more than 20,000 riders per year. Cutting feeder buses will also mean cutting some para-transit routes, said Brett. Para-transit serves numerous disabled island residents. The law requires bus systems to provide transportation to disabled passengers within 3/4-mile of the highway. That service will continue, Brett said.The citizen advisory group is also considering alternative sources of income, such as asking voters to approve a 0.3 percent hike in the local sales tax, a boost in gas taxes and the addition of a fare box on the now fare-free buses. Committee member Sande Mulkey said that Island Transit has already conducted studies into the value of charging fares, and determined it would actually end up costing money to operate fare boxes.“It’s counterproductive to our philosophy of encouraging people to use transit and keep cars off the highway,” she said.Committee members said they would like to see the agency conduct a survey to see how local residents felt about other funding options.In the meantime, State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said there will be a lot of competition for whatever money is left over in the state budget. As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, she said both transit and ferry service as well as state highway construction will suffer some hard hits as a result of the initiative.“It’s not a pretty picture,” she said Friday. “Everyone will have to take cuts.”Haugen said the Clinton ferry dock construction project will likely have to be left in what she called “a big mess” and only half completed. She also sent her regrets to Island Transit and said they should not count on the Legislature to come to the rescue.“I really feel bad about Island Transit because they are so successful, but I don’t think there’s much that can be done,” she said.Regarding last year’s Referendum 49, in which voters said they wanted the state to spend millions of dollars on improving and repairing state highways, Haugen said it won’t happen.“It’s gone,” she said. “Everything’s gone but the credit card.” The referendum backed up the sale of road construction bonds with money from the motor vehicle tax. Haugen said now that that backing is gone, no one will buy the bonds.Transit meetingThe Island Transit Citizen’s Advisory Committee will hold a public meeting to discuss the consequences of Initiative 695 at 7 p.m. Nov. 18, a Thursday, at the Race Road Firehouse.There will also be a community meeting to take public input on the 2000 Island Transit operation and capital budget on Friday, Nov. 12, at 9:30 a.m. in the Commissioners Meeting Room of the Courthouse Annex in Coupeville."

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