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Transit takes to the road for advice

"Island Transit plans to take to the road over the next couple of months, with a series of public meetings designed to figure out where to make deep cuts in its routes, or where to get more money.A lot more money.Like every other bus system in the state, Island Transit’s free-ride system took a potentially huge hit when the voters passed Initiative 695 on Nov. 2, eliminating the state’s high license tab taxes.Unless the Legislature does something to bail it out, Island Transit stands to lose up to $2.6 million in the year 2000, or more than half of its existing budget.That will leave the agency with three options, executive director Martha Rose told a meeting of the Island Transit Community Advisory Board this month: charge fares, an option that transit officials have long insisted would cost more than it’s worth; ask the voters to approve an additional 0.3 percent sales tax; or cut routes deeply.“We have to find a balance,’’ Rose said. “The bottom line is, no matter where we cut, people are hurt.’’The transit system got its start in 1983, when Whidbey Island voters opted to charge themselves a 0.3 percent sales tax to run it. By law, the system could ask the voters to double that tax to 0.6 percent — a move that would replace about $1.6 million in lost tab tax money, and likely bail out much of the system’s service. Some of its board of directors think that’s the direction the system will take next year.County Commissioner Mac McDowell, chairman of the board, said this week that the board will likely opt to put the tax increase question to voters next spring. “It would make up for a huge amount of the shortfall,” he said.To date, the board has trimmed a bit from Island Transit’s budget. Effective Dec. 11, all Saturday service will end, as will the route from Whidbey Island to Mount Vernon.“That’s just to start the cuts, so to speak,” said McDowell. The upcoming public meetings will help determine which routes to cut.From humble beginnings in the 1980s, Island Transit has grown to include 13 wheelchair-accessible, full-sized fixed route buses, along with two smaller 18-20 foot buses for rural routes, 20 wheelchair-accessible Paratransit vehicles, and 40 Vanpool vans. The system handles a little more than 900,000 rides a year, according to its annual budget report.Rose said the Department of Transportation considers Island Transit’s fixed-route system the third most efficient in the state, and its paratransit to be the most efficient. The state uses a complicated formula that considers factors like ridership, demographics and cost into account to determine efficiency, but what it boils down to is that Island Transit costs about $2.04 per ride to run on its fixed route system, she said, and about $6 per ride for Paratransit.That compares to more typical per-ride costs of $13 and up for Paratransit in other publicly funded systems, she said.Among the options for change:CHARGING FARESCiting a study done by systems analyst Gerrit Moore in 1994, and a similar report issued by the Department of Transportation in 1994 on fare-free transit systems, Rose said ridership would drop dramatically if the system charged fares, and it would likely cost more to collect the money than the fares would bring in.The cost of adding fare boxes, of adding accounting functions and other staff time are estimated at around $266,000 annually, she said. Add to that a reduction in routes caused by I-695, and the standard assumption that ridership drops by about 0.3 percent for every 1 percent increase in fares, and total ridership could drop as low as 317,000 riders a year with a 25-cent fare, she told the advisory board — yielding nowhere near enough to pay the cost of collection.“If we could get money by collecting a fare, we would have done it years ago,’’ she said.Besides, Rose said, driving riders away from taking transit rides by charging them for it goes against the system’s main purpose, which is “to get people out of their cars.’’McDowell said adding fares to the system may be considered for political, rather than practical, reasons, even though he agrees that charging fares on a rural bus system costs as much as it brings in, while causing ridership to plummet. Many people argue strongly for fares, and without them they would likely vote against a sales tax increase, he said.As for further cuts, McDowell said they probably won’t be made until after the election on the sales tax hike.SALES TAX INCREASEAdding another 0.3 percent to the local sales tax would generate about $1.63 million at the year 2000’s estimated level of gross sales, according to the system’s budget report. It would also keep Island Transit’s main funding more closely tied to the island’s rising growth in gross sales, Rose said. Twelve years ago, the system’s existing 0.3 percent tax drew in only about $600,000 a year, she said. Next year, it is expected to draw in more than 2-3/4 times that much.Whether the system could win a public vote on a tax increase is anyone’s guess. Its detractors have kept transit staff busy on the phones for the past few weeks, Rose said, calling in criticisms of the system’s efficiency, its lack of fares and its threatened service cuts.It has its supporters, though. John Ulrich, a “loyal rider’’ who said he and his wife moved here a year ago partly because the island has a strong transit system, said he figures he saves $2,000 a year by taking the bus instead of buying a second car. So he’s ready to write a check.“I should be willing to pay $200 to $300 a year in order to save $2,000 a year,’’ Ulrich told the advisory board.Island Transit will hold a series of meetings over the next couple of months to talk to islanders about its fare-free policies and ways to balance its wounded budgets. This is the schedule:Dec. 2, Thursday: Race Road Fire Hall, Coupeville, 5 p.m.Dec. 9, Thursday: Clinton Progressive Hall, Clinton, 7 p.m.Dec. 15, Wedbnesday: Greenbank Progressive Hall, Greenbank, 7 p.m.Jan. 11, Tuesday: Brookhaven, Langley, 7 p.m.Jan. 13, Thursday: Oak Harbor Library, Oak Harbor, 7 p.m.Jan. 19, Wednesday: Freeland Library, 7 p.m.Jan. 27, Thursday: United Methodist Church, Coupeville, 7 p.m.South Whidbey Record editor Jim Larsen contributed to this article."

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