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Transit: Wenatchee system expects fewer riders with new fares

"Even though they’re trying to patch gaping funding holes in their budget, Island Transit officials appear to be strongly opposed to charging fares on local buses. Meanwhile, in Wenatchee, a fare-free transit system faced with similar problems has recently decided to add fare boxes and begin making passengers pay for a ride. “Our board felt that in order to preserve some service they had to move forward with it, despite their gut feeling,” said Link Transit’s General Manager Ken Hamm. In February, Link Transit, which serves portions of Chelan and Douglas counties, will start charging 50 cents to $1 for trips within their coverage area. Bus service had been fare-free since it began in 1991. The move was necessary after the agency lost about half of its funding following the passage of Initiative 695, otherwise known as the “$30 car tab initiative.” I-695 eliminated the unpopular motor vehicle excise tax, which generated money for things such as health services, criminal justice and local transit. Now that the tax is gone, so is the revenue it generated. Transit agencies across the state are now desperately looking for ways to keep buses on the road. Like Island Transit, Wenatchee’s Link Transit has cut service in the wake of I-695. It eliminated nine routes entirely and reduced the number of trips on all lines as well as their hours of operation. In all, Hamm said, the agency cut 45 percent of its service hours and laid off 66 of its 142 employees. The Wenatchee-area community was split over charging fares on the buses, said Hamm. Much of Link’s ridership is low-income agricultural workers and senior citizens. “There are the haves and the have-nots and not much in between,” Hamm said. The agency could have gone to the local taxpayers to ask for a sales tax increase — something Island Transit is strongly considering — but in the light of I-695 the Link Transit board decided that was not a good option. “This was not the time to ask for more money. We had to demonstrate we could make the tough decisions,” Hamm said. Island Transit’s Board of Directors has already made service cuts in order to save money. But the directors say charging fares will end up costing more than they produce because of the cost of installing and maintaining fare collection equipment coupled with a decrease in ridership and a slowing of service. That was a concern for Link Transit as well. Hamm said the agency found low-cost fareboxes for about $1,000 apiece, not counting installation costs, that they will depreciate over the next five years. As far as ridership is concerned, Hamm said Link is anticipating a 33 to 35 percent drop because of the use of fares. “We’re looking at a decrease of from 1.6 million boardings annually to about 600,000 this year,” he said adding up the loss due to fares and the loss due to service cuts. Hamm said the cuts come at a bad time for Link Transit because the agency had just started a new program that was boosting ridership. He said he feels sympathy with Island Transit officials. “I’m sure their heartstrings are being tugged on, just as they were for us,” he said."

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