For the first time in Island Transit’s 29-year history, the agency will begin charging fees this summer — but only on one route.
Island Transit board members unanimously voted to reestablish the 412 route and to charge a $2 fare; riders 8 years old and younger will ride free.
The 412 route, which is part of the Everett connector, runs from Camano Island to Everett. It was cut in 2014 after state funding for the route dried up, but the funding was reestablished for the current biennium.
The board also discussed adding fares on the 411W and 411C routes, but instead decided to work on a fare collection policy to be implemented when route funding is renewed or the route is expanded by the state legislature.
The 411W routes runs from Oak Harbor to Skagit County and 411C goes between Camano Island and Skagit County; state grant funding runs out on June 30, 2017.
The decision was a watershed moment for a transit agency that has been famously fare free since the first bus ride on Dec. 1, 1987. For all those years, the agency was funded with a combination of local sales taxes and state and federal grants; Martha Rose, the former director, argued that charging fares would end up costing more than it raised.
“I want it on the record that I support a system-wide fare policy,” said Oak Harbor Councilman Rick Almberg, the chairman of the transit board.
Other board members have also said it’s inevitable that fares will eventually be charged on other, if not all, routes as well. The main obstacle, however, is funding, especially since grants don’t cover the start-up costs.
Two things have pushed the agency toward abandoning the fare-free model.
First, there was an accounting and financial debacle. Rose and all the board members were replaced with people who were willing to consider fares.
Then, state lawmakers made it clear that future grant funding would be in jeopardy if Island Transit doesn’t start charging fees.
Last year, Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano, was able to get funding into 2015-17 state budget to reinstate the 412 route, but the lawmakers required Island Transit to charge fares and recover at least 8 percent of the cost of the route in order to receive the money.
Paul Arand, the agency’s financial analyst, said $2 is about the average cost of a bus ride in the region. He estimated that riders will be paying about 6 cents a mile. In comparison, a driver would spend about 13 cents a mile just in fuel to drive the same route.
“It’s still a good deal for riders,” he said. “It’s economical.”
The board members decided not to offer discounted fares for the disabled, the elderly, students and others because of the complications it would cause.
Arand estimated that the route will cost about $350,000 and the fares will generate about $33,500, which would be a 9.6 percent cost recovery.
But while starting fares will save the state money, it will actually cost Island Transit thousands of dollars because the grant doesn’t cover start-up costs.
Implementing fares on the 411 routes would cost about $20,000, which was one of the reasons the board decided not to add fares immediately.
“We’re not in the position to take even a $20,000 hit,” said Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, a member of the transit board.