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Go By Bus!

Mike Millenbach, Amanda Meinhart and Lori Reed set out on their separate paths in downtown Langley after riding the bus from Bayview together. - Jeff VanDerford
Mike Millenbach, Amanda Meinhart and Lori Reed set out on their separate paths in downtown Langley after riding the bus from Bayview together.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

Island Transit celebrates its 20th birthday

COUPEVILLE — Get on the bus, Gus; there must be 50 ways to leave your car at home.

For Martha Rose, the one way that counts is Island Transit’s fleet of fare-free buses that range up and down island roads, from Clinton to Deception Pass and beyond. As executive director, Rose is responsible for the system that hit the road in 1987.

“That’s right, happy birthday to us,” she said.

Island Transit started with four buses and a spare after a long battle to get the green light from island voters.

At the time, the Washington Department of Transportation optimistically predicted that there would be 500 riders a day after five years.

After only one year, the actual number was 1,400. Each day.

In the last 18 months, the transit system has grown 43 percent — almost one million rides were registered on driver’s trip sheets last year, Rose said.

Today, there are 60 buses and 101 van pools which serve all of Whidbey and Camano Island. There are eight routes including the main north-south express buses taking North End riders straight to the ferry terminal in Clinton, and back home at night.

“Remember, when you see a bus filled with riders, they aren’t driving and that reduces congestion,” Rose said.

One of her biggest challenges has been to work with other systems. In 1996 the Oak Harbor transit center devoted one bay to buses connecting with Skagit Transit allowing riders to travel all the way to the multi-modal station in Mount Vernon.

From the original 20, the system now has 107 employees, including 68 drivers.

The drivers are meticulously recruited. First, each applicant takes a video test to discover their level of people-skills.

“The test includes questions with several answers that work, but only one is best,” Rose explained. Following extensive interviews and requisite background checks, rookie drivers begin a 330-hour training program covering defensive driving, passenger sensitivities and first aid procedures.

“It’s worth it; they’ll be transporting precious cargo,” Rose added. “We empower our drivers to be the captains of their own ship while expecting passengers to respect others.

“After 20 years, there’s been very little vandalism, a testament to our rider base.”

Public transit was a hot topic in the early 1980s on Whidbey Island. Many saw the need but were concerned over the cost. A movement spearheaded by Dorothy Cleveland — her red Triumph sports car license read “GoByBus” — got a proposal on the ballot in 1983 that passed with 56 percent voter approval and the Public Transportation Benefit Area was formed.

The initial plan was to increase the sales tax by 0.3 percent — the state legislature voted to match the dollars raised from the motor vehicle excise tax.

However, opposition surfaced from certain areas around Oak Harbor. County officials re-drew the boundaries but North End residents fought back until 1986 when a unanimous state Supreme Court decision sided with the PTBA and the buses started to roll in December the following year.

A crisis was averted in 2000 when state voters reduced the motor vehicle excise tax, threatening to cut Island Transit’s revenue by half. A campaign called Save Our System successfully convinced islanders to double the sales tax to 0.6 percent.

The fare-free philosophy

Island Transit is not part of Island County government — it is a wholly separate municipality. The system’s annual $600,000 operating budget covers everything but capital costs such as new buses, transit centers and the proposed maintenance facility in Coupeville.

For that, Rose spends a large amount of time submitting grant proposals to the state and federal government.

Several studies have been conducted over the years to determine the feasibility of having individuals pay for their own transportation. Typically, for smaller or rural transit systems, the impact on traffic can be dramatic.

“First, we know ridership would decline,” Rose said. “Then all the money collected would end up paying for the cost of administering the program, generating no useful income. The studies demonstrate our philosophy is correct.”

All the vehicles are serviced out of the same two-bay maintenance facility used since Island Transit began. The maintenance crew works wonders daily but more bays are at the top of Rose’s list.

“We’ve outgrown the current building and there are plans for a bigger space when funds become available,” Rose said. “Our buses travel twice as many miles as any other system in Washington.”

One thing she’s proud of is the community surplus program. Roughly 50 buses have found a new life for non-profit organizations like churches, youth groups and fire departments.

Rose has instituted a school-age bus awareness program as well, visiting third-graders whenever she can. “Getting young people to think about using the bus is great for us, the community and the environment,” she said.

Taking a ride on Route 8

At precisely 8:45 a.m. on Wednesday, Joel Kortus pulled up in one of Island Transit’s new Aero Elite 26-passenger buses at the corner of Blakely Avenue and Harper Street in Scatchet Head.

This is just one stop on Route 8, which runs through Bayview, Langley and back to Scatchet before heading down to the Clinton ferry.

“This is a light run today, the commute is over and there’s no school, “ Kortus said. “Just an ordinary day.”

Kortus retired from teaching and has driven for the last five years. He does this route once a week, drives from Oak Harbor to Mount Vernon three days then one day on the Baby Island-Saratoga Woods run.

“Having a variety on the runs, coupled with the terrific people I see, makes this a great job,” he said. “Someone’s car breaks down, they need a ride and decide to try the bus. We’ve got ‘em then.”

Besides the normal early morning Boeing rush, Kortus encounters all kinds of passengers; tourists hoping for a tip on places to check out, unemployed folks looking for work, students heading to school, seniors out shopping, kids searching for an island adventure and those who simply can’t drive for one reason or another.

The bus is equipped with a hydraulic lift for wheelchairs — air bladders let the bus “kneel” as needed — and racks hold a couple of bikes above the front bumper.

On Maxwelton Road the bus stopped for Alexandria Boyer who started riding the day after service began back in 1987. “Hi, Joel,” she said upon boarding.

“I’m a caregiver and ride up to seven times a day,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford the fare if they started charging and I don’t have a car. This is a fantastic service.”

As Kortus picked up more people along his route, it quickly became apparent there are a lot of reasons to hop on the bus:

• A year ago, Mike Millenbach had a stroke and his driver’s license was revoked. Island Transit allows him to visit his doctor in Langley and shop in Oak Harbor. “No doubt, it’s a very good deal for someone like me,” he noted.

• “I’m on a mission to go to every island park I can get to on the bus,” Lori Reed said. “It’s my day off, I packed a sandwich and I’m all set.”

• From Bayview, Amanda Meinhart rides to her job at the Inn at Langley. “It’s convenient, the drivers are friendly and the price is certainly right,” she said.

• Matt Schmeising agreed. He moved here from Minneapolis recently and was on his way to play tennis with his uncle in Coupeville. “Back home a round trip on the bus would cost at least six bucks or more,” he said. “I can’t get over the fact they don’t charge.”

• Ed Field’s son Kellen, 12, attends film camp at Whidbey Children’s Theater. “Kellen gets on the bus at Third and Anthes and by four he’s home, safe and sound,” Field said.

• Living in downtown Langley and working at Alderwood Mall is a snap for Victoria Locke. “The bus takes me to the ferry, I ride over on the boat then pick up my car in Mukilteo and that’s how I get to work,” she said.

• John Chaffee is a more typical commuter. For the last three years he’s been taking the 6 a.m. bus from Scatchet Head down to the ferry for his job as a Boeing technical designer. He’d like to see service expanded for the weekends. “I’d be happier if I could ride from my house on Saturday but that wouldn’t make sense,” he said. “I take advantage of the sales tax islanders pay so I can ride free; I’m also a homeowner with property taxes that pay for schools but I don’t have children. It all works out in the end.”

For the folks on Route 8, despite their different destinations, on one subject all agreed — if Island Transit began charging they wouldn’t ride as much, if at all.

“Just think how much it would cost them to print transfer tickets and install fare boxes,” Boyer added. “I’d have to find another way to get to my seniors, meaning there’d be one more car on the road.”

Island Transit’s position is that there is no free ride, according to Rose — rather, the ride is prepaid. They have no plans to add fare boxes. Ever.

“The job of all of us here is to make the system as user-friendly as we can to increase ridership,” Rose said.

Based on comments from the riders along Route 8 this week, it seems to be working.

For details on Island Transit routes and times, visit www.islandtransit.org or call 321-6688.

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