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Fare or unfare? Free transit policy argued

"Sales tax hike proposal likelyIs no-fare unfair?During a public meeting last week, the Island Transit Board of Directors heard from a group of people who say maintaining a fare-free bus system in the county is wrong — particularly when county taxpayers may soon be asked to pay more to keep it that way.A big chunk of Island Transit’s operating money was cut by voter approval of Initiative 695 in November. Now the agency is looking at either making more service cuts or finding new sources of money. Already, Saturday service and routes to Mount Vernon have been eliminated. So far, the Transit Board has said fare collection is a bad idea. Instead, they favor asking taxpayers to approve an increase of three-tenths of 1 percent in the local sales tax to help offset the loss of motor vehicle excise tax revenue eliminated by 695. But Rufus Rose, a former county planning commissioner now active in the Libertarian Party, and others said people who actually use the service should be asked to pick up a larger portion of the slack. He said operating the service free or charge creates dependency out of what should be responsibility.“When we’re asked to pay for things we tend to appreciate them more,” said Rose.That sentiment was seconded by Freeland resident Richard Steinhoff who questioned Island Transit’s claims that collecting fares would also slow down service. He said rather than make people miss ferries, the agency should adjust bus schedules, reduce some non-rush hour runs and limit the time buses sit at the ferry docks.Both Steinhoff and Rose claimed some of the research data Island Transit has been passing out overstates the potential loss of ridership fare collection would cause as well as the cost of installing fare boxes and collecting fares.The Transit Board agreed that some of the data was probably in error.“We can’t expect you to agree or disagree unless we can provide you with real data,” said board member Sheilah Crider. “I believe we need to do our homework before we go to the voter.”But Crider said the loss of any riders is a step in the wrong direction.“Everyone we can get off the road and onto a bus is a benefit to all of us,” she said. The board’s co-chairman Bill Thorn said it would be unwise to put anything in the way of a system that keeps cars off the road, pollution out of the air and fewer vehicles in line at the ferry docks.“I think that’s all we need to know to know that that collecting fares is a dumb idea,” he said.But Thorn added that something will have to be done to add revenue to Island Transit’s coffers or the agency will have to start cutting more services. As much as 60 percent of Island Transit’s operating money came from the excise tax cut by I-695. Last month, in the wake of the initiative’s passage, the agency eliminated its service to Mount Vernon and the main campus of Skagit Valley College. It was a painful cut for Island Transit because the service had just started last June and was building ridership.Shortly after the Mount Vernon service cut Saturday bus service was also eliminated. Crider said that cut was also hard to make because it removed service for a certain segment of the population — namely those who primarily use the bus for shopping and pleasure rather than commuting.Island Transit was started after voters approved a three-tenths of 1 percent local sales tax increase in 1983. In addition, about 60 percent of its funding came through an equalization program based on the now-defunct Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. Now, the transit board says it may be time to go back to voters and ask for an additional three-tenths of 1 percent increase.They found some support for that idea among others at the meeting. Oak Harbor resident George Crampton said he doesn’t usually find himself backing tax increases.“I think there is a risk involved. But I think it’s worth the risk,” he said. Crampton compared the transit service to island roads. “We could have toll roads. We don’t, the roads are free.”Betty Freund of Oak Harbor also said she’d be willing to pay higher taxes. She put a high priority on returning service to Saturdays and said the agency should add Sunday service as well.Bruce Bryson of Coupeville said fare-free transit is a big help for kids participating in after-school programs and to others who would otherwise add more cars to the island’s roads.“I see charging fares on Island Transit as a real blow,” he said. “It’s aimed at the wrong people.” But Reese Rose, representing the Libertarian Party of Island County, said Island Transit could be making a big mistake if it asks taxpayers to foot the bill again without also asking bus riders to chip in. She suggested that voters be offered a choice of approving the tax hike or eliminating the tax entirely and replacing it with a fare-based, reduced-service transit system.Steinhoff agreed, saying that a fare system would show taxpayers that transit officials and transit riders were willing to share the burden. Steinhoff said Island Transit should proceed cautiously, however. He suggested starting with a 25 cent fare.South Whidbey resident Don Jewett said the agency should also consider a voluntary farebox where riders could contribute whatever they felt was reasonable for the ride.But board member Neil Colburn said charging small fares would not even begin to cover the cost of collecting them.“I’m convinced that a 25 cent fare will cost us more,” he said. “I will only talk fares if it’s a realistic fee that will give the agency more.”Colburn reminded the meeting audience that Island Transit was not imposed on county residents by the government. Local voters asked for it he said."

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