Stop the buses?

"How to commentIsland Transit Board of Directors will hold a public meeting on Friday, March 10, 9:30 a.m., in the Commissioners Hearing Room, Courthouse Annex, Coupeville. The agenda includes discussion and vote on future funding options for local transit.A decision Friday may determine whether Island Transit will operate in the future or the past.The Island Transit Board of Directors will wrestle with various transportation funding options to find the best way to keep local bus service from being cut by more than half to levels it had more than a decade ago.The options are limited and not necessarily popular.The board could decide to ask voters for a hike in the local sales taxes. They might keep some routes going while eliminating others. They might choose to add a farebox to the currently fare-free buses. Or they could decide not to seek more money and begin making massive cuts.No matter what, says Island Transit Director Martha Rose, the agency will be smaller and less flexible than it has been.The funding crisis is the result of the passage of Initiative 695 last November. The initiative was approved by 58 percent of voters and eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax. The tax contributed about $750 million annually from the state budget - much of it going for transit and ferry systems as well as criminal justice, public health, cities and counties and road projects. As much as 60 percent of Island Transit's operating money came from the tax.Even before the vote, Rose began working and reworking budgets and schedules to show how the agency might deal with a projected drop in revenue from about $4.7 million in 1999 to about $1.9 million by 2001. The board is still looking, said Rose this week. Her latest plan outlines service reductions on every route in the system and total elimination of seven of Island Transit's 11 routes if no more money is found.Rose said there are really only four ways Island Transit can increase revenue. In previous meetings, the transit board has favored an increase in local sales taxes. Island Transit currently collects three-tenths of one percent of sales tax for its operation. That represents about $1.6 million in revenue annually. But state law allows local transit agencies to take as much as six-tenths of one percent from the sales tax if voters approve. So far, board members have said it's probably worth asking voters if they are willing to pay a little more in order to keep buses on the road.But the board has also been looking at changing the fare-free system to one that charges passengers for each ride. Though this may seem like a logical alternative, transit officials warn that the cost of installing and maintaining a fare system will end up costing money rather than creating it. They say that charging fares will also decrease ridership - something that runs contrary to the agency's mission of encouraging people to take the bus rather than drive.Island Transit will also be looking for grant money. We are scouring the planet for grants, Rose said. Grants have contributed more than $400,000 to the budget in some years.The last revenue source is the state Legislature but Rose said she's not counting on much help from lawmakers because I-695 created a mountain of demands for funding help all over the state.Everybody's talking different plans. We won't know until the session is over, she said. The session is scheduled to end at midnight Thursday.If nothing is done to raise Island Transit's income, Rose said the hardest cuts are yet to come. She predicts that 55 percent of the agency's employees will have to be let go next year without additional funding."

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