Bus riders support sales tax increase

"Do Whidbey Island residents really love their buses? We'll find out on May 16, when voters go to the polls to approve or deny a three-tenths of one percent increase in the local sales tax. Island Transit is asking for the increase to replace some of the funding it lost when Initiative 695 passed. When the initiative slashed prices on car tabs, it also gutted transit budgets state-wide.Island Transit took in $1.6 million from an existing 0.3 percent sales tax. That money was originally planned to be part of a $4.6 million budget. Now, if the system cannot get a sales tax increase, it will have to operate on just $1.6 million next year.Transit administrators and riders alike know that will not work. Langley's Linda Johnson, a regular transit rider, said she will definitely vote for the tax increase.I'll do anything I can to support the transit, she said.Riding aboard a mid-afternoon bus making a route between Clinton, Langley, and Freeland Monday, Johnson said she cannot place a high enough value on the service.A heck of a lot, Johnson said. It's really nice. It's the best thing Whidbey ever did.A rural Langley Road resident for the past 20 years, Johnson said the bus is a necessity for her because she does not drive. She uses it to do her everyday shopping and errands -- except on Saturday. That used to be her big shopping day until Saturday bus routes were cancelled late last year in the aftermath of I-695. She said she wants to see Saturday service return.If I don't get everything I need on Fridays, I'm stuck, she said.If Island Transit riders can be said to have one thing in common, it is that almost everyone on the bus uses it on a frequent basis. Commuters moving between the ferry and home, Langley Middle School students on their way to the youth center, and people who just need to do their errands ride the same routes day in and day out and make it to their stops like clockwork. Starting around 3:30 p.m., bus drivers working the Clinton ferry dock expect every seat aboard their vehicles to fill. Some riders climb into the bus ready for more than an hour's riding to Coupeville or Oak Harbor. Others, like Clinton's Lynn Geronimi and Mikah Janda, use the bus to get up and down the hill between the Clinton park and ride and the ferry dock. Janda said he knows about 15 people who use the bus for that purpose every morning. Losing the service would not be a major hardship for either man, but Geronimi said he would hate to see it go.The reality is that it's nice to have it, he said.In flyers aboard its buses and on posters around the island, the transit system points out that the tax equals only 3 extra cents for every $10 dollars a person spends in local businesses.Martha Rose, executive director of Island Transit, said the tax increase really is the bare minimum. Prior to the passage of I-695, her agency had planned to use increased 2000 funding to add hourly service between Oak Harbor and Mount Vernon to the system's route roster, as well as limited Sunday service, and late-evening service. Now, even with the 0.3 percent sales tax increase, Rose said the most Island Transit will be able to offer -- if it gets the increase -- is the preservation of its weekday routes and the resurrection of limited Saturday service.We're not going to be at the budget level we had in 1999, Rose said.Other services will also suffer if the ballot issue fails, including carpools and paratransit.The proposal is not without strong opposition, however. Clinton residents Rufus and Reece Rose have formed a Political Action Committee so they can accept donations to fight the proposed tax increase. The couple are particularly against Island Transit's fare-free policy, which the agency's board of directors decided to retain despite the impact of I-695. Thousands of absentee ballots have already been mailed by the Island County Auditor's Office. Walk-in voters should report to their regular polling places on May 16 for the vote. Approval of the tax increase requires a simple majority of the vote."

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