Transit's future bleak after 2003

Steady and stable is how executive director Martha Rose describes Island Transit's financial situation for 2003.

It's the following year that has her worried.

For now, Rose said next year's $4.9 million operating budget, which was approved Friday by the organization's board of directors, requires no major changes in the system. This is despite the recent failure of Referendum 51, the measure that would have plunked about $1 million of additional state funding into Island Transit's budget.

The following year will be a different story.

"2004 is the one that I worry about," Rose said during Friday's budget meeting.

R-51's failure, coupled with the continuing poor economy and the long-term effects of such tax-limiting initiatives as I-695, will begin to have a negative effect on local public transportation, she said.

"It's going to really start to hit."

Island Transit's financial stability for the coming year is due in part to its success in procuring state transportation grants, Rose said. In van pool and vehicle grants along, the transit has secured over $800,000 in state grants for 2003. Miscellaneous grants account for another $104,000.

"We've just been unbelievably fortunate the last several years with getting grants," Rose said. "It's just amazing."

Still, balancing next year's budget was a matter of making do with the revenue at hand, which included reducing the "cushion" usually kept in Island Transit's fuel budget.

There will be no cuts in service or personnel this year. Any major capital expenditures for 2003, such as new bus purchases or a planned expansion of the service's Coupeville maintenance facility, is dependent on a handful of grants coming through. Rose is also looking at a number of cost-cutting measures, such as modifying certain bus routes. Less popular bus routes might end up being combined into one or subsumed under a major route.

"We're going to take a really serious look at consolidating," she said.

Currently, Island Transit owns 47 buses and about 80 van pool vehicles. Among a total staff of 74, there are 50 operators and about a dozen on the maintenance crew, with remaining positions being mostly administrative.

Rose said Island Transit will continue to aggressively pursue grant funding, especially with the failure of R-51 and the generally slow local economy. There are a number of important capital acquisitions and projects in the works, including the purchase of a new water recycling unit for maintenance, eight expansion cutaway buses and a shop truck and trailer rig.

Most important, she said, is expanding the current maintenance facility, which was purchased for $150,000 in 1988. That was back when Island Transit had only five buses.

"We've really run out of room. We need more working space," she said.

Federal funding, she said, may be the only way to pay for an expansion.

Funding shortfalls starting in 2004 could heavily impact such successful programs such as Island Transit's para-transit service, which provides special routes and transportation options for the disabled and elderly. Rose said the local para-transit program, for which demand is high, enjoys the lowest cost-per-rider ratio in the state.

"It's effective all the way around," Rose said. "It's really community oriented."

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