Island Transit board sees new leadership

Island Transit is changing gears for 2015. After a year marked by controversy and trouble, the transportation agency’s staff and board of directors are going full speed ahead with what may turn out to be some major changes later this year.

Staff members came up with a plan to restore some of the service that was lost because of surprise budget problems in 2014. They will hold a series of community meetings to gather public input beginning Jan. 26. In addition, the five-person board of directors has a new chairman who promises, or at least leans toward, quick action.

The largely new board met this past Friday for the first time this year and adopted an ambitious plan that includes a serious look into charging fares on busses and even a discussion about working with another transit agency to take over service on Camano Island.

Oak Harbor Councilman Rick Almberg and Island County commissioners Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold sat as new members on the board; they replace Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley and commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Aubrey Vaughan.

Coupeville Councilman Bob Clay, the longtime chairman, said the Town Council hadn’t yet decided who to appoint to the board this year and there’s a chance someone else will want to serve. Langley Councilman Jim Sundberg said he wants to continue on the board.

Clay also announced that he was stepping down as chairman. He took on the role of director of the agency for months after former director Martha Rose quit last year.

“I’ve been board chairman for a long time and someone else needs to assume the position with all the glory and pay that goes along with it,” he joked.

Hannold quickly nominated Almberg as the new chairman. Almberg at first demurred, saying that Sundberg had the “tribal knowledge” to do the job.

But the other members, including Sundberg, coaxed him into taking on the job, saying that he has the energy, tough-mindedness and passion to handle the challenge.

Even before he was chosen as chairman, Almberg presented the board with a motion to place a series of six issues on the agenda for the March 27 meeting for discussion and possible action. The entire board agreed.

The issues are a financial stabilization plan; consideration of new funding sources; review of overlapping bus routes with other transit areas; a review of routes and schedules; consideration of joint ventures with Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and the schools; and a change in boundaries of the public transportation benefit area.

In an interview, Almberg said he’s pleased that a financial stabilization plan is already in the works, but he would like to see a “real reserve” similar to what Oak Harbor has. It should only be used for emergencies and only be spent with a vote of the majority of the board, he added.

Almberg also wants to move forward with an analysis of whether it makes financial sense to start charging fares on buses, which have long been fare-free. While the former director claimed it would cost too much to implement, he pointed out that all the other agencies in the state found it financially prudent to collect fares.

In addition, he said he wanted to explore the idea of changing the district so that another agency handles Camano Island. He pointed out that latest statistics from Island Transit show that providing bus service on Camano costs $16.57 a rider while it’s $7.26 a rider on Whidbey.

Almberg said there’s already some bus service overlap with other agencies on Camano and one of those agencies might be able to provide service at a lower cost.

Island Transit is funded through local sales tax and a combination of state and federal grants. Almberg said he realizes that Camano Island is getting a greater benefit than it’s paying for since Camano doesn’t generate a lot of sales tax dollars, but he said that inequity isn’t his main concern.

“It’s all about having the best service for the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.

Also, Almberg said the agency should consider partnering with the Navy base and school districts. He’s aware of another transit agency in the state that cooperates with a school district to transport kids.

Ken Graska, the interim director, said the staff would gather all the information it could to assist the board in answering the many questions at the March 27 meeting.

Meanwhile, Almberg said he’ll be rolling up his sleeves.

“I am going to ask good questions and I’m going to get good answers,” he said. “And then I’m going to ask questions about those answers.”

Public input for Island Transit

Island Transit is holding a series of community meetings to receive public input on transit system enhancements, including routes and schedules that will affect Routes 1, 2, 11, and bus service on the South End of Whidbey Island. The public is encouraged to attend one of the meetings to provide feedback on these proposed system changes. Comments may also be sent to info@islandtransit.org. These community meetings will be held throughout Whidbey Island on the following dates at the listed locations:

Oak Harbor LibraryMonday, Jan. 26, 4-6 p.m.Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2-4 p.m.

Bayview Senior CenterTuesday, Feb. 3, 2-4 p.m.

Freeland Public LibraryThursday, Feb. 5, 4-6 p.m.

Clinton Community HallThursday, Jan. 29, 4-6 p.m.Thursday, Feb. 12, 2-4 p.m.