It’s not official yet, but the interim director for Island Transit admits it’s a near certainty that the famously fare-free buses will soon have fare boxes, at least on some routes.
The members of the Island Transit board said they will hold public meetings before a decision is made, yet they are clearly planning for fares. The agency has nine “cash” fare boxes that were donated by Skagit County Transit.
The board adopted a six-year transportation development plan last week that projects fare collections starting next year on routes that travel out of county, followed by all fixed routes by 2018.
Likewise, the draft 2016 budget also includes passenger fares as revenue.
“It would be nice if we could start charging fares at least on some routes on the first of the year, but that would be highly optimistic,” said Ken Graska, the interim director.
Transit officials have even set proposed dollar amounts for fares. Riders will be charged $2 for longer, multi-county routes and $1 for routes that stay in the county.
Yet not everyone is convinced that it’s the right way to go. Langley City Councilman Jim Sundberg concedes that fares seem inevitable given that three of the five board members have expressed strong support for the idea. He points out that those three board members — Oak Harbor City Councilman Rick Almberg and Island County commissioners Rick Hannold and Jill Johnson — represent North Whidbey, where the majority of citizens likely support fares.
Sundberg said people on South Whidbey tend to support the current “prepaid” model, in which buses are fare free and funded largely by sales tax. He points out that voters approved tax increases to fund the fare-free service over and over again; it’s currently maxed out at .09 percent.
“My concern is that it will hit people the hardest who can least afford to pay these fares,” he said, pointing out that a student traveling to community college in Mount Vernon would pay $4 a day. Over a month, that could add up to more than a student can afford, he said.
Sundberg said he hopes the agency offers free or reduced-cost fares to help students, senior citizens and low-income people.
Sundberg also points out that more riders on buses mean less cars on the road, a benefit to everyone. He worries that fares will push more people to drive and that will add to the load of the ferry system. While fare collection will likely be cash-only to begin with, Island Transit officials hope to implement an electronic fare collection system that will work with neighboring transit agencies.
Graska said it is “very possible” that Island Transit will join the system run by the transit agencies Skagit and Whatcom counties, which is less expensive than the Orca card system. Officials from the Washington State Department of Transportation are helping Island Transit with a peer reviewed study of the costs, challenges, benefits and other issues related to a transition to fares.
Former transit director Martha Rose resisted moving to a fare model for years, claiming it would result in a financial loss. She cited the costs of buying the necessary equipment and managing the cash-handling system, and a drop in ridership as reasons.
Sundberg shares some of those concerns. He points out that the agency is currently doing well financially and building up a healthy cash reserve without fares. The smaller the agency, the more difficult it is to make enough from fares to cover the costs of associated with fares, he said.
But state lawmakers and the majority of transit board members point out that almost all the other transit agencies in the state charge fares and that fares make up a significant portion of budgets in those agencies.
Under the estimates in Island Transit’s six-year plan, the fares will generate significant revenues; Sundberg, however, said the estimates don’t take into account the costs associated with collecting fares.
Fare boxes on a limited number of buses will generate about $118,000 a year in 2016 and 2017. The fare revenue is projected to increase to $630,000 a year when fares become system-wide in 2018. The six-year plan assumes that fares will cause ridership to drop by 30 percent. The plan shows that the capital cost of an electronic fare collection system in 2018 will be $645,000.
There’s also a philosophical issue. Both state lawmakers and board members have often repeated the term “skin in the game,” meaning they feel that the people who use the buses should invest something.
Island Transit’s fare-free system became a point of contention in Olympia last year after the agency was forced to cut routes and lay off staff because of serious budget problems.
This summer, state Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano, succeeded in attaching an amendment for the Everett Connector to the House’s multimodal transportation bill. The Everett Connector, which runs between Bellingham and Everett with a stop on Camano Island, was cut late last year.
The amendment provides $1 million, to be split between Skagit and Island transit, to restart the route. But lawmakers required Island Transit to charge fares in order to get the money.
A $2.3 million grant for the tri-county connector, however, doesn’t have any strings attached. The two-year grant funds routes from Whidbey to Mount Vernon to Camano Island.
During a meeting earlier this year, Commissioner Johnson questioned the need for the study or public meetings if the board members have already made up their minds to charge fares on buses.
In an interview, Johnson said she still has an open mind about the fare questions, but admits that she’s leaning strongly in the direction of fares. She said there would have to be clear evidence that fares would cause a significant financial loss for her to vote against them.
Likewise, Hannold and Almberg said they are strongly in favor of fares and that it’s inevitable that they will come.
Coupeville Councilwoman Jackie Henderson, the fifth member of the board, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Hannold said it makes sense to first charge fares on the state-funded routes that travel to other counties. They are the most expensive routes, he said, and connect to buses in other systems that currently collect fares.
Almberg said he’s talked to a lot of bus riders about fares and hasn’t heard much resistance to the idea. Still, he said the board should go ahead with public meetings to gauge sentiment and hear ideas.
“You never know what you’ll get at a public meeting,” he said.