Building on the experience of providing passenger vans for commuter services, Island Transit is launching a new program of transportation options for social service agencies.
Program Coordinator Staci Jordan said the service, known as Ridelink, begins in August, using vans that are already owned by the transit company. Vans will be assigned to selected agencies to provide transportation to client outings, work programs and health services.
“We’ve tailored this program specifically to serve the needs of Island County,” Jordan said. “It will provide a range of options for those associated with service organizations who need transportation beyond our (fixed route) buses and para-transit specialized services.”
Jordan said Island Transit has been developing the new program since late last year, talking with other public transportation agencies.
“We’ve been trying to think about how to help the community by using the vans in a positive way,” Jordan said. “We believe Ridelink will help fill a transportation gap within the county.”
According to Jordan, four vans will initially be assigned to Ridelink, with two more reserved for temporary use. Only nonprofit agencies can apply, and applications will evaluated to determine “the best service that’s meeting a need.”
Ridelink will operate much like the current van pool program. Island Transit will provide the van, maintenance and driver training. Unlike the van pools, Ridelink vans will not have a minimum rider requirement and won’t be used for commuting.
Ridelink vans will operate with a shared insurance agreement. The assigned agency has responsibility for the first $5,000 of any damages. Additional insurance is provided up to $1 million through a collective which covers all Washington transit agencies except King County.
Applications for Ridelink vans can be submitted online at www.IslandTransit.org, beginning in June.
Though less well-known than fixed route buses or paratransit, Jordan said, Island Transit’s commuter van program currently serves about 350 people living and working on Whidbey, and there’s room for expansion.
“It’s a good deal,” Jordan said. “People could save lots of money by not using their own private vehicles, especially if there’s an employer subsidy. With van pooling, there are fewer cars on the road, less potential pollution from vehicles, and reduced pressure on parking facilities.”
Island Transit, based in Coupeville, owns about half of its current fleet of 100 vans. The others are owned by Washington State Department of Transportation. In addition to supplying the van, the transit company covers maintenance, fuel and insurance. Riders pay a monthly “fare” based on mileage, between 44 and 54 cents per mile, and the number of people in each group. There are vans to carry seven, 12, or 15 passengers.
Jordan explains that each rider group must consist of a minimum of five people. Each group needs at least two drivers, a manager and a bookkeeper. Vans get priority loading on ferries, and can use High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on highways. The van and driver go without charge on the ferries, and only the passengers pay a fare.
“We have destinations all over for people who work or live on Whidbey,” Jordan said. “We have vans operating in Island, Skagit, Kitsap, Snohomish and King counties. Some vans actually bring people to Whidbey, such as two which come from Kitsap County to Naval Air Station Whidbey. The program allows people to live on Whidbey or Camano while traveling to work at another destination, or come to work on the islands from their place of residence.”
Jordan explained that vans usually start at a central location, usually the nearest park-and-ride facility. Passengers also can be picked up along the route, such as a van leaving Whidbey and getting a passenger in Mukilteo. The group sets the route and determines the times. If there is space, the van might even arrange for single ride passengers.
In addition to the Navy, Jordan said, a majority of van pools provide service for Boeing, Microsoft, hospitals, universities and a destination generically called “DT (downtown) Seattle.”
Island Transit and RideShareOnline.com can help match riders and vans. All participants must sign a rider agreement. All drivers must complete a four-hour defensive driver training.
“It’s a good program and it does meet our objectives,” Jordan said. “We would like to have more vans filled, because we have the capacity and because ridership fluctuates based on shift changes, deployments, and retirements. If we get more cars off the roads, we are accomplishing our mission!”
Jordan works with another program coordinator, Julie Lloyd, to administer both van pool and Ridelink. There is one mechanic dedicated to van service.
Island Transit Executive Director Mike Nortier said van pooling also benefits the community by enabling more people to easily work outside the location in which they live. In addition, employers can draw workers from a wider area. As the former commander of NAS Whidbey Island, Nortier is familiar with the importance of moving people from one place to another.
Most participants say they appreciate the ease of getting to a distant work location. Many say they relax on the way to work, and some even take a nap.
There are 52 active vans, including 10 on Camano. Some vans are always reserved for use when a regular vehicle needs service. Island Transit can acquire vans that have reached the WSDOT recommended life of four years or 100,000 miles. The usual life span for vans owned by Island Transit is seven years or 150,000 miles.
Every two years, Island Transit competes with other transportation agencies in a VIP (Van pool Improvement Program) grant application process. The state allocates funds for expansion first, then for replacement. There are maintenance facilities in Coupeville and on Camano.
While the state insurance collective handles all matters relating to accidents, Island Transit watches the behavior of drivers, Jordan said.
“They’re in a vehicle with our name and phone number on the side, so we do look at all complaint situation,” she said.” Drivers can be removed based on best practices.”
Jordan said van pool is completely separate from bus operations, except for insurance administration and shop facilities.
She encourages anyone who is interested to contact Island Transit at 360-678-7771 or info@IslandTransit.org.