Don’t be surprised if the new leader of Island Transit takes a seat next to you on the bus.
Mike Nortier, the director, has been riding bus routes to help him get a feel for both the system and the riders.
Nortier said it’s allowed him to see “a different side of the community” and to speak with both drivers and riders in an informal way.
He said he hopes to ride all 13 routes, but he’s been pretty busy since taking the reins in May.
The former commander of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island didn’t have any experience with public transit before taking the job, but the agency’s board members felt that leadership skills were the most important consideration.
Still, he had a lot to learn.
“I’m not an expert,” he said during a recent interview, “but that will come with time.”
It’s a busy time. The agency is in the midst of negotiations with the recently formed union representing drivers and dispatchers. A study on non-represented was just completed and employees with below-market wages will get raises beginning Sept. 1; everyone got a cost-of-living adjustment. A fare was started on a route for the first time in the agency’s history.
Nortier’s most important job, however, may be public relations. He took over an agency that can no longer be called “troubled,” but which is still earning back the trust of the community.
In 2014, Island Transit leaders were forced to lay off employees, cut routes, cancel Saturday service and take out a $2.3 million in bank loans after serious financial problems suddenly came to light. The longtime executive director was pushed out — with a sizable severance package — and the board members replaced. The interim director fell into trouble after he was arrested for DUI.
What was overshadowed in the controversy, said Nortier, is the dedication, experience and skill of the staff, which number 112.
“There is a great number of people on staff who are passionate about what they do,” he said.
Nortier said he was also grateful to find that neighboring transit agencies are more than willing to help Island Transit. They all recognize that they are doing the same thing and public transportation can’t stop at county lines, Nortier said.
“I don’t know what the true future of Island Transit is if we don’t have connections to others,” he said.
In addition, Nortier said there hasn’t been much public engagement in the last couple of years and he’s working to change that.
The agency, for example, is having booths at different events.
Oak Harbor Councilman Rick Almberg, chairman of the agency’s board of directors, said Nortier’s leadership is a refreshing change. Almberg describes the former base commander as a good communicator with a practical approach to problem solving.
“He’s approachable,” Almberg said. “I think that’s one thing that’s really important in leadership.”
Inevitably perhaps, not everyone is ready to jump aboard the Nortier bus. Gayle Zachaukirk, a bus rider and longtime watchdog of the taxpayer-funded agency, said she fears that nothing has changed under his leadership. She’s particularly concerned about the history of “unequal treatment” of staff members.
But there are changes being made.
Nortier said the agency is re-building its capital reserves. The bus fleet is also rapidly aging and will need to be replaced over time.
Nortier and his staff are “digging into” the routes to see if there are changes that can increase efficiency. He’s looking at the statistics in detail, analyzing things like ridership at different times of day.
Cutting some of the more seldom-used runs may allow him to add runs to busier routes, possibly add Saturday service back someday or make room in the system for the out-of-county runs if state grants disappear.
A big question on the horizon is whether fares are coming system wide to the service that’s long been fare free. State lawmakers made a grant for a bus route between Camano Island and Everett contingent on charging fares.
This summer a $2 fare was instituted.
Ridership on the route isn’t meeting its historic high numbers, said Nortier, but added he’s optimistic that more people will ride after the summer and as more people realize the route is available.
Almberg said he not only supports the establishment of fares but predicts that the agency will have to move that way in order to continue receiving vital state grants. He said state legislators he’s spoken to are dead-set on the need for fares.
Island Transit’s budget this year was $12 million. About $8.2 million in revenues will come from the 0.9 percent sales tax in the county.
Nortier points out that the decision on fares hasn’t been made, and that the agency will hold public meetings and collect public comments before anything happens. Nothing will happen until 2017.
“It will take us some time to move down a deliberate path,” he said.