Whidbey residents are paying most of Camano bus riders’ way

Officials are not surprised that Whidbey Island is subsidizing Island Transit bus service on Camano Island, which they say is a result of the sales-tax model for funding government services and won’t impact the allocation of service.

“We are all citizens of Island County and the money all goes into one pot,” said Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold, a member of the Island Transit board. He represents both North Whidbey and Camano Island.

“Island Transit’s mission is to provide transportation to all people of Island County,” he added.

But the inequity is another good reason, several members of the board said, for adding fares to the famously fare-free buses.

Figures from the Washington State Department of Revenue show that only 11 percent of sales tax collected in Island County comes from Camano Island.

At the same time, more than a quarter of Island Transit’s operations budget goes to bus service on Camano Island.

In response to a request from the Whidbey News Group, analysts from the Department of Revenue estimated 2014 taxable retail sales collected in Whidbey and Camano, the two islands that make up Island County.

A total of $784 million was collected in the entire county. Of that, $697 million was collected on Whidbey Island and $87 million came from Camano Island.

Island Transit is largely funded by sales tax. Of the agency’s $11.7-million budget for 2015, a total of $7.9 million comes from a 0.9 percent sales tax which is the maximum Island Transit can collect, according to Island County Interim Director Ken Graska. The rest of the funds come from state grants.

In the projected operations budget for 2015, $1.17 million is allocated to bus service on Camano while $3.19 million will be spent on Whidbey. That equates to about 27 percent of operating budget being dedicated to Camano.

Graska explained that the operations budget is only for fixed route services — not paratransit or van pools — and doesn’t include many of the agency’s costs for things like maintenance, salaries, benefits, the purchase of vehicles and debt service.

Projected numbers for 2015 show that buses on Camano Island make up 16 percent of Island Transit’s total ridership. About 639,000 rides will be taken on Whidbey and 118,000 on Camano.

When all the costs are factored in, providing fixed-route bus service on Camano costs $16.57 a rider while it’s $7.26 a rider on Whidbey, according to data from early this year.

Graska said the difference in numbers for the two islands isn’t surprising since Camano is largely rural.

“The buses have to travel farther distances on Camano to get fewer riders,” he said.

He added that in the future he hopes to find ways to increase ridership on Camano Island without increasing costs, which will bring the per-trip rate down.

After he first became chairman of the transit board, Oak Harbor Councilman Rick Almberg suggested looking into the idea of working with another transit authority to provide some bus service on Camano Island because of the costs. He said that’s still in “discussion stage” but that the board is dedicated to ensuring service on Camano.

He said where the sales tax comes from “is not a part of the board’s decision-making process when it comes to allocating resources.”

Hannold said one of the reasons that the costs are high on Camano is the 411C route to Mount Vernon, which is the companion to the 411W route from Whidbey to Anacortes. Because of the high costs, the board planned to cancel it until the state Legislature came through with a $2.3-million grant.

He added that fares are almost certainly coming to Island Transit and those revenues will help smooth out the inequity in where the funds originate from. He said he wants the buses on the 411 routes to be the first to have fare boxes.

Commissioner Jill Johnson, also a member of the transit board, has long been a critic of sales taxes because the burden falls hardest on Oak Harbor, which is by far the largest city in the county.

But in the case of Island Transit, she said it’s really the only option. Johnson explained that all transit agencies in the state utilize the sales-tax model for funding, though nearly all supplement them with fares.

“It’s just how government is done,” she said. “You pull from everybody to provide a collective service.”

She pointed out that many, if not most, of the people on both islands who fund the transit agency don’t ride buses.

Obviously, most of the sales tax is collected in urban areas, but people in nearby rural areas contribute by traveling to urban areas to buy things. The case of Camano Island is somewhat unique, she said, since people who live on the largely residential island travel to another county to do most of their spending.

And transit agencies are not unique in depending on sales tax. In addition to Island Transit, separate sales taxes fund mental-health services and the juvenile detention center, which are both county programs.