WSDOT to study fares for Whidbey buses

It’s unlikely that Island Transit will be able to abandon its fare-free model anytime soon, according to board members.

But the state Department of Transportation may help the agency study the issue.

Ken Graska, interim director of Island Transit, said he learned that WSDOT was doing an analysis of fare-free transit systems. In addition to Island Transit, the transit system in Mason County is fare-free within the county and Okanogan County just started a fare-free service.

He asked a WSDOT official if Island Transit’s fare feasibility study could be incorporated into the analysis and found the agency to be very receptive to the idea.

“I felt it would be more objective if someone outside of Island Transit did the study,” he said. “I thought it might be better if it had someone else’s name on it.”

In addition, it would save Island Transit the cost of doing its own study.

Ryan Warner, a community liaison with WSDOT, presented the proposal to the Island Transit board during a workshop Monday. An outside consultant would conduct the study and it would be free to Island Transit, he said.

The Island Transit board put off a decision until the next board meeting.

Oak Harbor Councilman Rick Almberg, the chairman of the board, said he had concerns after Warner pointed out the possibility that the study could find fares aren’t financially feasible.

He said that finding could put Island Transit at odds with state lawmakers who want fares.

“If one government agency says one thing and another says something different, we’re going to be caught in the middle,” he said.

Lawmakers passed a bill that provides $1 million in the 2015-17 biennial budget for the Everett connector, a route that runs between Camano Island and Everett. The route was cancelled last year after state funding ran out.

The bill, however, requires that Island Transit charge fares. Graska said the language is being interpreted at the state to require Island Transit to charge fares in all buses throughout the system.

For that to happen, the study would have to be completed and Island Transit would conduct public outreach to get input. If the board ultimately decides to start charging fares, the agency would have to be able to purchase the equipment, which could possibly come to phases, according to board members.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, a member of the board, said she would be surprised if bus fares would happen before the end of the year.

That means, she said, the Everett connector isn’t likely to restart this year.