June 25, 2008 · Updated 9:37 PM
"Island County voters on May 16 will decide the future of bus service on Whidbey Island. Although forced by I-695, the vote is a welcome plebiscite on what kind of bus service the people of this county desire.Island Transit started service in 1987, funded by a three-tenths of one percent sales tax approved by voters in 1983 plus local Motor Vehicle Excise Tax revenues. Initially we had a funky little Whidbey Island bus system with five new Gillig Phantoms running up and down the spine of the island. There was enough revenue to operate the system without charging fares, and that precedent continues to this day.Island Transit didn't stay small and funky for long, however. Its original five buses have grown to 13 full-size buses plus a large fleet of smaller vehicles. It received grants to purchase vehicles and expand service, and the transit district's boundaries expanded to include Whidbey Island north of Oak Harbor and Camano Island. A huge influx of revenue was created in 1994 with the Revenue Equity Bill. That bill was meant to return sales taxes spent outside of the county to Island County. It made sense, because islanders spend most of their taxable retail dollars in adjacent counties with more shopping opportunities. Unfortunately, the state equalized the sales tax not with revenues from that tax, but with revenue from the MVET. When I-695 passed last November, Island Transit lost not only its direct MVET funding, which brought in $1,625,000 in 1999, but also its Revenue Equity funding, which brought in $737,500. No transit agency in the state suffered more damage from I-695.On the ballot next Tuesday is a proposal to increase the sales tax another three-tenths of one percent. This will make up for most, but not all, of the money lost to I-695. The 2000 Legislature provided partial funding to get Island Transit through this year, but a permanent state bailout is not anticipated.The proposed sales tax increase has generated vocal opposition based on two main points:* First, opponents despise the fare-free transit policy, saying there is no such thing as a free lunch, or free ride. However, the fare-free policy has a long history of support from the county's most fiscally conservative leaders, from Gordon Koetje to Mac McDowell. They looked at the numbers and realized that fares would not produce any usable revenue and would greatly reduce ridership, thereby adding cars to the roads and pollution to the air. The fare-free policy simply makes sense, and also helps businesses on the island. Besides, everyone who pays sales tax pays for the buses, so there are no free rides. The issue isn't worth dismantling a bus system over.* Second, opponents are simply against raising the sales tax for any reason. This argument overlooks the fact that islanders already pay a six-tenths transit sales tax when they shop on the mainland, where most of our retail dollars are spent. They don't seem to mind supporting Metro Transit and Community Transit, but won't do the same thing for Island Transit. This makes no sense at all. Let's equalize the transit tax so Island Transit gets its fair share.Tuesday's vote is a competition between two visions. In one, we have a few buses with a few people paying a fare to use them, even though the fares do nothing to offset operating costs.In the second vision, we have a modern, environmentally friendly transit system ready to carry Island Transit commuters and shoppers into the 21st Century -- and at the same cost we presently pay when shopping on the mainland.It's worth this minuscule tax increase to have a healthy Island Transit. A yes vote next Tuesday will help make that vision come true."