Opinion editorial by Rep. Dave Hayes: Island Transit must follow through on its commitment to secure permanent funding for Everett Connector route
Recently after church, a constituent came up to me and asked, “Why did you cut funding for the Island Transit Everett Connector route?” It's a question my 10th District seatmates and I have been getting a lot lately, after Island Transit decided to end its Everett Connector Route 412 commuter bus trips between Camano Island and Everett, beginning June 27, “due to funding losses.” However, accusations that local legislators cut the funding are not true.
I explained to the gentleman that I proposed an amendment last year in the Legislature that would have provided an extra $858,000 of state support for the Everett Connector. This is in addition to millions in state temporary “start-up” grants received by these agencies for years. But because Island Transit and Skagit Transit were in line to receive yet another grant of nearly a million dollars to operate the two Everett Connector routes for the current two-year budget cycle, while other transit agencies across the state received less or nothing, the amendment was rejected.
Even so, Skagit Transit will keep operating its portion of the Everett Connector — Route 90x between Burlington and Everett. Yet, Island Transit has now discontinued Route 412. It leaves many riders asking “why?”
Some history is in order.
These two routes began July 2006 after Island Transit and Skagit Transit partnered together, applied for and received a state Regional Mobility Grant of $1,970,000. Intended by the state as initial seed money, the application states that “other funding sources must ultimately replace Regional Mobility Grant money.” Even Island Transit's Executive Director Martha Rose clearly understood this, saying in an e-mail to me, “It is correct that the Regional Mobility funds are considered to be 'start-up' funds.”
Yet the two transit agencies began to rely on this temporary grant as a permanent funding source for the Everett Connector routes. They received a second Regional Mobility Grant of $1,440,000 for the 2007-09 state budget cycle, and a third grant in the 2009-11 budget cycle of $1,624,000. In that third application, the agencies wrote: “Upon expiration of this grant cycle, Island Transit and Skagit Transit will maintain funding for this service through locally-approved sales taxes and other various funding sources. This grant will allow the time necessary for both of our transit agencies to identify future funding sources to ensure we have the funding to continue this service after this grant, enabling us to bring the operating costs of this vital service 'in house' after the 2009-2011 grant term ends.”
Unfortunately, after five years of receiving what was meant to be start-up funds, future funding sources were never identified as promised. Instead, Island Transit pleaded for financial help from the Legislature in 2012 and received an $818,000 appropriation in the state supplemental transportation budget to keep the Everett Connector routes afloat. This was about the same time Island Transit broke ground on its massive new $22.4 million headquarters in Coupeville.
In 2013, the state provided Island Transit and Skagit Transit a fourth Regional Mobility Grant of $940,000 for the two-year budget cycle. Yet, Island Transit asked for more. I responded with my $858,000 amendment, but with 31 transit agencies in Washington competing for limited dollars, some of which received no state funding, my request was turned down.
As you can see, the two Everett Connector routes have operated eight years on start-up grants and legislative bail-outs totaling nearly $6.8 million. That should have been sufficient time to secure other permanent funding, as the transit agencies promised in their grant applications.
To its credit, Skagit Transit collected and continues to collect fares for its Everett Connector Route 90x – $2 each way – to help offset expenses, as most transit agencies in Washington do. However, Island Transit refuses, even now, to ask riders to pay a fare, even though most say they can afford it and would be willing to do so to keep the route operating.
Skagit Transit Executive Director Dale O'Brien told me his agency is committed to the Everett Connector Route 90x operation, with or without additional help from the Legislature. This is commendable, especially considering that Skagit Transit collects a smaller percentage of sales taxes, 4/10ths of one percent, compared to Island Transit's 9/10ths of one percent.
So why hasn't Island Transit made the same commitment?
I share the same frustration as the man at my church. We need this route restored. I am willing to work with Island Transit to make that happen. But in the end, Island Transit must recognize that temporary grants and legislative bailouts are not sustainable sources of funding, and it needs to make the same commitment as Skagit Transit to cover the costs “in house” as promised and restore its Everett Connector route.