When voters go to the polls this fall to choose city council members and vote on fire levies and such, they will also be voting on whether Jaime Jamtaas will have a ride to the grocery store or be able to visit his family.
Like many Harborites, Jamtaas’ weekend transportation depends on whether local voters pass a measure increasing funding to Grays Harbor Transit, the organization that provides bus service to the entire county. The measure would increase the county sales tax by 0.1 percent, the amount needed to generate $855,000 per year and restore full service.
Grays Harbor Transit eliminated its weekend service in early September, and if the sales tax increase isn’t approved this fall, the agency might have to start hacking apart weekday service, said Mark Carlin, general manager of Grays Harbor Transit.
“When they have the voting going on, I hope people realize how important it is,” Jamtaas said. “Even if people don’t use the buses, it’s a really important service for the disabled population. And it’s really cheap, that 0.1 percent.”
Jamtaas, a former firefighter and paramedic, has been disabled since 1990 and uses both the general bus system and the dial-a-ride service. During warmer, drier months he’s not so dependent on transit, as he’s able to use his motorized wheelchair to travel short distances — so he hasn’t yet felt the effects of recent schedule changes eliminating all weekend service.
With the weather turning foul, the challenges are imminent, and Jamtaas isn’t sure if or how he’ll keep up his normal routine. He usually goes to the mall or Walmart on Saturday or Sunday, just so he can get out of the house. He also takes trips to the Olympia area to visit family.
“It’s going to be a big change, this lack of weekend service,” Jamtaas said. “I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do yet.”
“I really don’t necessarily want to move out of Aberdeen because I was born and raised here,” he added. “I’ve lived here most of my life. But with the possibility of not being able to see my family, I’m thinking of moving to Olympia.”
Disabled riders aren’t the only transit users impacted by the recent cuts. Amber Trepanier has a hard time grocery shopping, getting to work and ferrying her kids around. She often relies on her bike — when the weather is nice.
“I really don’t mind riding when it’s sunny out, but I can’t ride to work when it’s raining because I’ll show up soaked,” Trepanier said. “My boss usually picks me up those days.”
Trepanier and her family moved to the Harbor about a year ago, and the family van broke down soon after. Her husband is disabled, so Trepanier is the family’s only source of income. And she hasn’t managed to get together enough money to buy a car. And work schedule aside, the family has a hard time participating in weekend activities without transit service. When they run out of something, Trepanier has to walk several miles to the store. And trips to see family? They’re impossible.
“With three children, it’s really impacted us a lot, those buses going,” Trepanier said. “I have to get all the shopping done during the week, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”
“I think we all do what we have to do to get by, and I know I can make it work,” she added. “It would just be a lot easier with the transit.”
Older Harborites are suffering as a result of recent cuts — especially those who use the bus to travel to and from church services. Mark Harvey, regional director of the Olympic Area Agency on Aging, said he’s had several concerned citizens call his office.
“The weekend impact has been especially critical for the elderly population because they just can’t get to church,” Harvey said. “We’ve had individuals calling for help, we’ve had churches calling, but there’s not much we can do.”
“We’ll sure take our best shot, but there are just no guarantees on our end,” he added. “There are just never enough volunteers to get people where they need to go.”
Grays Harbor Transit isn’t the only public transit agency with a sales tax increase on the ballot this November. Citizens in Okanogan County will vote on a measure to create a 0.4 percent sales tax, which will generate funds to create a public transportation agency in the area.
According to state law, transit agencies can collect up to a 0.9 percent sales tax, but only five collect the full amount: Island Transit, Jefferson Transit Authority, King County Metro, Sound Transit and Snohomish County’s Community Transit. Only three agencies, Garfield County Public Transportation, Pullman Transit and Whitman County don’t rely on sales tax revenue to fund their operations. The average Washington transit agency collects a 0.45 percent sales tax.
Grays Harbor Transit collects a 0.6 percent sales tax, which was implemented in 2000. If voters approve the ballot measure, the agency would collect a 0.7 percent sales tax — still less than the state limit.
Noel Brady, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation’s Public Transportation Division, said service cuts and sales tax increases have been common in recent years.
“For the last couple of years, we’ve seen major trouble, specifically in Pierce County, and now in King County,” Brady said. “King County may have to cut as much as one third of their service.”