Transit puts off decision on bus service, options outlined

After a heated discussion at a Tuesday evening meeting, the Grays Harbor Transit Board still hasn’t reached a decision that would fix the agency’s budget or resolve the question of potential service cuts. Board members must come up with a way to shave about $800,000 off of the yearly operating budget, but Westport Mayor Michael Bruce and County Commissioner Frank Gordon, members of the transit board, are at odds over how to do so.

The board is likely to make its final decision next Wednesday, July 17, during a 5 p.m. meeting at the Grays Harbor Transit office.

At the beginning of the budget conversation, Gordon proposed that the board put a 0.02 percent sales tax increase on the November ballot. Grays Harbor Transit already receives a 0.06 percent tax on purchases made in Grays Harbor, and legally it can collect a 0.09 percent sales tax.

Increasing the sales tax by 0.02 percent would generate an additional $1,710,000 yearly — more than twice what the agency needs to bring in a balanced budget. But Grays Harbor Transit wouldn’t begin to see revenue from a tax increase until next year, so the board would still have to make cuts or increase rates in the meantime.

Before the board members could vote on the motion, Bruce asked that Gordon table his proposal so the board could have time to review the various service cut and fare increase plans put together by Grays Harbor Transit General Manager Mark Carlin, also a board member.

Bruce also had qualms that a tax increase would be well received by voters — especially in Aberdeen. The City of Aberdeen passed a 0.13 percent sales tax increase last year to fund transportation projects.

“Can you guarantee that [Aberdeen] is going to vote for that?” Bruce asked.

But Gordon said the tax increase is the only way the board can fix the funding problem long-term and maintain service for riders in outlying areas — and he questioned whethr Bruce shares that goal.

“I am trying to be concerned about the riders,” Gordon said. “I wish you would be concerned about the riders in Westport, too.”

Gordon said the board shouldn’t waste any time in deciding on a sales tax fix, as the deadline to add measures to the November ballot is August first. Board member Jack Durney, also mayor of Hoquiam, pointed out that the board could review its options and make a decision at a later date — and still meet the ballot deadline.

“We could still discuss what the options are and meet before the August first deadline, so it’s not a do-or-die situation,” Durney said. “I think it’s important to look at these options to decide whether we want to immediately do that.”

Carlin presented the board with three service change options, which were discussed at two public hearings in June. After hearing from the public, Carlin also generated three fare change options.

The first service option would cut all weekend routes along with service to Centralia. Carlin said this option would affect the fewest riders, as only about 1,200 riders take the bus each Saturday and 1,000 each Sunday. Removing weekend and Centralia service would save Grays Harbor Transit about $895,000 each year.

The second service option would maintain service every day, cutting back the number of trips across the board. Centralia routes would be completely eliminated. Carlin said this option would impact the 3,500 riders that use the bus each weekday, and would save the agency about $800,000 each year.

The third option is a hybrid — cutting all Sunday service and scaling back all Saturday and weekday routes. This option would impact the most riders, and Grays Harbor Transit would save about $800,000 each year.

Increasing fares could also be part of a solution — but likely wouldn’t generate enough revenue to completely meet the budget shortfall. Carlin said the board can’t increase fares too drastically or people will stop riding the bus. Its also difficult to know how much money a fare hike would actually generate.

“It’s really hard to say because you don’t know how it’s going to affect your ridership,” Carlin said. “If you increase fares, historically, you know that that’s going to affect ridership.”

The first fare increase option would create three zones within the Grays Harbor Transit system and generate about $250,000 in additional revenue. The first zone would include most of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, and fare would be set at $0.50 for all customers. The second zone would include the rest of the county, with general riders paying $2 per trip and youth, senior and disabled riders paying $1 per trip. Zone three would encompass the McCleary to Olympia route, with general riders paying $4 per trip and youth, senior and disabled riders paying $2 per trip. Riders could also buy day passes and monthly passes for the different zones.

The second fare increase option would increase fares for all trips and passes by 25 percent, generating about $110,000 each year. The third option would eliminate all transfers, generating an additional $65,000 each year. The board members didn’t discuss the options for eliminating service, but Gordon said he thought the first fare increase option was ideal.

“$2 to go to Ocean Shores or Westport is a hell of a bargain,” Gordon said. “This is a real fair way to go.”