OKANOGAN Okanogan County voters are being asked to decide on a sales tax increase that would help establish a county-wide public transportation system.
The amount requested in Proposition 1, four-tenths of 1 percent, is equivalent to 4 cents per $10 spent on taxable goods.
“The goal is to provide a long-term funding source for transportation,” Okanogan Mayor Michael Blake said. “This would provide a much broader transportation option.”
The new service would supplement what is already provided by the non-profit Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition, but the services will be separate, according to Executive Director Leanne Whitener. The existing Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition services will remain in place, regardless of the vote on Proposition 1.
“The reason that it’s being brought forward is because the DOT (state Department of Transportation) is totally changing its way of funding,” she said of the ballot proposition. “They’re requiring a higher match for all grant applications.”
The state has mandated that communities need to contribute toward the services they receive through taxes, and that money can be allocated toward matching funds.
Whitener, who served on the steering committee that contributed to the development of the proposed public system, said the new guidelines will mean greater difficulty for Transportation and Nutrition to find enough community partners to meet the matching fund requirement.
“The problem with our program is it’s all grant-funded, totally,” she said. “For the dollars that we have, we just haven’t been able to get service to everyone.”
If the proposition passes, the Okanogan County Transit Authority expects to collect about $2 million in tax revenues, $984,000 of which will be spent next year. The rest will be rolled into 2015. The Transit Authority would begin receiving revenues this year, with an expected carryover into 2014 of $162,000.
What taxpayers would get in return is access to public transportation five days per week in a “hub and spoke” system – meaning the Omak/Okanogan area will serve as the central hub of operations and routes will connect to Oroville, Tonasket, Riverside, Winthrop, Twisp, Brewster and Pateros.
The Transit Authority’s boundaries do not extend to the southeastern section of the county, but the transportation plan notes that a contract may be possible with the Colville Confederated Tribes to provide service to Nespelem.
The first step will be to increase daily service to senior citizens and the disabled.
However, most of 2014 will be spent establishing the Transit Authority’s administrative structure and purchasing buses and other necessities.
By 2015, the Transit Authority anticipates being ready to start the following routes: Omak/Okanogan urban loop, Omak to Twisp/Winthrop, Omak to Riverside/Tonasket/Oroville, Omak to Brewster/Pateros, and Winthrop-Twisp-Pateros.
Conconully, Loomis, Chesaw, Methow, Carlton, Mazama, Coulee Dam and Elmer City currently don’t receive any public transportation service.
If and when resources become available, service will be added from Omak to Conconully, as well as loops between Twisp and Winthrop and Brewster, Pateros and Bridgeport.
“It’s going to be need-driven,” Blake said. “If some areas don’t seem to utilize the program, we can switch resources to other areas.”
The agency hopes that extending the service will boost tourism for people who ride in from other counties or come in from Canada and board in Oroville.
Another potential benefit of the transportation service is increased foot traffic in downtown businesses where bus stops are located, according to the plan. Stops will be built in at the county courthouse, stores, Wenatchee Valley College at Omak, employment offices, medical facilities, senior centers and other social service offices.
People can also use the buses to commute to work if the schedules align.
Other future plans include offering evening and weekend service, rides to recreation areas or major community events, establishing park-and-ride service in areas such as the Methow Valley, and installing benches, shelters and bike racks at the bus stops.
Information and schedules will be provided in English and Spanish, with the possibility of adding more languages as needed.
Blake said the Transit Authority is leaning toward charging a fee to ride the bus, but how much to charge is still being decided.
The funds raised will likely be accompanied by an $800,000 grant from the Department of Transportation to purchase buses, and the Transit Authority will apply for another grant the second year for the same amount. The plan is to eventually have a fleet of 13 buses, but could contract with Transportation and Nutrition to use some of the buses it owns.
Planned staffing needs include a manager, operations manager, finance manager, bookkeeper and a clerical position, although the Transit Authority could contract out for those services.
“Like with any plan that is supported governmentally, it’s a living thing and it can change as needs change based on the funding that is available… to provide necessary transportation resources throughout the county,” Blake said.