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Buses could roll
Voters will decide

photo of Farmers State BankThe "senior bus" may be replaced by a new public bus system. - Photo by Solveig Torvik

Okanogan County voters will be asked to approve a four-tenths of one percent increase in the sales tax in November to pay for a public bus transportation system that would include the Methow Valley, according to Okanogan Mayor Michael Blake, chairman of the Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA).

The new system would offer five-days-a-week service from Winthrop and Twisp to Omak and Okanogan as well as eventual service from Winthrop to Pateros and towns in between, according to the transportation plan unveiled this week by the OCTA.

For every $10 a shopper spends, Blake explained, four cents would go to pay for the bus transit system. (The sales tax does not apply to purchases of food and medicine.) About $2 million would be raised annually from the tax increase to operate the bus system, according to the OCTA's projections.

"We want to provide an opportunity for people to provide for themselves," Blake told Grist. Many residents of the county do not have their own transportation to get to work or to adult education and job training, he said, and others might prefer to rely on public transportation as a cheaper and more environmentally sound alternative if it were available.

No decision has been made about whether the service will be free, according to the draft plan. If a fare is charged, it will have to be high enough to cover the cost of collecting, and accounting for, the fare income, but low enough that it does not discourage passengers from taking the bus, the document states. Fares, if adopted, should be nominal and should be based on distance traveled, the document states.

"No transit system in the state comes close to supporting itself through fares," Winthrop Mayor Dave Acheson, a member of the OCTA, told Grist. He said he has not yet decided whether he favors charging for the service.

photo of Farmers State Bank

The draft plan calls for the initial start-up routes to run along SR 97 from Oroville to Chelan and also would link the Methow Valley with Omak and Okanogan. By 2015, the plan calls for inter-city transportation to be available between Winthrop, Twisp, Brewster and Pateros as well.

Five buses would be purchased in each of the first two years of service. In the second year, almost all of the proposed routes would be operational, according to the draft document. By the end of the third year, 13 buses would be in service, and after the first four years, the system would be running at its design capacity.

The Methow Valley and other communities in the county are now served by a fleet of 13 buses, the so-called "senior bus" system operated by the privately funded, non-profit Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition (OCTN).

The OCTN bus provides door-to-door service for all riders in Twisp and Winthrop three days per week. "It is important that the current door-to-door service, serving the elderly and disabled community, be maintained and expanded wherever and whenever possible" by the new transportation authority, the draft states.

OCTN has been serving 70,000 elderly, disabled and, to a lesser extent, members of the general public, annually. But the grants and matching funds that have kept that private service alive are drying up, said Blake, and more funding cutbacks are expected.

The town of Winthrop used to contribute $2,000 annually to the non-profit OCTN, but Acheson said, "We were forced to cut that this year," as have other municipalities. 

Meanwhile, there's a growing need throughout a sparsely populated county the size of Connecticut for bus service that's designed to meet the needs of the general public, said Blake.  

Of the county's 41,120 residents, 19.5 percent live in poverty and 18 percent of the population is composed of seniors over 65, which is 5.7 percent higher than the state’s average. Seventeen percent of county residents are Hispanic, 6.4 percent higher than the state average. Median household income in the county is $38,551. The 2010 census showed that the county grew by 3.9 percent since the 2000 census, with growth higher specifically among seniors and Hispanics.“This growth pattern indicates an increasing need and opportunity for public transit, the document says.

The plan envisions passengers using the bus system to access such destinations as the county courthouse in Okanogan or employment in Omak, medical services, shopping centers, or community college and adult education centers. Commuters are expected to use it over the Loup Loup Highway between the Methow Valley and Okanogan Valley. The buses also could provide contractual service for such venues as music festivals in the Methow Valley and the Omak Stampede, the document notes.

To serve residents who live away from the bus routes, park-and-ride lots and vanpools may be added, the draft states.

The draft plan can be changed until August, when it must be submitted for the ballot, according to Acheson.

Okanogan attorney Melissa MacDougall has been appointed chair of the citizen’s advisory council that will lead the effort to provide information to the public about the ballot measure.

In addition to Acheson, Twisp town councilman Clay Hill serves on the nine-member Okanogan County Transit Authority, as does Okanogan County Commissioner Jim Detro.


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