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  Okanogan County Transportation
photoThe "senior bus," operated by Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition, waits, plugged in against the cold, at the Methow Valley Senior Center. - Photo by Solveig Torvik


Though no final decision has been made, a measure to raise the sales tax to provide county-wide public transportation could be on the ballot as early as this November, according to Twisp town councilman Clay Hill.

The Okanogan County Public Transportation Board Authority, composed of nine elected officials including Hill, will decide whether now is the time to establish a tax-funded public transportation system, he said.

But before deciding whether to put a measure on the ballot, the board wants input from citizens, he said. It will appoint an advisory council to help elected officials on the board shape a transportation system.

“Now is the time to come and get involved,” Hill said, adding that he hopes stakeholders such as health care workers, charities that serve the poor and large employers will offer information to the board. “They need to give input to the decision-making board, specifically as to the menu of services that are important to the community,” Hill told Grist.

photoTwisp Councilman Clay Hill is on the Transportation Board

A “proposed services plan” and a “public outreach strategy” are on the agenda for discussion at the board’s public meeting Tues., Jan. 29 at 5:30 p.m. at the Okanogan Behavioral Health Care building at 1007 Koala Rd. in Omak, Hill said.

“I have to prosecute hundreds of cases a year for people who have suspended driver’s licenses or no license,” Hill, an Okanogan County deputy prosecuting attorney, told a Jan. 11 meeting of the Social Services Roundtable in Twisp, explaining his interest in public transportation.

In the three years he’s been a deputy prosecutor, Hill said he’s found that “about one-third of the district court caseload” is made up of individuals arrested or cited for driving with a suspended or invalid license.

“Our courts are flooded with people who need to drive,” but can't legally, he added. “It’s never made a whole lot of sense to me. Why are we imposing a $500 fine on somebody who has no money?”

A similar transportation measure proposed by the board was turned down by voters in 1997, said Hill, and the board has been largely dormant until last summer. “Now it’s fully up and running again,” said Hill, and working with the Regional Transportation Authority in Wenatchee to explore options.

The need for a local public transportation system has popped up time and again in surveys of valley problems needing to be solved. The surveys indicate residents need solutions for getting to work, doctor’s appointments, grocery store, meetings, social activities and special events.

In the Methow Valley, a number of privately funded, piece-meal solutions are offered, including reliance on family and friends, volunteer drivers, the white senior bus, the Gabby Cabby taxi service and the ski trail seasonal shuttle. The Okanogan County Transportation Network, a non-profit with uncertain funding, is the only public transportation in the county. But, said Hill, “There are more needs than we have service.”

Hill explained at the Roundtable that the law allows an increase in the sales tax up to 5/10ths of one percent for public transit. “Our board is looking at something more like 4/10ths,” he said, adding that at 3/10ths the system would likely be limited to the white buses that exist now. For 4/10ths voters would get a “more robust option with your own equipment and someplace to house it,” he said. At the 5/10th level, Hill told Grist that county citizens would have “a full spectrum of mass transit service.”

A report to be made at the Jan. 29 meeting will provide a better idea of what can be offered for 4/10ths of a percent increase in the sales tax, Hill said, adding it would likely be a “hub and spoke” transit system, maybe using vanpools instead of shuttle buses in locations such as the Methow Valley.

“A lot of it’s going to have to come from the Methow,” Hill said of the effort needed to establish a public transit system in the county.


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