Twin Transit is exploring options of creating a countywide transit system after it was determined that the only bus routes servicing East Lewis County will no longer be available after June 30, 2019.
Lewis Mountain Highway Transit, which is operated by the White Pass Community Services Coalition, will no longer be able to afford its bus routes after the Washington State Department of Transportation increased the local funding match amount the transit organization needs to pay to remain operational.
Doug Hayden, executive director of the coalition, said the transit service is funded in large part by grants.
“Part of us not moving on beyond 2019 is that the Department of Transportation has continually increased our local match amount every biennium,” he said.
Hayden said the Lewis Mountain Highway Transit at first was responsible for 5 percent in local match funds, but that number has incrementally increased every biennium and now lands at 15 percent, with future increases set.
“There’s no way our organization could foot that,” he said, adding the match amount for the 2017-19 biennium for the transit service was $108,000. “We’ll remain in place until 2019 at least, and I’m very hopeful that the countywide transit will get pushed through or voted in and then I’ve kind of done what we were hoping to get done all along is to try to encourage more transit throughout Lewis County.”
The match amount is set to increase every biennium by 5 percent until the funding reaches a 50-50 threshold.
Rob LaFontaine, general manager of Twin Transit, said the conversation of a countywide transit system is nothing new. It first started in the late 1990s, but was put on pause and went relatively dormant until LaFontaine took over Twin Transit in 2011. Then the conversation started again, but since the area was still rebounding from the recession, it was determined the timing wasn’t right.
Now, since Lewis Mountain Highway Transit will no longer be able to afford its portion of funding for the necessary grants to stay operational, Twin Transit has once again started to look at expanding its reach.
“Their match obligation is getting up high enough that without a tax base, they can’t keep going,” LaFontaine said.
In order to establish a countywide transit system, each incorporated town or city would have to join the Twin Transit geographical boundary. In order for the expansion to be funded, each city would have to approve a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase within city limits.
Centralia and Chehalis would be exempt from voting, since the two cities already pay the two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax to fund Twin Transit.
Both LaFontaine and Hayden said many people in smaller communities already do much of their shopping in the Twin Cities, so they are already paying the sales tax, although they do not reap the rewards of a transit service in their area.
“By expanding the boundary, yes, it does add a sales tax to taxable goods and services inside the community, but most households I speculate would not see much of a change because many are already paying that tax inside of Centralia and Chehalis,” LaFontaine said.
By introducing a countywide transportation service, the transit opportunities would go beyond what Lewis Mountain Highway Transit currently serves, which includes Packwood, Mossyrock and Onalaska, among others.
In order for the measure to be in place before Lewis Mountain Highway Transit ceases operations at the end of June 2019, LaFontaine said, Twin Transit needs to know whether the expansion would occur before the fall of 2018, which is when the next grant funding cycle is.
If communities supported it, the funding mechanism will likely be on the ballot in fall 2017, or spring 2018, at the latest.
A lot of the conversations would happen within the jurisdictions of Lewis County that are not currently served by transit, LaFontaine said. Those discussions will boil down to commissioners Bobby Jackson and Gary Stamper, who both serve rural parts of the county, as well as the mayors and councilors of the towns and cities that do not have transit services.
“Right now until further exploration happens the sort of proposal would be to expand the transit authority to a countywide entity using our existing tax rate of two-tenths of a percent and then using that revenue that’s collected to provide bus service throughout the county,” LaFontaine said, adding Twin Transit would likely hire a consultant to do some research on the public sentiment and the costs associated with an expansion of this kind.
Lewis County is a minority when it comes to countywide transit systems. Surrounding counties of Pacific, Grays Harbor, Jefferson and Clallam all have countywide systems, according to LaFontaine.
Hayden said his goal has always been to have a countywide transit system, and he believes the time to act is now before services in East County come to an end.
“There’s a lot of people even with the east end, then you have Pe Ell, Toledo, Winlock and Napavine that really don’t have services,” he said. “It really would work better if there was one entity who could sort of coordinate, analyze and get funded to provide these services and figure out how best to cost effectively provide those services.”
Since its creation in January 1998, through February of this year, Lewis Mountain Highway Transit has provided 185,054 rides, with a monthly average of between 700 and 750 boardings.
LaFontaine said if the proposal went through, it would be a significant change for the outlying areas, and would likely trigger a name change for Twin Transit.
“This is really interesting and kind of an exciting discussion for those who depend on the service over there in the east end,” he said. “I suspect it could be somewhat of a scary conversation that the transit service some families may depend on or enjoy using has an uncertain future. Fortunately we have time to have discussions as a community about this and that’s basically where we’re at right now.”