BY ANN McCREARY
Local voters will probably have a chance to decide in November if they are willing to pay 4 cents on every $10 purchase to fund a new public transportation system in Okanogan County.
The proposed transit system would provide regular daily bus service linking Okanogan County communities, including three round trips on weekdays between Winthrop and Omak and two round trips between Winthrop and Pateros.
Called the Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA), the bus system would be created and funded through a voter-approved sales tax. Plans for the transit system have been developed over the past nine months under the direction of a board of local elected officials representing Winthrop, Twisp, Omak, Okanogan, Pateros, Tonasket, Oroville, Brewster and Okanogan County.
In a meeting Monday (June 24) the board voted to place the proposed sales tax increase on the election ballot in November. However, the board must first raise the $8,000-$9,000 needed to cover the cost of putting the proposal on the ballot.
The board also decided to ask the councils of communities that would be served by the bus system to endorse the ballot measure.
The OCTA board was split in its decision to send the tax measure to the voters, with representatives from Omak and Tonasket voting against putting the proposal before county voters this fall. Both town representatives said they felt uncomfortable asking voters to support that amount of sales tax increase.
“It was a difficult vote because I do believe in what we’re trying to achieve with OCTA, but at the same time I felt like four-tenths of a percent wasn’t something the community could support or I could support,” said Jake Dalton, Omak building official, representing that city.
“I felt pretty confident it was going to pass [the OCTA board] anyway,” Dalton said.
Clayton Hill, a Twisp Council member and Twisp’s representative on the transit board, said the amount of sales tax being requested was determined to be the minimum amount needed to support a dependable transit system serving all the communities. The four-tenths of a percent is expected to produce about $2 million in annual revenue for the bus system.
“The point is with that level you can get service that’s meaningful,” Hill said. “Unless you have something that’s regular and five days a week, people can’t use it to go to work, they can’t incorporate it into their lives.”
Hill said the board members had discussed lower sales tax amounts, such as .2 percent, but he said the Methow Valley would not be served by the bus system at that funding level.
“We’re at a critical crossroads,” Hill said. “If this goes down to defeat the Methow Valley will never see an alignment with the rest of Okanogan County to put a potential tax increase on the ballot” for public transportation, Hill said.
“For folks in the Methow, it’s their one shot to get public transportation, not only to Omak but up and down the valley, from Pateros to Winthrop,” Hill added.
The proposed bus system would serve the most populated corridors in rural Okanogan County from a hub in the Omak/Okanogan area, transporting passengers to medical, educational and retail centers. Okanogan County, slightly larger in size than Connecticut, is the largest county in Washington state, and has 41,120 residents.
A nonprofit organization called “Get on the Bus” has been formed to campaign for the transit proposal. Headed by Melissa MacDougall, an Okanogan attorney, the organization is independent of the OCTA board and will be working to raise money for an informational campaign aimed at passing the sales tax measure. MacDougall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 846-6405.
The transportation plan was developed with help from the North Central Regional Transportation Planning Organization in Wenatchee and the Washington State Department of Transportation.