By Ann McCreary
Even people who worked to put the Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA) proposal on the ballot were surprised by the strong support that Proposition 1 got from county voters in last week’s election.
“I’m surprised by the margin,” said Winthrop Mayor Dave Acheson, who serves on the planning board that has developed the transit proposal over the year.
“Going through this [planning] process, my belief was that all we could do was put a product on the ballot and people could decide whether it was worth the price we were charging,” Acheson said.
Voters made it clear that they were willing to pay for public transportation, agreeing by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent to impose a sales tax increase to support a county-wide public transit system.
“I scanned through the precinct results. In the Methow it passed overwhelmingly,” Acheson said. “By and large it looked like it was fairly well-supported across the county.”
“The result is kind of surprising,” said Omak Mayor Cindy Gagne, who serves as chairman of the OCTA board. She noted that voters rejected tax levy proposals for public safety in Omak, Brewster and Tonasket, but approved the transit district, “which could conceivably be a much larger tax than what was on the ballot for public safety.”
The new Transit Authority will be able to levy a sales tax of up to .04 percent, which would equal 4 cents on every $10 taxable purchase, and produce about $2 million a year.
The revenue generated through the sales tax will fund the operation, equipment, maintenance and facilities of a bus system with a hub in the Omak/Okanogan area and connections to and from other primary cities and towns in the county, including Winthrop, Twisp and Pateros.
From vision to reality
The concept for a county-wide bus system has been developed over the past year by a steering committee of government leaders representing cities and towns in Okanogan County. The group proposed a bus system designed to carry residents of far-flung communities to jobs, health care, education, shopping and government offices.
Now, Gagne said, they need to turn vision into reality.
“All we’ve had is this conceptual situation. There’s tons of work that needs to be done. We have governing documents and we have charted a course,” Gagne said. “Now starts a very long trek.”
The board will meet Nov. 21 to begin moving the program forward. “The first order of business, after congratulating each other, will be to advertise and hire a manager,” said Acheson. “That person will … bring expertise and skills to this that the board does not have.”
Sales taxes to support OCTA will be collected beginning Jan. 1, but won’t be dispersed until spring, Acheson said. “That doesn’t preclude conducting the search” for a director, he said.
A plan for OCTA was developed over the past year with grant money from the Washington Department of Transportation and expertise from the North Central Regional Transportation Planning Organization. The plan describes a phased start-up for the new bus system.
“The Transit Authority intends to implement this service over a period of time, phasing in routes and schedules as revenues, staffing and ridership develop. There will be several months after the sales tax vote where the Authority will be working just to set up its own administrative structure and providing core or ‘backbone routes’ with the highest ridership,” the plan states.
The new transit authority will coordinate with the Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition program (also known as the “senior bus”) that provides door-to-door service primarily for elderly and disabled passengers. According to the plan developed over the past year, some of the door-to-door services will increase in days and frequency.
Bus service to the Methow Valley is not anticipated to begin until 2015, according to the transportation plan. When fully implemented, buses would travel between the transit hub in Omak to Twisp and Winthrop six times a day, five days per week. Another route would serve Winthrop, Twisp and Pateros four times a day, five days per week.
The plan developed for OCTA did not determine whether the bus service would be free or require fares. If fares are adopted, the plan stated, “they should be nominal but large enough to pay for their own collection.” In most transit systems, fares only account for about 2-3 percent of the system’s total revenue, according to the report.