By Ann McCreary
It has no office, no computer, no phone, no mailbox, and very little money. But the Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA) has a newly appointed interim manager who has begun working toward putting buses on the roads of Okanogan County.
Last month Okanogan County voters approved a sales tax increase of up to four-tenths of 1 percent to fund a new countywide bus system, and this week the transit authority board of directors appointed Okanogan Mayor Michael Blake as interim manager.
Blake, appointed to a six-month term as part-time manager, said one of his first jobs will be to hire a full-time clerk who will also serve as secretary and treasurer of the transit authority. He will also be helping the board hire a permanent manager and open a business office.
Cindy Gagne, Omak mayor and chair of the OCTA board, said directors feel a responsibility to carry out the wishes of county residents who voted by a margin of 56 percent to 43 percent to tax themselves in order to fund public transportation.
“We believe our constituents want to see something. They want some action. The people who voted for it are excited about it and we don’t want them to be disheartened,” Gagne said.
Gagne said Blake, a county sheriff’s deputy who previously chaired the transit board, “has the energy and knowledge” to serve as interim manager. Blake’s term as mayor of Okanogan ends Dec. 31.
The new sales tax increase approved by voters is expected to generate about $2 million per year for OCTA. The tax revenues will start being collected in January and money from the tax won’t be available until spring.
Blake said his primary focus during 2014 will be putting the necessary systems in place to begin offering bus service running regular routes around Okanogan County in 2015.
“My goals are to get communication going now, get information out there,” Blake said. “My main goals are to get ready for 2015. Get contracts in place, get routes established, get signs and bus stops in place … so when we start running buses in 2015 people will know what it is and start riding. I don’t want to start running a bunch of buses and have them empty until people catch on.”
During the coming year, OCTA plans to contract with the Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition (OCTN) program, also known as the “senior bus.” OCTN is a nonprofit organization with a fleet of 13 buses that delivers meals and provides door-to-door and shuttle service primarily for elderly and disabled passengers.
“We will contract with OCTN, which will allow them to provide the same service they have and ensure it,” Blake said. “We’re going to bolster their budget and allow them to provide the same good service they’re giving and expand on it.”
He said OCTA will “work on our branding and name in order to establish recognition and help clear any confusion between OCTA and OCTN.”
The transit authority has approximately $3,000 in the bank and some funding that has been pledged to it, Blake said.
“This brings us some challenges in our crucial start-up period. With this in mind, we are going to be relying on the board and our stakeholders to help us with making this a successful program in Okanogan County,” Blake said.
The transit authority is guided by a board of directors made up of mayors of the principal municipalities and a county representative. The board this week established a preliminary budget that needs to be approved by county commissioners before the end of the year.
The long-term plan developed for OCTA calls for purchasing a fleet of buses and operating fixed routes throughout the county from a hub based in the Omak/Okanogan area. Blake said the first buses would likely be purchased at the beginning of 2015.
The ballot measure to fund public transportation received strong support among Methow Valley voters in last month’s election. The transit plan proposes regular weekday bus service between Winthrop, Twisp and Pateros, and between the Methow Valley and the Okanogan Valley.
“We will be working hard this year to get everything in place so that in 2015 we can see some new and expanded fixed bus routes in many areas of the county,” Blake said this week.
“We want to make sure that students attending schools such as Wenatchee Valley College North and Running Start programs can have affordable transportation to attend classes,” Blake said. “We need to provide low-income users their transportation needs to jobs throughout the area, as well as an affordable alternative to users for daily needs such as shopping and medical appointments.”
Blake said he hopes eventually to provide van share or other transportation to some of the larger remote employers such as Kinross Gold, Chief Joseph Dam and Grand Coulee Dam.
“I also want to see connections to our neighboring counties allowing a reliable method of travel to major transportation hubs,” he said.
Until OCTA has enough revenues to construct its own bus garages and maintenance facilities, Blake said he anticipates sharing existing facilities of OCTN or school districts to house the transit authority buses.
Blake said OCTA is seeking people to serve on a citizen advisory board. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.