Intercity Transit ready for transportation challenges

One might expect Intercity Transit ridership to drop off a bit when fuel prices fall, as they have this summer.

After all, use of the Olympia-based public transit system shoots up every time gas prices do.

But guess again. It looks like once residents start using a bus or van pool to commute to work or school, they maintain an allegiance to public transportation, even when gas prices fall.

It’s a testament to the appeal of the services that Intercity Transit provides: Reliable public transportation that reduces commuter costs, cuts down on traffic congestion from single-occupancy cars and makes a local dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s what the numbers show: In 2008, when gasoline prices jumped to around $4.25 per gallon, riders on Intercity Transit’s fixed routes climbed to about 4.3 million. When gas prices dropped back down to $2.50 per gallon in 2009, the ridership numbers remained unchanged, then started to climb again as gas prices soared in 2011 and early in 2012.

During the recent decline in gas prices of nearly $1 per gallon, IT ridership has again held steady.

“We just haven’t noticed ridership falling off as gas prices decrease,” IT general manager Mike Harbour told The Olympian editorial board last week.

That’s good. Because Intercity Transit has plenty of other challenges to deal with. For instance, sales tax revenue that supports 75 percent of IT’s operating expenses is down some 8.4 percent since the Great Recession started leaving its mark on the local economy in 2008.

The voters approved a sales tax increase of 0.2 cents in 2010 and bus passengers accepted a fare increase of 33 percent in 2009. Federal funding for public transportation continues to be uncertain because Congress can’t find the political gumption to commit to long-range public transit funding, opting instead for short-term legislative extensions.

Now, with the economy still struggling but demand for Intercity Transit bus and van pool services on the rise, the local elected officials and citizens who comprise the Intercity Transit Authority are just starting discussions about another fare increase. Without one, they’re not sure how long they can maintain the level of service they provide, especially as long as economic recovery is more of a dream than a reality here in South Sound.

Intercity Transit has a reputation for using a transparent public process when it embarks on rate hike proposals. The board and IT staff must maintain that same inclusive approach to fare-setting in the months ahead.

One area that IT continues to invest in heavily is its 30-year-old van pool program, and for good reason. The program designed for long-distance commutes to workplaces outside the county, especially Pierce and King counties, grew 27 percent from 2007 to 2011.

Some 1,550 participants pile into 213 vans each day, traveling an average of nearly 70 miles a day. It’s one of IT’s more cost-effective programs with users paying 96 percent of the van pool operating costs.

More importantly, the vans are helping to reduce traffic congestion on Interstate 5, including the traffic bottlenecks around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

IT’s express transit service between Olympia and Tacoma is another traffic congestion-buster, moving nearly 111,000 passengers the first six months of 2012.

Another IT project should help with I-5 traffic congestion when it opens this fall. It’s the Hawks Prairie Park & Ride built atop an old landfill at the Thurston County Waste and Recovery Center off I-5 Exit 111. The 325 parking spaces will encourage motorists to pool their resources, taking more cars off the freeway.

IT always has been a leader in public transportation under the leadership of Harbour and his staff. They’ll be tested in the years ahead, but they are up to the task.