The future of the Amtrak Centennial Station in Lacey will be the subject of a special meeting of Thurston County’s major jurisdictions today at Intercity Transit headquarters.
The transit authority owns the station, at 6600 Yelm Highway S.E. in Lacey, and six other local jurisdictions have agreed to help provide maintenance funding since it was built in 1993. But Olympia pulled its funding for 2011, citing revenue losses caused by the recession.
Representatives from Thurston County, Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Yelm, the Port of Olympia and Intercity Transit are expected at today’s meeting.
Olympia owed $11,067 for 2011, according to a population-based formula from Intercity Transit.
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City Manager Steve Hall proposed cutting funding for the station in the city’s 2011 budget, citing major cuts at the city over the past two years, including more than 9 percent of the staff.
“It just is a fact of the city having fewer resources and trying to focus on our core services,” he said. He proposed that Intercity Transit pick up the cost of maintenance.
“Centennial station is a great asset to the area, and I hope it’s important enough to the transit authority that we can keep it going,” Hall said.
Mike Harbour, the general manager of Intercity Transit, is concerned that Olympia’s withdrawal “will mandate other jurisdictions increase their costs or Intercity Transit will make up the difference,” he wrote in an e-mail to Hall.
In an interview, Harbour said the transit authority has indicated it does not want to cover the whole maintenance cost, although it hasn’t taken a final position.
The funding arrangement for the station is unusual, but the train depot itself is extraordinary, perhaps the only volunteer-built and -run station in the nation.
Before the station was built in 2003, trains stopped at a small shed off Rich Road in East Olympia. It had no staff or services. Local train buffs wanted better.
A volunteer effort was launched to raise money and build the station on a piece of Thurston County property on Yelm Highway. It then was deeded to Intercity Transit, and the transit authority struck agreements with the localities to share maintenance costs. The latest agreements run through 2013.
Until now, maintenance funding hasn’t been an issue. But the recession, which has caused Olympia to make millions of dollars in budget cuts, changed that.
The city cut funding from about $10,000 to $5,000 in the 2010 budget, and Intercity Transit picked up the shortfall, said spokeswoman Meg Kester. Then the council chose to eliminate funding in 2011. The agreement allows the city to drop funding.
“There didn’t seem to be any strong agreement among council to renew the agreement as it stands now,” said Olympia Councilman Stephen Buxbaum, the chairman of the city’s finance committee. “I think our strongest interest at this point is getting all the parties to the table and talking about cost, talking about the potential for other ways to fund the station.”
Mayor Doug Mah, who planned to attend today’s meeting, suggested Intercity Transit take over maintenance.
“Is this a core service to be provided by cities or is it a core service to be provided by the regional transportation authority?” he asked.
But Councilwoman Karen Rogers, the city’s representative to Intercity Transit, said the city should pay up.
“The council must honor its word and pay its fair share,” she said in a statement. “With a $108 million budget – and after spending $20k on art for the new city hall – there’s no excuse for breaking its word.”
Total maintenance funding for the station each year is about $70,000, relatively little because volunteers provide the staffing. About 50 people staff the station, help with luggage, answer questions and manage the station, said Rich DeGarmo, president of the Centennial Station Committee. The volunteer program has proved so popular that there’s a waiting list, he said.
“We asked Amtrak to staff it in the beginning,” he said. “Their common answer: ‘No. We don’t have the money.’”
He and other volunteers raised money to build the station.
“The only entity that gave us anything was the Department of Transportation, State of Washington rail branch, basically gave us the parking lot on the south side of the station,” he said.
That Park & Ride lot provides 130 free spaces that are available to anybody, not just train riders, Kester said. The station is becoming more popular; passenger boardings were up 9 percent in 2010 to 60,600, she said.
There are no Amtrak staff members at the station.
Several funding sources for the station have been suggested, according to Intercity Transit, including a parking fee at the station and a station-use fee to be included in tickets. But it’s unclear whether the city could recoup expenses for installing a collection mechanism, and Amtrak is uncertain whether it could legally charge a fee on tickets, according to Intercity Transit.
Given how long the maintenance agreements have been in place, “I suppose you could speculate that the funding issue would come up sooner or later,” Kester said. “It’s a good discussion for all of us to have.”
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 firstname.lastname@example.org