Olympia might restore its maintenance funding for the Amtrak Centennial Station near Lacey for this year, but the future funding arrangement might be different. That was the takeaway from a meeting Thursday at Intercity Transit headquarters involving seven Thurston County jurisdictions, all of which have provided money over the years to fund the train station.
The meeting was prompted by the Olympia City Council’s decision not to pay its share of the maintenance for 2011 – $11,067 – citing the bad economy. Leaders at Thursday night’s meeting expressed frustration with Olympia’s decision and discussed how to both fill the immediate shortfall and fund the station in the future.
Olympia Mayor Doug Mah said he would bring the funding issue back to the City Council to reconsider, but with conditions – that a case be made for how the station is performing, and to enumerate a list of alternative funding sources that will be pursued.
“What’s the plan for moving to something more sustainable?” Mah said.
County Commissioner Sandra Romero, who chaired the meeting, said a letter would be drafted addressing those concerns.
The meeting brought together representatives from Thurston County, Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Yelm, the Port of Olympia and Intercity Transit.
Centennial Station, at 6600 Yelm Highway S.E. just outside the Lacey city limits, operates in an unusual way for a train station. It was built by volunteers in 1993 to replace an old shed in East Olympia where the train once stopped. It had no services. The station was sold to Intercity Transit, which provides maintenance, and since, each of the jurisdictions has agreed to help pay for it. Each signed interlocal agreements that run through 2013 to help pay for the maintenance, which costs about $70,000 per year.
Amtrak pays a small amount – $8,619 this year – and doesn’t provide staffers for the station. Its main presence in the station is an automated kiosk where passengers can buy tickets.
Volunteers staff the station and assist customers. Some were at Thursday’s meeting; they have offered to pick up janitorial and other duties.
Representatives of several jurisdictions criticized Olympia leaders for dropping the allocation.
“I’m very frustrated with the City of Olympia right now,” said Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela. “I think to risk your interjurisdictional relationship over $5,000 doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Lacey Deputy Mayor Virgil Clarkson corrected Valenzuela, saying the amount is $11,000.
Clarkson voiced two main concerns. One is that Olympia’s and Thurston County’s agreements allow them to not pay for a given year, but the other jurisdictions don’t get such allocations. In any case, he said, Olympia should pay until its agreement expires at the end of 2013.
“I just think that this is an obligation that the city should carry forth,” he said.
Tumwater Mayor Pete Kmet said it’s appropriate to re-evaluate whether the maintenance arrangement is good policy, but “it’s unfortunate that Olympia sort of pushed the issue this direction.” Olympia’s $11,067 contribution isn’t a lot of money, he added.
Mah defended Olympia’s decision.
“If $11,000 breaks the (interjurisdictional) relationship, I don’t know whether to say shame on us or shame on you,” he said.
Several alternative funding sources for the station have been studied, including a parking fee at Centennial Station and a surcharge on tickets. But it’s unclear whether the city could recoup expenses for installing a collection mechanism, and Amtrak has expressed uncertainty over whether it could legally charge a fee on tickets.
Intercity Transit General Manager Mike Harbour said he could explore the ticket surcharge but expressed reluctance in running a pay parking lot in a remote location.
Romero, also the chairwoman of Intercity Transit, pointed out that Olympia benefits from Intercity Transit’s Dash shuttle, and the other jurisdictions do not.
“Let’s have cooler heads about how we can keep this station open,” she said.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 firstname.lastname@example.org