New tax might not save Dash shuttle

Jenna Ermold and Martin McCallum ride the free Intercity Transit Dash bus from downtown to the Capitol Campus on Wednesday. "My mom rides it all the time. She doesn't have a car," Ermold said. "I'm more worried about it for her mobility than I am for us."
Jenna Ermold and Martin McCallum ride the free Intercity Transit Dash bus from downtown to the Capitol Campus on Wednesday. "My mom rides it all the time. She doesn't have a car," Ermold said. "I'm more worried about it for her mobility than I am for us." The Olympian

OLYMPIA - Intercity Transit is considering cutting back service on the Dash shuttle, the free bus service between the Capitol Campus and the Olympia Farmers Market.

The service was likely to be eliminated if voters didn’t approve a sales-tax increase of two-tenths of a cent in the August primary, transit officials warned. Although the measure passed, the agency still is considering scaling back the line – perhaps only running it during the legislative session. The agency also is considering shuttering the line, but spokeswoman Meg Kester said she thinks that’s unlikely.

No decisions have been made, she said. People can tell the transit agency’s nine-member board what they think at a public hearing Sept. 1. The board could approve cuts Sept. 15, Kester said.

She said the agency would have looked at cuts regardless of the fate of the tax measure.

Now that it has passed, it’s not a matter of whether the agency can afford the bus line but whether it’s a good use of tax dollars, Kester said. It costs almost $700,000 per year to run.

“The evaluation of the shuttle’s performance is obviously still timely and appropriate,” she said.

A key reason for the cuts is that ridership has dropped since the state closed its 144-space Wheeler Street visitors lot in 2008 to build the new Department of Information Services complex, Kester said. The lot was a hub of the shuttle; the transit agency leased 55 of those stalls for monthly parking for $12.50 a month.

When the lot closed, “we saw a very real and almost immediate result in terms of negative impact to Dash shuttle use,” Kester said.

An average of 660 people rode the shuttle daily during the legislative session this year, down from 820 last year and 750 in 2008, Intercity Transit figures show. Off-session ridership this year is 300 per day, down from 305 in 2009, 360 in 2008 and 490 in 2007, according to the figures.

Ridership of the shuttle when the legislature isn’t in session hasn’t met the agency’s expectations.

Intercity Transit’s board is looking at several options:

 • Cut service when the legislature isn’t in session, saving $450,245.

 • Cut Dash entirely in 2011, saving $694,110.

 • Implement a combination of cuts. Eliminate Saturday service when the legislature is out, saving $53,295. And reduce the frequency of service – a bus comes every 15 minutes instead of 12 minutes during the legislative session – saving $79,369. The bus already comes every 15 minutes during the off-session and every 10 minutes during its Saturday hours.

The Dash shuttle started in 2006 to encourage state workers, tourists and shoppers to travel from the Capitol to downtown.

Potential cuts concern city and business leaders.

“The city’s position is that we want to keep the Dash,” said Councilwoman Karen Rogers, who also sits on Intercity Transit’s board. “It is a valued service in our downtown as well as amongst our workers on the Capitol Campus.”

Rogers said she understands minor cuts.

“I wouldn’t want to see the weekdays cut or Saturday, for that matter, because those are good shopping days,” she said. “I could understand cutting back service after the session’s over in the interim.”

She said the city should consider contributing to the shuttle’s budget. Ridership could be increased by rerouting the shuttle by other parking lots that could pick up the slack caused by the closure of the Wheeler lot.

“We need to look for other opportunities for other partners,” she said. “We also need to make sure that we’re encouraging the Dash as much as possible.”

Jim Erskine, a spokesman for the state Department of General Administration, said the state has attempted to replace the parking that was lost with the closure of the Wheeler lot. In 2008, it opened a lot at Jefferson Street and Maple Park Drive, essentially across the street, with 51 visitor stalls. In 2009, the state opened up 68 stalls in the area of 11th Avenue and Franklin Street. That totals 139 stalls, just shy of the 144 stalls at Wheeler.

Confusion from the Wheeler lot closure may have deterred people. It was closed in May 2008 in anticipation of the start of the Department of Information Services project. But the Legislature put the project on hold, so the lot reopened in December 2008. By June 2009, the project was back on and the lot was closed again.

“Did closure of the Wheeler lot affect ridership at Dash? I don’t know,” Erskine said. “It certainly could have.”

He said the state hasn’t been approached for financial support for the Dash, but he pointed out it’s not exactly flush with cash now. The state supports the concept of the shuttle, though.

“We want to support them,” he said. “We want to make access to the Capitol Campus as easy as possible. We hope that it’s a successful program for them.”

Connie Lorenz, executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association, said downtown businesses really like the shuttle. She said it offers people downtown an opportunity not to get back in their cars for short trips.

“It’s really easy now to get on the Dash, take it down there, do my shopping. It makes a lot of sense,” she said. “I don’t want to lose Dash.”

Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869 mbatcheldor@theolympian.com