Olympia should pay fair share for superior Amtrak service

The city of Olympia stumbled badly in its effort to get out of its contract to provide routine maintenance funding for the Amtrak Centennial Station near Lacey.

Olympia officials drew criticism from their counterparts in local government and the general public. Olympia officials deserve every bit of the derision directed at them.

Officials in Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County have an agreement with Intercity Transit to provide maintenance dollars to keep the Amtrak station in fine working order. Intercity Transit runs a regular bus route to the station to accommodate inbound and outbound passengers.

The Amtrak station off Yelm Highway is a gem. Longtime South Sound residents will remember the wooden shack at East Olympia off Rich Road that served for years as the local dropoff and pickup station. It was in the middle of nowhere with no transit service. Amtrak passengers had to use a pay phone at a nearby grocery store to arrange a ride into town.

The Amtrak shed offered a horrible first impression for passengers arriving in Olympia.

The community banded together and built the Centennial Station east of Ruddell Road in 1993. It’s been an outstanding addition to the community. Volunteers are the backbone of the operation, answering questions and helping passengers make connections.

Local government jurisdictions have paid the maintenance costs without complaint for years.

Each jurisdiction signed interlocal agreements with IT that run through 2013 to cover the $70,000-a-year maintenance costs. Amtrak pays a small amount – $8,619 this year. Amtrak does not provide any staff for the local train station. Amtrak’s main presence in the station is an automated kiosk where passengers can buy tickets.

The Centennial Station really is a community operation relying on community volunteers and the government jurisdictions accommodate their constituents by sharing in the modest costs for upkeep.

Out of the blue, Olympia balked. It contributed only half its $10,000 commitment last year and threatened to pull its entire share of funding for 2011. It’s a paltry sum – $11,067 out of the city’s $108 million budget. As councilwoman Karen Rogers noted, if the city can afford to spend $20,000 for artwork in the new city hall, then it darned well should be able to come up with under $12,000 for its share of maintenance costs at the Amtrak station.

If the other cities and county followed Olympia’s lead, the station would quickly fall into disrepair. Top-notch Amtrak service to South Sound would be jeopardized.

Olympia’s move was miserly and ill-advised.

Luckily, other elected officials called Olympia officials on their bone-headed move.

“I’m very frustrated with the City of Olympia right now,” said Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela.

Lacey Deputy Mayor Virgil Clarkson said Olympia should pay until its agreement expires at the end of 2013.

Tumwater Mayor Pete Kmet said, “It’s unfortunate that Olympia sort of pushed the issue this direction.” Olympia’s $11,067 contribution isn’t a lot of money, Kmet said.

Acknowledging the ill-will, Mayor Doug Mah nonetheless defended Olympia’s decision saying, “If $11,000 breaks the (interjurisdictional) relationship, I don’t know whether to say shame on us or shame on you.”

We have the answer: It’s shame on Olympia.

The Olympia City Council must back away from its threat and pay its full share of maintenance costs. Then officials from all the jurisdictions can get together this summer to determine how future maintenance costs will be covered. Intercity Transit has received voter approval for continued operations and may be able to fund the full amount.

If the cities and county continue as partners, the interlocal agreements must be standardized. They are not standard today.

It’s time for Olympia to step up, not retreat from its modest commitment to continue outstanding Amtrak service in South Sound.