(Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

(Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

County takes on scheduling Community Van rides

Pilot program renewed on island for two years.

King County Metro’s Community Van is on the move.

The two-year rideshare pilot, started on the island in association with the Vashon Chamber of Commerce, has been extended and will now be managed by the Department of Local Services.

Spokesperson Jerry Pionk said the transition will not affect service and that riders and drivers may continue to request upcoming trips by calling either 206-773-7003 or 206-625-4500. He added that islanders have embraced the community van, shuttling small and large groups on a reservation-basis scheduled in advance to destinations both on Vashon and off as a way to supplement regular bus service in the county.

The county’s goal is to help narrow existing transportation gaps in rural and unincorporated areas — Metro also offers community van service in Duvall, Bothell, North Kirkland and Shoreline.

“We’re going to make an earnest and honest effort to continue this [pilot],” said Pionk.

In the absence of other means of getting around on Vashon, it is not uncommon to read posts on social media from islanders organizing trips of their own into the city, inviting others to join, or even for pedestrians to flag down a lift into town. The community van, however, is intended for use during planned group excursions. Indemnity and liability issues are behind the reasons the department can’t provide a more direct, single passenger service such as calling up an Uber.

Pionk added that Metro will continue to evaluate transportation needs in the county and look for opportunities where the van pilot can be of most help to the user groups that rely on it.

Among the community van’s benefits to the community, those close to the program say, is its service for disabled people.

When Cindy Weiss’s elderly mother broke her hip in a fall last month, she knew the recovery ahead would be difficult, as would connecting with specialists and making appointments.

Then, Weiss said, she was given abrupt notice that her mother, who is currently dependant on a wheelchair, had to leave rehab in Burien. That left Weiss scrambling to make transportation arrangements between her home on Vashon, where her mother is now living, and doctor’s offices on the mainland.

Her options were limited. The Cabulance Wheelchair Transport service from Tri-Med was prohibitively expensive. King County’s Access van has a lengthy application and assessment process, and Weiss couldn’t afford to wait.

“I’m trying to take care of her myself, so every penny counts,” she said.

Then she said she found out about the community van. Metro’s fleet on Vashon consists of three vehicles, and each is handicapped accessible.

Weiss made a reservation for a ride, and on the day of her mother’s next medical appointment, they were off.

“When someone is in a wheelchair, it’s really hard,” said Weiss. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without the community van.”

David Daw, Department of Local Services’ External Relations Manager, said that the island’s vans are deployed for an average of 12 regular outings a week, primarily by local nonprofits.

“If ridership goes up, there [may be] an opportunity to increase the number of vans as well,” he said. “If the community keeps saying there’s a need for it, I truly believe it’s going to become a general program with Metro.”

Cathy Snow, who heads the Alternative Services Program, said the earliest that will be considered is sometime next year. She added that not everything Metro has tried with the community van has been successful. Early on in the pilot, they tried to integrate the Real-Time Rideshare mobile app with van service county-wide, promoting flexible carpooling by queuing stops along the driver’s route to pick up other riders. But she said that didn’t prove to be viable where it was tested, including on the island.

Still, the community van has come a long way, she said.

“To get service so well established, so that we have a steady group of riders and a steady number of trips, that in itself is a huge milestone,” she said.

Metro shoulders all of the costs for the pilot. General operating expenses include regular vehicle maintenance and insurance for the vehicles, plus the salary for the community transportation coordinator, who schedules the rides. Snow said that has amounted to about $17,000 so far this year for the Vashon Community van, adding up to roughly $40,000 a year.

“Now we’re looking to get the ball rolling and grow it even further in terms of that exposure to the community,” she said.

Jim Marsh, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said one of the challenges of jumpstarting the van pilot was to take it from concept to reality, working within the constraints of the county’s public transit system. One requirement is that the van must have at least two riders in order to operate, and Metro is adamant that rule is kept in place. Volunteer drivers must be approved to get behind the wheel, and every trip needs to be publicized.

“Our role has been to make it happen. Overall, it’s been good,” he said, adding that the chamber opted to discontinue its contract with Metro because it makes more sense for the Local Services department to take over and for the chamber to focus on what it does best.

Local Services will rent space in the chamber office so the new transportation coordinator can be close by to the vans, which will remain parked in the lot behind The Beachcomber.

“I am impressed with the way [Local Services] keeps trying to serve Vashon,” said Marsh. “They’re listening and trying to use what tools they have to serve island transportation needs, so I’m impressed with that.”

He noted that crossing the island to locations east of town or west of anywhere on the island remains problematic and that it is still difficult for islanders who can’t drive to travel where they need to go.

“If you’re one car per family and the car breaks down, aside from calling your friends it’s hard to get around,” he said.

There is no regular taxi or shuttle service at night after the bars close. Shuttles to the many events hosted throughout the year on Vashon aren’t guaranteed, though Marsh said he was appreciative of the county’s willingness to add extra bus and water taxi service during the annual Strawberry Festival this year. The chamber estimates that 40,000 people attended over the span of the weekend, and he attributes much of that to the impact of greater accessibility.

He added that islander Janet Welt, who was Metro’s community transportation coordinator since the pilot was first launched on Vashon, is responsible for how widely the vehicles are now used.

Welt negotiated with Metro and Washington State Ferries (WSF) to make the community van suit Vashon’s needs, initiating the conversations that implemented fare waivers for some crossings of the island. She advocated for low-income riders and those with limited mobility and got WSF on board with priority loading of the van at the dock.

“I don’t think we would have had gotten as far as much as inroads [go] to making it a successful program without her determination,” said Marsh.

For her part, Welt, who is losing her job in this transition, said both transportation agencies were supportive of her ideas.

“It does take some time for the government entities to work together and figure it out, but there’s really great people and teams on this. So it happened,” she said.

What she valued most about her job was helping islanders, she added.

“The challenges were the same as the rewards in a lot of ways,” she said. “I am proud of the way [the community van] has grown and absolutely see it continuing and flourishing and helping to serve these needs.”

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