Grays Harbor Transit is discontinuing its tourist friendly shuttle services for local festivals, including the Festival of Lights conducted around Christmas-time in Montesano.
Transit Director Mark Carlin says that a re-examination of 2008 federal transit laws made him realize that the Transit service could be putting its federal grant funds in jeopardy. The thought is that government-owned Transit services should not be creating special services to directly compete with a private coach business.
The rules really came down hard on Transit services in the Puget Sound area and shut down special Seahawks and Mariners buses. Carlin said he honestly never thought the rules would impact small town services such as shuttling around residents and tourists in Montesano to look at Christmas lights. However, a recent examination by an expert with the state Department of Transportation led Carlin to believe different.
To be clear, Transit never received an audit finding from the State Auditor.
“But we don’t want to chance that it could happen,” Carlin said. “We received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal government and we don’t want to be on the hook for having to give all of that money back for doing these shuttle activities. It’s a shame they’ve tied our hands like that.”
Montesano Chamber President Dennis Brumbaugh says he’s disappointed that Transit won’t participate in this year’s Festival of Lights. He’s honestly not sure what they’ll do to replace the service.
“We’ve been doing this for 15 years,” Brumbaugh said. “This could put a hamper into the festivities.”
Typically, a good 500 to 600 people will stick around after the festival’s parade and board Transit buses that depart to the most colorful, light-filled spots in Montesano.
“We’ve provided 10 buses to the Festival of Lights,” Carlin said. “The drivers have loved it and so have we.”
The Transit Authority had made it a priority to keep the shuttle activities for festivals even in the wake of shutting down services on weekends and making changes to bus routes, scheduled to start on Sept. 2.
Besides the Festival of Lights, the annual Shorebird Festival in Hoquiam is impacted as is the shuttle for the Master Gardener’s tour and the Farm City Tour and the Cosmopolis Christmas Lights tours. The Shorebird Festival in particular could prove an issue since the buses take people from Hoquiam High School to the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge at nearby Bowerman Basin and there’s no parking for the thousands of people that attend the festival each year.
“You know, we talked about the impacts to the Festival of Lights because that is coming up here in a few months, but it never occurred to me the impacts it would have to the Shorebird Festival,” Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney said. “This could be a real serious issue that maybe our congressman needs to get involved with.”
Carlin said the only special shuttles still allowed is a specific exemption carved into the law allowing tours involving politicians. For instance, Transit has provided a bus for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, her staff and community leaders to tour the county before. That would still be allowed, Carlin said. Carlin said the exemption includes up to 80 hours of time to use buses for politicians. The exemption would also allow the annual Greater Grays Harbor Inc.’s Grays Harbor Showcase to continue using Transit buses, too.
“The joke is that we could get a politician to ride all of the buses needed for these festivals,” Carlin said.
Another alternative would be if Transit establishes a permanant route that goes through the Festival of Lights neighborhoods or from Hoquiam High School to the wildlife refuge.
“That’s not feasible,” Carlin said.