by Preston L. Schiller
The Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA) provides many useful services to many citizens in Bellingham and a few destinations outside of the major Whatcom County city. Its buses are clean and comfortable, and its staff at all levels is friendly and helpful. At present it is engaged in a strategic plan update. In previous articles going back several months and years (at Whatcom Watch’s website for Feb. 2015, Oct.-Nov. 2004, June 2004, May 2004), this author has provided a comprehensive critique of WTA as well as suggestions for making transit better. The following is a list of “Top 10 Strategic Issues that are under discussion” drawn up by WTA staff and a consultant for discussion with the several citizens and public officials formally involved in discussions of its planning in progress.
Since the author does not believe that this list represents good transit planning thinking, but rather political expedience aimed at appeasing its rural-dominated board, a point-by-point critique is offered for each WTA item (starting with the author’s initials PLS). At the end of the critique are a few suggestions for improving this process.
It is important to note that 93 percent of WTA’s ridership is within Bellingham and the vast majority of its funding comes from within Bellingham. Citizens and public officials concerned about transit, growth management and efficient use of public funds should pay heed to this matter.
WTA: 1. Consistency with previous strategic plan. WTA’s 2004 Strategic Plan placed a high priority on helping the City of Bellingham meet infill goals and develop urban villages through the creation of high frequency “GO Lines.” That plan envisioned the continued development of GO Lines as funds became available. Compared to other needs, is that still a high priority?
PLS: Would it not be better to expand or extend the successful GO lines rather than bump them to a lower priority (in favor of inefficient rural service expansions done mainly for political reasons?). WTA’s planning should try to help Bellingham meet Growth Management and mode-share targets in its plans.
WTA: 2. Balance between Bellingham and non-Bellingham services. Throughout our community outreach, many have voiced their concerns that the majority of people out in the county (those who do not live in Bellingham) are seeing little improvement in transit service while Bellingham’s service has improved considerably. For the sake of this Strategic Plan, what is the right balance, and what service types make the most sense for which areas?
PLS: The transit planning rule of thumb is that you need a density of at least 7 residences per residential acre to make minimal service work. Much of Bellingham probably does not meet that threshold; probably none of Ferndale/Lynden or other sprawling smaller towns in Whatcom County. Transit ridership prospects in these areas are both dim and costly. Should we cut service in Bellingham—where transit has the best chance of working—in order to fund empty or half-empty buses to other locations?
WTA: 3. Increasing demand and costs for paratransit service. We’re beginning to see increased ridership on paratransit. Unlike fixed-route service, paratransit costs generally rise in direct proportion to increases in demand. This trend continues to consume a higher percentage of WTA’s resources, yet carries a comparatively low number of riders. This issue is not unique to WTA; transit systems all over the country are facing similar situations.
PLS: Such services can cost as much as ten times (or more) the cost of regular bus services per rider. They also consume an inordinate share of WTA’s overall budget. According to WTA statistics and reporting, it is far less expensive to contract with taxicabs for many of the trips now handled by the paratransit buses — especially those that do not involve wheelchairs. There could also be substantial savings in contracting out the remaining paratransit services to a private provider rather than having them under WTA’s very expensive hourly rates and overhead. This is being done by many similarly-sized transit agencies in the U.S. and Canada. WTA could also do much more in terms of screening those persons asking for such services to assure that only those truly in need take advantage of it. Introducing flexible regular bus services (already equipped with low floors, kneeling entries, wheelchair areas, etc.) that are able to deviate from fixed routes to board some persons at or close to their residences could also reduce some of these costs.
WTA: 4. Limitations of flex routes. WTA offers flex routes in three rural areas. This hybrid — between fixed route and demand responsive service — improves our ability to serve people who live in these sparsely populated areas. In at least one area however, Blaine/Birch Bay, the popularity of flexing is making it difficult for us to stay on schedule while keeping up with the demand. How do we solve this problem without creating more challenges?
PLS: WTA’s schedule problems are a direct outcome of an outdated and outmoded service planning framework (i.e., downtown pulse) change that planning framework and flex will work almost everywhere in the system. Additionally, you can shrink rather than expand the downtown Bellingham transit center. Well-designed flex routing can also handle some of the current demand for costly paratransit services.
WTA: 5. Service to Western Washington University. Ridership demand for service to and from WWU is very high. As the proportion of students living off-campus has grown, demand has continued to increase. In addition, since introducing the universal bus pass (which provides unlimited rides to all WWU students), we have seen large growth in ridership among students who live within a mile of campus. WTA is providing significant additional resources to accommodate them. Some people feel the resources WTA dedicates to serving WWU is out of balance with the needs of the rest of the community.
PLS: WWU students already support WTA financially through the Alternative Transportation Fee. Getting students out of cars and onto buses also alleviates traffic on many key arterials. WWU’s support of WTA probably is subsidizing some of the services outside of Bellingham. True, WWU could make itself more bicycle friendly and encourage students living nearby to walk or bike. WTA should identify who are the “some people” who feel that WTA should cut services to WWU so we can have a broader discussion.
WTA: 6. Appropriate levels of reserves. Over the past several years, WTA’s undesignated reserves have been growing. What is the right balance between saving for a rainy day (to avoid cutting service in an economic downturn, for example) and spending resources on service to the community?
PLS: Transit agencies do need substantial reserves for two reasons: firstly, to be able to meet once-a-decade fleet replacements; and, secondly to be able to cope with economic downturns; But the levels of reserves should be discussed in the context of overall financial planning and efficiency measures.
WTA: 7. Customer-focused information technology costs versus benefits and other opportunities. Do the benefits of major technology projects (real-time arrival information, for example) justify the cost to implement and maintain them? How much of our resources should we invest in technology at the expense of more service?
PLS: WTA should definitely join the rest of the transit profession in offering these rider-attracting services — many of which are not very expensive and some involve software that can be shared with other agencies. Many people in Bellingham (current or potential riders) have mobile devices that can take advantage of these.
WTA: 8. Bellingham Station. Twice each hour during the day, Bellingham Station is at full capacity. As the community grows and service increases, WTA will need to consider either expanding the facility or significantly changing the layout of our system.
PLS: This “capacity problem” is a self-inflicted wound – an artifact of the outmoded/outgrown pulse system and poorly-crafted route structure. Abandoning the pulse and reorganizing or combining routes so that key routes are longer or more direct between origins and destinations and crossing some other routes to facilitate transfers outside of downtown could mean that Bellingham Station could be reduced in size and made easier for passengers to find buses and execute transfers.
WTA: 9. Contracting with other entities to provide services. How much should we pursue contracts for service?
PLS: This could be a very reasonable approach to certain services whose costs greatly exceed their benefits.
WTA: 10. Evening and weekend service. We provide significantly less service on evenings and weekends compared to weekdays. Riders in our survey identified increased evening and weekend service as a top priority.
PLS: Yes, evening and weekend service is important, especially in a city with large student ridership, and many discretionary evening and weekend trips for shopping, services and recreation that could be accommodated by transit.
PLS: What can or should be done in this planning process to help WTA serve those most likely to use its services rather than simply appease the majority of its board (see below, Suggestions).
A Few Suggestions for Future Transportation Planning
1. Read the Whatcom Watch WTA article for Feb. 2015 as well as several older, but still relevant articles, archived at whatcomwatch.org; May 2004, June 2004, October-November 2004 and a related article August 2010.
2. While there are a few members of the city of Bellingham’s Transportation Commission serving on the WTA strategic planning advisory committees, their expertise and potential contributions are being dwarfed by numerous other committee members who appear to be fully willing to go along with materials (such as the 10 WTA points critiqued above) rather than educate themselves on transit and planning issues. The City Council, mayor and staff, should involve themselves more directly in this process and try to prevent WTA’s planning from being hijacked by rural minorities.
3. The WTA strategic planning process should follow good planning practices and create visions of a “transit future” and then work back from a consensus vision through scenarios in order to achieve a meaningful plan. That should involve, at the very least, a “clean slate” or “how would we re-design the whole system?” scenario. Route planning and resource allocation should be guided by various available tools for analyzing where the greatest potential growth of ridership could or should occur.