Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Conversation with the Bellingham Herald

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down over coffee with Jared Paben, who is the transportation reporter at the Bellingham Herald. He is a bright guy who understands the intigrated aspects of our region's transportation system.

Today he put up a overview of our conversation on his traffic blog. Check it out here.

Transportation Choices Coalition: State needs to step up and help pay for transit service

I sat down a while back with Andrew Austin, who works at the group Transportation Choices Coalition, and learned a little about what the group is planning with regard to its legislative agenda.

First, the group would like to push the legislature to allow a voter-approved local option for funding transit. The problem, he said, is that even if Whatcom Transportation Authority and Pierce Transit, as examples, wanted to take all of the sales tax they legally can (up to nine-tenths of 1 percent of the sales tax) it would simply stave off cuts, not make the agencies economically sustainable.

“In the next few months we need to find a long-term sustainable funding source for … agencies to go to,” he said. “As we’re poising ourselves to recover from this recession, we need to be poising to grow our transit service, not shrink it.”

As many of you have heard, WTA is joining the ranks of other agencies looking at service cuts. Next year, it’s looking at possibly cutting 25 full-time positions, which means service cuts, including the loss of all Sunday service. It’s because sales tax revenues have taken a dive.

He think a motor-vehicle excise tax seems the most workable option. Currently, voters in an area like Whatcom County can’t vote to increase a motor vehicle excise tax to pay for transit service, but the legislature could change that.

Under the state Constitution, gas tax revenues that right now go to pay for highway projects can’t pay for transit service. Austin said they’d like to see a sales tax on gasoline that could pay for transit.

The legislature commissioned a report that will be delivered back to the legislature’s joint transportation committee, and the report will say which taxes might be palatable to the public (and thus our elected officials).

He blasted the legislature for its lack of interest in supporting transit, while the public, meanwhile, clamors for options other than driving alone, he said. The state doesn’t support transit like it should, he said.

“There’s not very many transit champions in the legislature,” he said.

I asked him about the bus service between Bellingham and Mount Vernon that I remembered was paid with state funds. That’s the only place where the state gives direct funding to transit service (not counting capital purchases), he said, adding that it’s $300,000 a year.

“That should be a model for the rest of the state,” he said.

The state does have four programs, called flexible account, with some funding that do the following: 1. Helps pay for Amtrak service. 2. Pay for Safe Routes to Schools projects 3. Commute trip reduction programs for large businesses, 4. Grant programs for transit capital spending.

The legislature “sucked” money from those program and put it into the roads account, he said.

In the short run, we need to work to fill those accounts again, Austin said, but in the next two to five years we need to find new revenues for highways and transit.

Anyway, this is just a summary of some notes I jotted while sitting down with Austin at The Bagelry a couple of Fridays ago.

What do you think about his ideas? What are you ideas for state transit (and highways, for that matter) spending?

Also, click here to see more on the state’s funding for transportation.

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