Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bellingham Said Yes, Whatcom County Said No

The good news is the overwhelming majority (65%) of Bellingham voters support transit service. The bad news is the vast majority of Whatcom County voters outside of Bellingham voted strongly against preserving transit service.

The Bellingham Herald has a the vote breakdown at the end of a recent article discussing pending cuts to the system.

Breakdown of votes by city in the April 27 special election seeking a sales tax increase for WTA. These are preliminary numbers from the Whatcom County Auditor's Office.

Bellingham (47.4 percent voter turnout): 64.8 percent - yes; 35.2 percent - no.

Blaine (43.2 percent turnout): 45.2 percent - yes; 54.8 percent - no.

Everson (36.9 percent turnout): 31.9 percent - yes; 68.1 percent - no.

Ferndale (41.6 percent turnout): 46.7 percent - yes; 53.3 percent - no.

Lynden: (49.7 percent turnout): 30.6 percent - yes; 69.4 percent - no.

Nooksack (39.8 percent turnout): 30.9 percent - yes; 69.1 percent - no

Sumas (38.4 percent turnout): 39.4 percent - yes; 60.6 percent - no.

Unincorporated county (44.4 percent turnout): 39.3 percent - yes; 60.7 percent - no.

The debate the article focuses on is whether service should be cut less in Bellingham, which overwhelmingly supported the measure.

I wonder if this will spur a discussion in Whatcom County to shrink the service and taxing size of their Public Transportation Benefit District (PTBD). Intercity Transit in Olympia drastically shrunk their PTBD a few years ago in order to pass their last sales tax measure. As a result they have a smaller service size that has transit supportive densities. Since shrinking their PTBD they have been able to serve their community better while collecting taxes from less people. Transit agencies are often hesitant to discuss shrinking their boundaries due to the nature of their boards, which usually have elected representatives from communities that would be cut out of the PTBD if they were to shrink.

Another option to maintain bus service to transit supportive Bellingham would be to form a Transportation Benefit District. This would allow the Bellingham City Council to tax Bellingham residents with a small vehicle license fee, and buy extra service from WTA (perhaps to preserve service in the City on Sundays and evenings). Seattle has a similar arrangement and buys extra service from King County Metro

This is just a few ideas to consider as we consider the future of Pierce Transit, Whatcom Transportation, and other agencies that are on life support.

On a final note, as transit agencies across the state make tough choices about taxes and service cuts no help has come from the State Legislature or the Governor's Office. Washington State contributes less than 1% of the State's transportation dollars towards transit and gives agencies the volatile sales tax as their only option to fund operations.


  1. Tony the EconomistMay 5, 2010 at 8:45 AM

    It is long past time for WTA to shrink their taxing district. These results are not at all surprising. This has been the dynamic in Whatcom County for decades, as it has been in every other jurisdiction ever. Transit is an urban service. It simply does not function practically, economically or politically in rural areas.

    If the district were shrunk to the Bellingham UGA, WTA could easily get political support to max out their taxing authority AND add the vehicle license fee at the same time, but even more important, the WTA board would be comprised entirely of urban members, bringing an urban perspective and urban priorities to HOW that money is deployed.

    As it stands now, the board is only 1/3 Bellingham reps despite the fact that Bellingham generates 70% of the revenue for WTA and 90% of the ridership. (Those numbers a few years old, but I suspect the relative proportions have not changed much).

    WTA may want to include Ferndale in their shrunken PTBD, and possibly Blaine, but none of the other cities and definitely not the county (other than the UGA). Ferdale and Blaine came much closer to passing the measure than any of the other small cities; they are much more liberal than the other cities (though not as liberal as Bellingham); and they are both much more economically integrated with Bellingham due to their proximity to the I-5 corridor.

    It is hard to talk about shrinking the district, but shrinking the district as I have described would maintain service to something like 90% of WTA's current riders.

    With a supportive tax base, urban densities, and a focused urban board, WTA could increase service quality within the city(s) and actually end up with much higher ridership overall. If they play it right, WTA could emerge from this crisis stronger and more focused, and become one of the best transit agencies in the state.

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