Whatcom Transit Authority Strategic Plan Redux 2015
by Preston Schiller
Preston Schiller did the research and preliminary planning that led to the highly successful express routes connecting Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Oak Harbor and Everett. He has taught courses in transportion and transit planning and sustainable transportation at WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment, Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning and, currently, the University of Washington’s Civil and Environmental Engineering School’s Master’s in Sustainable Transportation.
Annual Bus Ridership 2000–2013 (link opens in new browser tab)
In 2015 the Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA), our county-wide transit system will begin a strategic planning process aimed at building upon and bringing up-to-date the strategic plan formulated in 2003-2004. During 2004 I wrote several articles illuminating what the main issues confronting WTA were and suggesting ways that they could or should be addressed. (archived at whatcomwatch.org; May 2004, June 2004, October-November 2004 and a related article August 2010).
Many citizens, some quite expert in transportation planning, became involved in the multitude of meetings and deliberations that surrounded that process; many involved citizens urged WTA to move away from its tired thirty-year-old “Business As Usual (BAU)” way of doing transit and embrace a newer, more productive approach. Two former mayors of Bellingham (Asmundson and Douglas) added their voices to this chorus along with several other elected officials, such as former Councilmember Barbara Ryan. Whole classes of planning students at WWU’s Huxley College of the Environment devoted research efforts to helping WTA identify the places and manner in which transit would be most helpful to the student populace. Involved persons pushed and tugged at WTA and got it to move a little in a more productive direction at the end of this process:
• There would be “frequency routes” (more frequent weekday service) as part of a “Primary Transit Network Initiative” in certain key corridors--or at least for segments of key corridors.
• The overly large number of routes would be simplified a little and reduced as a few very unproductive routes were eliminated and others were tweaked to improve their performance.
WTA has met these objectives, more or less, and has also greatly improved its marketing, branding and outreach. WTA’s staff and drivers are competent and cordial. Its bus shelters are much more attractive and its signage and branding much improved. Its bus fleet has been somewhat diversified from “one (large) size fits all,” and its buses, always clean and well-maintained, are even more inviting to riders than before.
WTA has been very supportive of the Whatcom Council of Governments (WCOG) “Smart Trips” program that has attracted thousands of citizens to transit, walking and bicycling. These improvements among others, such as the WWU students adopting a mandatory fee-based bus pass for all have led to a near doubling of ridership over the past decade. Well done, WTA.
Abandon Antiquated Planning Model
But WTA has not been able to wean itself of its decades old planning rubric; the bringing together of most routes in a periodic pulse at its overly large downtown transit center. While its planning mode may have made sense 30 to 40 years ago when the service was in its infancy, and when this approach maximized the utility of a small bus fleet, it is a very inefficient and underproductive way of providing transit in a growing city and expanding market. It also necessitates a much larger than necessary downtown transit center, itself a very inefficient organizing feature, one that also works against “user friendliness.”
A much more effective planning modality would consist of moving towards greater frequency on all major routes (assuming they are all well-planned) and modifying many routes so that they are longer (at present the pulse system dictates that routes can only be multiples of 25 minutes or less in order to pulse with other routes, which leads to sometimes curious route configurations as well as other problems). With sufficiently frequent headways the wait time between frequent buses is greatly diminished and the value of a transfer pulse is obviated. This issue, as well as a number of related (and still unsolved or unaddressed) issues were addressed in considerable detail in the 2004 Whatcom Watch articles as is a broader view of the importance of transit—when well done—to cities, economies and the environment and citizens seeking more information are directed there.
to a Bad Start
If the RFP (Request For Proposal) issued by WTA for a consultant to undertake most of the work in planning and overseeing the strategic planning process is any indication, then those who want a more rational and relevant plan are in for another rough ride — almost shades of 2003-2004 when a great many citizens had to come forward to move the process in a more productive direction. In fact, questions should be raised about the whole arrangement wherein agencies find it preferable to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a person or persons who will come in for a short while, read the tea leaves of the staff and board, steer the whole process in a somewhat pre-ordained direction and get out of town quickly when done — leaving behind no more expertise and capability in the agency than when they began.
In addition to the usual verbiage that fill RFPs the WTA’s Stratetic Plan RFP proposed scope of work includes the following curious items under “B. Overview of Engagement:”
3. Informing the public and stakeholders about tradeoffs when discussing service design and capital plans. Trade-offs include:
a. Designing a service model that prioritizes equity for small cities (Sunday and evening service) may result in reducing the high frequency ‘Go Line’ service in Bellingham.
b. Providing an increasing amount of service to Western Washington University to meet that demand may require reducing service elsewhere.
c. Designing a service model that maximizes ridership (boardings) may not be the same model that maximizes a reduction in greenhouse gases.
If I may interpret: “The consultant shall broker discussions along the lines of: ‘This is a zero sum game … small cities where few ride the bus or contribute much to WTA’s revenues deserve even more service at the expense of big bad Bellingham … when we add service somewhere it will result in service cuts elsewhere ... growing ridership, getting more persons out of cars and onto buses, may result in more pollution … (perhaps even hasten the flooding of the waterfront redevelopment area?)’” Go figure, I can’t.
More Promising Aspects of the Strategic Plan
The RFP appears to have been released without consultation with either the City of Bellingham or appropriate input from Western Washington University — the largest transit destination in the WTA system. It might be a different RFP if these interests had helped to shape it. No doubt WTA was planning to “consult” them after a scope of work had already been locked in.
There are a few more hopeful aspects to the RFP’s Scope of Work, ones that might potentially lead to an improved plan:
(5.) Providing expertise on successful service models in other communities to inform the specific service scenarios developed at WTA. …
(7.) Supporting WTA staff in developing specific service plan scenarios and providing insight into what has worked in other communities. Multiple service scenarios will be designed based on financial assumptions and to illustrate the effect of tradeoffs.
Take Another Look at Bolder Boulder
In 2001 and 2002, I organized a series of visits from Boulder, CO, officials and a trip to Boulder for several Bellingham and WTA officials and planners, including then Mayor Asmundson and Councilmember Barbara Ryan. It was an exchange hoping to open local minds to how that city became a leader in transportation innovation, including developing a super-performing local transit system.
That city’s bolder approach was too bold for Bellingham and WTA to follow. Some aspects, however, influenced some of the 2004 Strategic Plan as well as the development of a Bellingham Transportation Commission, finally realized in 2010. Did WTA not learn from this exchange? Meanwhile Boulder continues to improve on transit, walking and cycling fronts: In a city where 70 percent of the citizens acquire transit Eco Passes, the city government is seriously discussing how that figure could become one hundred percent, perhaps even county-wide. Several applicable lessons from Boulder are also summarized in the 2004 and 2010 Whatcom Watch articles referenced above.
What Could/Should Strategic Plan Address?
Some of the more important issues that the 2015 Strategic Planning Process could and should address are:
• How can WTA and its most important client, Bellingham, integrate and coordinate their planning efforts to the benefit of each? How will WTA assist Bellingham in meeting its growth management goals that call for a significant increase in the share of trips taken by transit in coming years?
• How can WTA move away from its current inefficient downtown-pulse based system to a true frequency service? While not easy, it can be done. For the past six years I have been advising the transit system in Kingston, ON, on how to do just that. Slowly some routes are being transformed into frequent fast express routes that do not necessarily pulse with others. Kingston Transit is reaping the benefits of significant ridership increases from the new routes.
Fortunately, there are two excellent models of transit planning within relatively easy reach of Bellingham. The TransLink system of Vancouver (BC) and the Tri-Met transit system of the Portland region have been changing and improving their route structures over the past several decades while growing their ridership. More frequent non-pulsing services on some better planned routes could lead to shrinking the size of the large downtown transit center, built to accommodate the pulsing of up to 20 buses or more at the same time, to a smaller, more user friendly and lower maintenance costing transit center. Since WWU accounts for the lion’s share of WTA riders, should not there be a good transit and transfer center there?
• How can WTA reverse the ridership losses it experienced by raising fares and eliminating transfers at the same time? Because of its route and pulsing structure, most riders must transfer for crosstown trips. While this is not much of a financial penalty for transit pass holders — and WTA’s pass costs are fortunately quite affordable for frequent riders—it has discouraged less frequent riders resulting in the 2009–2010 pronounced loss of riders (see bus ridership chart on facing page.)
• How can WTA overcome the problems associated with its current governance structure that allows a majority of non-Bellingham board members (six of nine) to dictate the decisions affecting Bellingham — where 80 percent of WTA’s riders are and which generates 80 percent of its revenues? The non-Bellingham tightwads are not willing to raise taxes by even a tiny amount to support this vital service; they almost seem to be on the board to keep Bellingham from benefitting from better transit.
Well-intended legislators crafted the 1970s legislation that enables transit services like WTA to exist (Public Transportation Benefit Areas or PTBAs, RCW36.57A) They were trying to salvage the wreckages of transit left behind as private providers were hastily retreating from such services, but the PTBA-dictated governance structure does not truly benefit the current situation of cities like Bellingham. If WTA is incapable of resolving its inequitable treatment of Bellingham then, perhaps, Bellingham should be exploring ways of withdrawing from the PTBA as structured and forming its own.
• What can WTA do to lower it high costs? Examining the National Transit Database (NTD) 2012 Full Reporters (Report), one finds that WTA’s bus operating costs of $123 per bus hour (total operating costs/total revenue hours) are relatively high compared to several of its peers. By comparison, Skagit Transit’s per hour cost is $102. One also has the impression that WTA’s overhead is relatively high. Simply lowering its costs could allow WTA to expand its services.
• What should be done about the current expensive Bellingham subsidization of WTA’s Sunday transit in the city? Bellingham voters were willing to tax themselves to support this service when, in 2009-2010, WTA cut the service due to its loss at a county-wide tax levy vote — which passed handily in Bellingham but lost by a wide margin in the county. Bellingham passed a levy supporting a Transportation Benefit District that funds Sunday transit along with walking and cycling improvements and street maintenance. City funding of Sunday transit has become controversial since WTA’s financial situation has improved considerably since 2009-2010. The City of Bellingham currently pays almost $1.5 million annually at the rate of $155 per bus per hour, and WTA is telling the City it will have to pay $161.55 per bus per hour in 2015 and likely more when and if the contract is renewed in 2016. Is this a bargain for Bellingham? (see the section “Transportation Benefit District: Good Idea, Flawed Proposal, Wrong Tax” in “Bellingham’s TIPsy Transportation Planning and Policy” in the August 2010 Whatcom Watch)
• How can WTA become more transparent and user-friendly? As noted above, WTA has admirably improved its marketing, branding and outreach. But it can go further. At present its major source of user information, the Transit Guide, is a weighty 121 pages not changed or much simplified over many years. One hundred twenty-one pages? Give me a break — better yet, give me a frequent bus so that I don’t have to thumb through dozens of pages to find the one that gives me the information I need. True, the online trip planner helps, but one still needs to consult the WTA encyclopedia for much information, especially when not all riders walk around with a computer in their pocket. And it lacks an easy pull-out map of the whole system. Many transit systems, some much larger than WTA, manage to have a very legible system map and schedules for each route as well as other vital information on one large folding map.
• There are other issues beyond the fixed-route bus planning and financing that should be addressed, such as the very costly specialized (paratransit) services. An examination of these costs, often as much as one-third of an agency’s costs, are beyond the scope of this article.
It is not too late for WTA to change the course of the strategic planning process to address many of the above issues. It could quickly begin meeting with Bellingham’s Transportation Commission and transportation planners as well as representatives from WWU’s student government and administration. It could amend the RFP’s scope to address issues more important than some of the ones identified in its current form. These could only improve the outcome of the strategic planning process and increase the effectiveness of transit in the future.