Wally Wonders Why

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WTA

WTA is coming to the taxpayers for more money.  In their words, they say they need the increase to “maintain the existing amount of bus service or expand service.” My belief is that WTA is overspending it’s public funding right now, so I’d certainly hate to see them expand their overspending.

featureroutes WTA is not self supporting by a country mile and I see no indication that they are trying to move that direction.  Whether you use WTA or not, tax payers cover roughly 90% of WTA’s revenue, while actual riders only cover 10% for a service that they use.  For perspective, consider that the even the often maligned Lummi Island Ferry collects fares which cover half of their expenses.  WTA’s financing strategy is outrageously out of balance.

Expanding WTA service will only cost taxpayers more money because the routes with the highest ridership and therefore, most effective use of taxpayers money are already covered.  Additional routes will have less ridership and therefore be the most heavily subsidized routes.  WTA should be favoring the most ridden routes if they truly wish to both serve the public and be good stewards of our taxpayer dollars.

Our state and federal tax dollars also help prop up WTA. That’s right. While rider fares account for only about $2-$3 million per year towards operating expenses, we taxpayers are kicking in another $20 million or so for expenses and we are also paying another 5-6 million in state and federal taxes for capital projects like new buses and transit stations.

WTA is not an essential service in the same respect as Fire, Police, Medical.  I’d say that for the elderly and disabled, WTA’s Para Transit is leaning that direction, but in general though, not having bus service poses no threat to our immediate well being and there is no 911 option to have a bus dispatched to your home.  Yes, as much as WTA and many of their supporters would like us to believe, there are other ways to get around.   Scooter, friends, family, taxi, biking, walking and let’s face it, your car.  For many in Whatcom County a car in the driveway is way more essential than a bus that passes a mile away from your home.

snos WTA is not servicing the average person in Whatcom County.  Recently WTA conducted a survey which was to “measure the satisfaction of the general public and riders with services.” Yet the Herald article covering the survey failed to mention that half of the “general public” they surveyed live in Bellingham and almost half the riders of WTA were found to be WWU students.  If more money is to be sought for operating costs, WTA should look to those who are using their service.

WTA doesn’t have any publically stated goal of reducing their financial burden on the average Whatcom resident and they have no track record.  So, in a time when we are all taking a critical look at how we are spending our limited resources, WTA is asking us to dig into our pockets and pull out a  33% increase for them.

I am in no way opposed to WTA nor public transit systems in general, but my intention is to vote NO to this measure on April 27.

link to WTA budgets

11 Comments

  1. Hey Wally, thank you for the article about the levy. It’s good to be increasing awareness about the election.

    Some of your arguments are valid concerns, but there are some points I’d like to add for people to help in their decision-making process.

    1) Para-transit is an absolutely essential part of the WTA’s mission and, unfortunately, an extremely expensive endeavor. Without para-transit, seniors and disabled won’t have the freedom to be able to go to church, the doctor, or shop without calling their families (or an ambulance.)

    2) The WWU students you malign use only fixed route buses and pay far more than 10% of their ride. So do all people who take fixed route service, the number is closer to 30% for them.

    3) In terms of efficiency, you measure apples against apples, not oranges. WTA is the second most efficient system in the state, one of the fastest growing systems in the nation, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Every transit system operates on a public subsidy, even NYC’s transit does. It’s the value it produces for the community that makes it worth the cost. Reduced traffic for drivers, more parking in town, less wear and tear on roads.

    4) I’ve never once reached into my pocket for 33% and I think only saying the percentage is a scare tactic. I will reach into my pocket for the 2 cents per 10 dollars of purchase that it will cost in order to maintain Whatcom County’s bus service.

    5) There are NO state and federal funds for WTA’s operating budget. This is a complete falsehood. Their operations are completely funded by local sales tax, and fares.

    1. Jason, before I respond to some of the points you brought up, I wanted to make sure that people who have read your comment understand that you are the spokesperson for Transit Works, a group that is in favor of this tax increase and is heavily subsidized by the local transit union. You left that fact out here and on Patti Brooks blog over at KGMI and while it probably serves your cause to not mention your position, knowing your position helps people put your comments in perspective.

      Your points and my response:

      1) Para-transit is an absolutely essential part of the WTA’s mission and, unfortunately, an extremely expensive endeavor. Without para-transit, seniors and disabled won’t have the freedom to be able to go to church, the doctor, or shop without calling their families (or an ambulance.)

      I purposefully differentiated para-transit for some of the reasons you bring up.

      2) The WWU students you malign use only fixed route buses and pay far more than 10% of their ride. So do all people who take fixed route service, the number is closer to 30% for them.

      I don’t believe I maligned anyone. I brought up that in a WTA poll, students represented almost half the riders. From where I sit, I see that a student will pay $25/quarter for a bus pass. Isn’t that much less than the average Whatcom resident would be paying? I applaud, rather than malign students for taking this sweet deal. And wasn’t it the negotiation of this sweet deal that led to one of the biggest jumps in ridership for WTA?

      3) In terms of efficiency, you measure apples against apples, not oranges. WTA is the second most efficient system in the state, one of the fastest growing systems in the nation, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Every transit system operates on a public subsidy, even NYC’s transit does. It’s the value it produces for the community that makes it worth the cost. Reduced traffic for drivers, more parking in town, less wear and tear on roads.

      I think everyone agrees that some subsidy is needed to keep this system running and I’ve heard no one, save a crackpot or two, suggest that the system be shutdown. But people who pay for this have a right to question how much subsidy is fair, and they have a right to say no when asked for more. And when you tout the “second most efficient system” line it would be helpful to say what they are efficient at. Is WTA efficient at saving money or spending?

      4) I’ve never once reached into my pocket for 33% and I think only saying the percentage is a scare tactic. I will reach into my pocket for the 2 cents per 10 dollars of purchase that it will cost in order to maintain Whatcom County’s bus service.

      I agree, 2 cents isn’t very scary and I’m sure that is why those in favor of this increase seem so adamant about using the 2 cent thing. There is a saying about being nickel & dime’d to death and well, right now WTA gets just over a nickel at 6 cents and what they are asking for at 8 cents is getting closer to a dime. If we look at the 2010 WTA projection for sales tax revenue we see that the 6 cents translates to $17,700,000 in expected revenue and so the 2 cents that is so often downplayed really translates into another $5,900,000. And yes that is scary.

      5) There are NO state and federal funds for WTA’s operating budget. This is a complete falsehood. Their operations are completely funded by local sales tax, and fares.

      Yes, that is a complete falsehood, but I didn’t say that did I? I said,
      “we taxpayers are kicking in another $20 million or so for expenses and we are also paying another 5-6 million in state and federal taxes for capital projects like new buses and transit stations” I made a clear distinction because the $5-$6 million is in addition to what we already spend on the operating budget. And according to WTA’s budget we as state and federal taxpayers will be spending another $4,461,804 on 23 new buses and minibuses.

  2. I’m don’t work for anyone related this campaign. But as a WTA voter, this article is not persuasive. Nor, particularly, is the response to Jason’s comments. Here’s why I say that:

    1. Paratransit is an essential service, and both Jason and Wally seem to agree on this point. This acknowledgment alone justifies voting yes on the measure, as this investment is critical to the future of this service.

    But to leave this alone, paratransit users are not the only people who depend on WTA. All of Whatcom County, in one way or another, benefits from WTA.

    As both Jason and Wally go on to point out, a large number of college students rely on WTA to get to school, grocery stores, and home, as it is tough to pay for both a car and tuition while maintaining a full class schedule and working part-time.

    Given the incredible asset college students are for Whatcom County, it makes sense to invest in the services they need. If fewer college students can afford to get around Bellingham, fewer college students can afford to come to Bellingham at all. This hurts our community and hurts our future. Even if only college students used WTA (which is clearly not the case), it’d still be worth it.

    2. Students pay significantly more for transit than other transit-dependent populations.

    I addressed this largely in (1), but to reiterate the point neither Wally nor Jason addressed: Students spend thousands of dollars in Whatcom County and account for a large portion of the County’s economy.

    It is hardly unreasonable that we invest in this population through services like WTA, and doing so benefits everyone – not just transit riders – who lives, works, and does business in Whatcom County.

    3. WTA is efficient at saving money. They create more mobility at a lower cost than do many other transit systems, as Jason correctly points out.

    Let’s examine why: More appropriately than comparing WTA to other transit services, we should consider the return on our investment in WTA against the return on our investment in infrastructure for cars. When Whatcom County residents use more cars, we have to buy more roads, more traffic signals, more police and fire resources, more parking spaces, more stormwater drainage infrastructure… the list goes on and on, and taxpayers often foot the bill. If your goal is to lower the cost of services, you do it by making sure that cost is most efficiently used.

    Per person transported, WTA is far more efficient at moving people around.

    This is obviously a much smarter call. Without WTA, many more people will have to use cars, and by so doing, tax our car infrastructure (and our would-be citizen-chauffeurs) much more heavily. Given that money invested in WTA yields far more return than the same amount invested in cars, it’s far more efficient to go this route. In this way, WTA actually saves us money. (Whoa… weird.)

    4. It’s still only 2 cents per 10 dollars of purchases.

    Both Jason and Wally agree this is true. I think this is clearly more than worth it to keep a service operating that is essential for thousands of people, including seniors, students, and children who simply have no other means of efficiently – and independently – getting around. (For 2 cents.)

    The question I wish we could easily answer is how much more we’d lose economically if a large percentage of Whatcom County’s population is deprived of its mobility or is encouraged to overburden our roads, traffic, and emergency services. Either way, 2 cents seems awfully cheap for what we’re getting. Now if it was 2 dollars or something, maybe this would be an argument worth having… but it’s 2 cents.

    5. These federal and state initiatives lower the cost of WTA for local taxpayers.

    Even though we might indeed spend more through other budgets to help provide WTA services, these services – new buses and transit stations – also mean increased fare-paying ridership, lower daily maintenance costs, more energy-efficient buildings, and higher gas mileage. These mean lower costs.

    As a result of using better equipment and infrastructure, the amount required to operate WTA locally is reduced. So in other words, the federal and state investments in WTA are instead of local investments, not in addition.

    1. One simple point.  If as you say, "the amount required to operate WTA locally is reduced," then why are the unions and WTA asking for such a large increase?

      These have become rather lengthy posts and comments so here is my point in a little shorter form,

      • WTA is a worthwhile system and plays a vital role in our county, especially for those who have few alternatives.
      • For years, the people of this county have contributed over 90% of the money that WTA spends.
      • WTA has not shown significant improvement in the cost effectiveness of it’s operation.
      • It’s not the drivers, the mechanics, etc, it is WTA’s management that needs to more effectively use what we have given them.
      • The people of Whatcom County have not seen a 33% increase in our income, yet WTA, driven by their unions, are demanding that we pay them 33% more or they will cut service.
      • Given their past and current performance, WTA has taxed us enough already.

      I say no more.

  3. “One simple point. If as you say, “the amount required to operate WTA locally is reduced,” then why are the unions and WTA asking for such a large increase?”

    This is a reasonable question. I’ll try to answer it.

    It’s because one thing does not particularly have to do with another. Your argument, if I understand it correctly, was that the WTA receives state and federal funding in addition to its local support.

    My point was that this money replaces money we would have to spend locally if it were not spent. In other words, its operating budget would likely be larger if it were not for the state and federal spending on buses and stations that the service has received.

    There’s some nuance in this point: I’m not saying that we’d get new buses and transit centers with local funding if the state and federal governments had not funded them. I’m saying their daily overhead would likely cost more if they had not received new buses and transit centers that help to make their operating budget more efficient.

    I thought this was important to point out because the implication of your first post (to me) was that these improvements and equipment were a mere frivolity, at additional taxpayer expense, which to me is clearly not the case. They were not additional spending, they were improvements that saved taxpayers money somewhere else.

    I’ll take a moment to respond to your summarized argument in a second post, so that those interested may only read that post if they’re not concerned about your initial question:

  4. Your general argument against this investment is that WTA has not used its current funding wisely enough, and thus, must demand an increase. They should be able to do more with what the community already gives them, and therefore we should reject the levy.

    I could see this as perfectly reasonable if I were to consider WTA’s financial situation in a vacuum, and if I thought it was the only transportation infrastructure that is subsidized by the community in Whatcom County. I can’t do either of these things, though, so I just don’t find that argument persuasive. I don’t mean to go in another lengthy post, but I’d like to try to explain why I see things this way.

    First off, the revenue increase is not caused by some sudden mismanagement of WTA funds, as you seem to suggest in this argument. It’s a factor of two things: increasing ridership, or greater demand (in part due to recession), and decreasing revenue (due to the recession).

    Recessions always bring hard choices. Even with the levy, WTA is still planning to cut services and reduce overhead. But the severity of current times unfortunately requires us to choose between passing the levy and being unable to meet the mobility needs of significant portions of our community.

    For some people, the failure of this initiative will mean the inability to commute. They will be, effectively, paralyzed. Many have already had to eliminate their cars and switch to transit because of the recession, so this has the potential to make an already bad situation even worse.

    We all benefit significantly, in one way or another, from their ability to commute, and so, it seems worth it to keep people moving. Obviously it’d be much easier if we didn’t have to make this choice. But we do. It seems to me, in light of your argument, that we both agree that this service plays a “vital role in our community,” and is therefore worth benefiting from.

    For others, defeating the levy will not mean the inability to commute, but instead the limitation of transportation choices. This leads to a switch to more expensive and less efficient means of transportation. This eventuality may actually be a more persuasive reason to support the levy, because it will manifest immediately. This population includes college kids who will decide to drive, and pay for, a single-occupant car instead of commute by transit. It means high schoolers whose mom will drive them to an extracirricular activity instead of use the bus. It will mean seniors who must rely on their families or caretakers in order to go to church and to buy groceries.

    All of these changes to mobility patterns in our community are likely to be significantly more expensive than the levy. Not just for the transit riders, but for everyone else as well. It means increased congestion, traffic infrastructure, parking demand, and yes, much more taxes.

    But it also means increased time expense from families, parents, and friends. It will deprive many seniors of their independence and their mobility. To me, this is not a cost worth paying when compared with the meager cost (2 cents!) of keeping the service in operation in the face of increased demand and declining revenue.

    My argument then, in short form: It’s obvious our community should invest in transportation. It’s how we choose to do this (car-dependent or transit-equipped) that determines how much we get for how much we pay. If you feel like you’re taxed enough already, a feeling I understand, then you should probably vote FOR transit and not against it.

  5. I like how you say that WTA isn’t an essential service because people have cars. Everyone has cars? Well, what if people don’t have cars? What if people can’t legally drive? You’re right, transit isn’t necessary like police or fire is necessary; it’s only necessary like leaving the house is necessary.

    Some people can afford to fulfill that need with a personal car, but others are financially limited to the bus, and the bus has no large financial hurdle to get into. Name something besides walking that costs $1 to travel on if one doesn’t have it already. Heck, name me something that costs less than a monthly pass if one doesn’t have it already.

    I think this is why the regular passenger statistics is skewed away from the general population statistics, particularly toward students. When I worked, i used the bus occasionally; when I was paying for school I used the bus all the time because transportation expenses took away from what I could pay for school. My car cost me over $3000 in loans, insurance, and gas per year; the bus only a few hundred.
    Now that I’m not a student, I support WTA and other things even if I don’t use them as much. I remember how valuable the bus was for me when going to school, and even though it isn’t as valuable to me now, there are people who are in the shoes I used to be in and it’s still very valuable to them. Pulling the rug out from under them only makes it harder for people to improve out of the situation of needing some sort of public transit.

  6. btw, it’s also inaccurate to say “The people of Whatcom County have not seen a 33% increase in our income, yet WTA, driven by their unions, are demanding that we pay them 33% more or they will cut service.”

    WTA has seen a decrease in revenue via the sales tax. They are trying to fill that hole, which they had no hand in digging, by asking for a sales tax hike that will make up for lost revenue in order to continue as normal. They are not asking for a 33% revenue hill with which to rise and expand onto.

    If they don’t get a sales tax hike, they will cut service. Not because they want more money and are making threats. Because that is the only recourse left in balancing their budget with a sharp decline in sales tax revenue.

  7. In response to the last couple of comments.  I am not, nor do I know of anyone, who is proposing that we gut or shut down WTA.  And whether we talk about percentage increase or increase in revenue, WTA is asking for an increase that is out of step with local growth.

    taken or extrapolated from WTA budget sales tax revenue change from previous year change from 2008 a presumably good tax year.
    2008 actual $ 19,565,285    
    2009 last estimate $ 17,273,320 -12%  
    2010 without tax increase $ 17,700,000 2% -10%
    2010 with tax increase $ 23,600,000 37% 21%
           
    2011 estimate with tax increase if sales recover to 2008 level $ 26,087,047   33%

    If we believe, as many say, that we are in a dire financial situation, then why should we offer up a 20% increase in sales tax revenue?  And let’s not forget that there is no talk of this increase being just until things pick up.  If sales return to 2008 level then WTA will realize the full 33% increase in revenue and we will be paying it forever.

    1. Wally, almost everything you’ve said again here is addressed by my earlier comments. I hope your readers might take the time to read them and consider the bigger picture here, even if you don’t seem to.

      I agree no one is wanting to gut or shut down WTA. However, voting no in April, as you suggest we do, will have exactly that outcome. If we could avoid gutting WTA services without a tax increase, I’d love to do that. This option simply does not exist because, as you point out, local growth has been limited, and you just can’t get something for nothing. I’m sure we all wish we weren’t saddled with this difficult choice.

      Anyway, you asked a reasonable question, and I’ll gladly answer it:
      “f we believe, as many say, that we are in a dire financial situation, then why should we offer up a 20% increase in sales tax revenue?”

      Because, as I said earlier, we are in a dire financial situation. Desperate times call for desperate measures. They call for hard choices. Now is not the the time that we can afford the burden of increasing our infrastructure bill by lowering the efficiency of transportation in Whatcom County.

      Nor can Whatcom families afford the difficult choice of being unable to commute to work or having to purchase, insure, maintain and fuel cars. WTA is much cheaper to use than driving. Right now, more and more people cannot afford to drive everywhere.

      While I’m happy to repeat myself where necessary, I think this conversation is much more productive if we actually take the time to consider each other’s perspectives in context. I have taken the effort to recognize and respond to yours, and I hope you’ll do mine the same respect.

  8. I’ve read much of the pros and cons to approving proposition1. However, I don’t see a time limit on the sales tax increase. Eventually we’ll dig out of this recession. Will we then see WTA offer to give the .2% sales tax up? While I recognize WTA as facing a crisis, I don’t see a reason to provide anything more than emergency funding to bridge the gap until the econonmy picks up. I see proposition 1 as a play to not only cover this financial crisis, but to increase services when the economy picks up. I think we should provide a set % to WTA and have them spend within their means. So give them the .2% increase through 2012 and then revert it back down to .6%. I’m voting no on Prop 1. I would vote yes with a time limit.

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