Transit tax hike raises only lukewarm local interest

Published on Thu, Mar 7, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Transit tax hike raises only lukewarm local interest

By Meg Olson

Next Tuesday county voters will be asked to raise the sales tax by a fraction of a percent to support current public transit levels. While the proposal has sparked some heated debate in other parts of the county, the issue has sparked more ho-hum than heat in Blaine and Birch Bay.

“It doesn’t seem to be a major issue of concern one way or another,” said Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce president Nick Jerns. “Sometimes there are issues that will get people up and thumping the pulpit and that just hasn’t happened with this one.” Blaine Chamber of Commerce president Pam Christianson said they had not taken an official position. “We really haven’t discussed it,” she said. Blaine city council also voted not to take a position on the issue.

The proposition on the ballot in Tuesday’s special election is to double the transit portion of the county sales tax, raising it from 0.3 percent, approved by voters in 1983, to 0.6 percent. If the increase passes, the sales tax in Blaine would increase from 7.9 to 8.2 percent, collecting an additional three cents per ten-dollar purchase. According to city finance director Meredith Riley, this would generate approximately $200,000 additional dollars in the city of Blaine for the Whatcom Transit Authority (WTA).

WTA transportation services specialist Rick Nicholson said the increase would fill the gap left by the elimination of state funding through the motor vehicle excise tax. Today, he said, the WTA budget was roughly made up of fares (10 percent), sales tax and matching federal funds (45 percent), and money drawn from the agency’s reserves (45 percent). “We can’t continue on like this,” he said. To stop drawing down reserves, he said the WTA had to either raise that money through increased taxes, or by cutting service. With fares representing such a small portion of the WTA operating budget, even a doubling or tripling of the 50-cent fare would not make up enough to fill the gap, he said. “There’s a reason transit is public,” Nicholson said. “Twenty or 30 years ago all the private companies went out of business and the taxpayers had to decide if they still wanted a transit system.”

If the proposed tax increase fails, the WTA board has announced they will not look for other sources of tax dollars, such as claiming back a chunk of vehicle excise tax, but will implement a service reduction plan. It is expected to cut fixed route bus service countywide by 46 percent, specialized transportation and Dial-A-Ride service by more than half. “Nobody would get through this unscathed but there would certainly be a public process,” Nicholson said. “For a cut this substantial we would hold community meetings in all areas affected.”

Local indifference could be linked to local service levels – there’s not much to cut.

WTA service to Blaine and Birch Bay now consists of one fixed route, the 70X, which runs two morning and two evening round trips connecting Blaine, Ferndale and Bellingham. Last year, there were 27,662 riders on the 70X, up 6.5 percent from the previous year. One third of riders were going between Blaine and Bellingham while the other two-thirds were based at the Peace Arch outlet mall or in Ferndale. Almost 40 percent of riders were students and commuters using passes, and 12 percent used senior or disabled passes. Almost eight percent used the bike rack, compared with less than two percent countywide.

Blaine and Birch Bay also have one of three Dial-A-Ride programs in the county, under which passengers call for a bus to pick them up and take them where they need to go in the service area or to a place to connect with the 70X. There were just shy of 9,000 Dial-A-Ride trips locally last year, serving approximately 300 individuals. “It doesn’t seem like a big number, but if you figure 6,000 people in our service area it’s five percent, not out of line with what other transit systems serve,” said WTA manager of specialized transportation Cris Colburn.

No cuts are planned to 70X service if the tax increase fails, but the local Dial-A-Ride service would be cut by 50 percent said Colburn, adding the system had already been trimmed for efficiency in recent years by eliminating areas where demand was low, such as Semiahmoo and Birch Point. “The demand for services is enough to keep us busy in the smaller service area,” he said. Further reductions would limit the hours of Dial-a-Ride availability, now 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays, to more closely match when the 70X runs. Mid-day trips between Blaine and Birch Bay would be eliminated. Hours of operation for specialized services for disabled passengers would also be cut, but the Safety Net system for seniors and people with disabilities would remain.

Jerns said while the Birch Bay chamber has not taken an official position on the sales tax increase, he felt from personal discussions that most members supported it over a gas or excise tax hike, or the elimination of service. “Some people really depend on it and to lose it would be awful for them,” he said. “We’ve kind of made our own bed,” he added regarding voter approval of initiative 695 that eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax. “We’ve limited ourselves in one area and we’ll have to make it up somewhere.”

City council member John Liebert agreed a tax increase was better than chopping transit. “If we’re going to maintain the viability of transit in the Blaine area it has to go up,” he said. “You don’t get more if you don’t pay more.” A retired Blaine high school teacher now teaching at the Timber Ridge school, Liebert said young people were especially hit by transit reductions. “If we limit transit we limit their opportunities,” he said.

Christianson was more dubious. “We voted for the first sales tax and we got all this service, then they took it away again,” she said, referring to cuts to 70X service and the elimination of the Stella trolley bus to Birch Bay. “If we’re going to pay more we should get more and we want Birch Bay included again.”

Nicholson said further steps to make the system more efficient and to fill gaps in service were part of the WTA’s long-term plans, which include a review of fares. “They need to look at the moneys being spent, the routes and the fares, but that has to be in the future,” said Blaine mayor Dieter Schugt. “Right now we have to hold onto what we have.”..

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