By Shannon Hutchinson/ AS Board President
This week I won’t be summarizing the Board of Directors’ meeting, because on Wednesday I and the rest of the Board voted on a proposed alternative transportation fee. If it had passed, it would have affected every student at Western.
I was one of five who voted no and I want to tell you why. An important responsibility and privilege of mine is being your representative. My candidacy statement during elections rested heavily on accountability, and this column has been one way of upholding my promise.
I couldn’t justify putting the referendum on as it was written, so I voted against it. The idea was sustainable for the short run, but couldn’t be guaranteed over time.
Western students have multiple chances to implement transportation plans. We have only one chance to do it right.
To be clear, we voted on whether or not to place a proposed transportation fee referendum on the AS election ballot. The referendum failed in a vote of 2-5. This article directly addresses the reasons I voted against placing the referendum on the April 26-27 ballot.
I walked into the April 5 Board meeting planning to vote for in favor of putting the fee to a student vote.
I established my criteria for voting before the meeting:
•I am a steward of the Associated Students interests, so how would this affect each of our 13,000 students? Future students?
•Can I justify my decision to each student on campus?
•Is the budget and plan sustainable; will it be affordable to students over time?
•Are the major/minor details worked out?
If the vote had been solely on endorsing the idea of alternative transportation, we’d have had it easy. But we had to vote on whether we endorsed the details of the referendum, and in the end I didn’t.
As your president, it is my job to be a steward of the Associated Students. My candidacy statement outlines my goals, including “developing an efficient transportation plan that serves students living on and off-campus.” I will vote for a plan that successfully resolves Western students’ transportation problems. This fee would have needed to increase within a year or two to remain sustainable itself. The cost to students versus the benefit students would receive did not balance out.
As we spent nearly two hours in discussion, asking questions, pointing out potential impacts to the campus, and asking the WTA and University staff questions, important details of the proposed universal bus pass came forth, including:
•The WTA is extending the Blue “Go Line” on Bill McDonald Parkway, whether we charge a transportation fee or not.
The Blue Go Line currently runs buses every 15 minutes in each direction between the downtown station and campus, Monday through Saturday.
Regardless of our vote, the WTA plans to extend the line down Bill McDonald Parkway to Samish Way every 15 minutes Monday through Friday and three times an hour on Saturday.
This move is the result of meetings that the A.S. Transportation Advisory Committee and I conducted earlier this year with the WTA.
If approved by the WTA Board, service will begin in October.
•Students couldn’t ‘opt-out’ of the fee.
Students who commute, carpool, already walk, live in areas with little bus service, or never use a bus pass would still pay $19 a quarter.
Any student uninterested in riding a bus would still be charged $57 during the academic year.
The University of Washington has an opt-out option, where students can get a refund if they don’t want a bus pass. The A.S. Board inquired about the option, with Vice President Graves asking more than once, but the final working of the initiative did not offer the option. This mandatory participation added to the Board’s reservations about the fee.
•Unlike current bus passes, we couldn’t use the proposed bus pass to park in campus lots after 7 p.m.
Students are accustomed to placing their bus passes on their car dash to park in the lots after hours when studying, working out, going to club meetings, etc.
But Jim Shaw, WWU Director of Public Safety, explained Western wouldn’t be able to accommodate the higher demand for space generated by giving a pass to every student. The number of available parking spaces won’t increase just because 8,000 more students have passes.
The change would be unwelcome, as well as confusing. The loss of that option and the ticket citations when students mistakenly parked in the lots were also a concerns for Board members.
•Legislators set tuition increases, and notice when we voluntarily raise our own.
The Rec Center and Renewable Energy fees are self-imposed; students voted to approve them. Each fee is a part of your quarterly tuition costs.
Nick Cizek, WWU Legislative Liaison, spent the entire winter quarter living in Olympia, meeting with the members of the legislature, and lobbying to keep Western’s tuition increases as low as possible. He presented the Board with figures on Wednesday, showing how if the transportation fee is added to our tuition, Western will be paying the highest amount of student fees in the state.
Cizek strongly urged the Board to vote with caution. When students voluntarily assess themselves a fee, legislators may feel less inclined to keep our tuition low.
Cizek took part in last year’s discussions, which negotiated Western’s tuition increase down from 23 percent to six percent.
I am unsure what message state legislators would take from another self-assessed fee coming so closely on the heels of the Renewable fee last year ($31.50) and the Rec Center fee ($267). I also did not want risk finding out at the expense of students’ tuition costs!
•$485,435 of fee revenue would pay for the passes, leaving only $134,000.
We asked the WTA what new services they were giving us and they said… essentially nothing. We still buy each pass from them. With leftover money, we must still purchase more time, known as “service hours”, from them.
A student emailed me before Wednesday’s vote citing “the extra and guaranteed funds, the WTA could increase service and capacity to Western and surrounding areas” as a reason to support the referendum.
However, just one new bus route requires around 3,000 service hours. $134,000 would buy around 2,300 hours of new daytime service—nighttime service is more expensive. With thousands of additional Western students utilizing alternative transportation, it appears we would run out of seats on the bus for them. How much could we even promise with the more expensive nighttime service price?
After the meeting, a Western Front reporter asked me if I support alternative transportation, as if to say my not supporting the referendum’s language meant I don’t value buses, bicycles and walking as important modes of transportation.
Please allow me to clarify.
Given the fact that 8,000 additional students would be utilizing the bus service and no additional service would be added unless we purchased it, the referendum was not the sustainable opportunity Western students were searching for. With the four points I learned during the meeting, I went back to my criteria. I think the way the proposal was written, students would misinterpret the level of service they were receiving and the amount they would need to pay in the future to even maintain it.
I am hopeful this shows the level of analysis and deliberation I put my vote. I am confident this is not the end of the idea of an affordable bus pass for all students who want them. Western is fortunate to have student leaders who have worked on this idea for more than a year and I am sure a new proposal will come forward in the fall. Until then, I am here to meet with you if you would like to discuss the vote further! My office is located in Viking Union 504 and my email is AS.President@wwu.edu.
Copy of the Referendum Wording:
Sponsored and written by the Associated Students Transportation Advisory Committee.
Shall all students at Western Washington University be assessed a fee of $19 per quarter, to increase zero to five percent annually, for the purpose improving and expanding alternative transportation options including expanded bus service and improvements to bicycle and pedestrian amenities with the following conditions?
•All students shall receive a WTA bus pass.
•At least one late night bus will be established running until 2:30am Thursday thru Saturday during the academic year.
•A portion of the fee will be used to improve bicycle and pedestrian amenities on and near campus.
•The fee will be reviewed every 4 years and must be re-approved by a majority vote of the students in a special or general election in order to continue.
•The fee may increase up to 5 percent per year. The AS Board of Directors and WWU Board of Trustees must approve all fee increases. Any fee increase of more than 5 percent must be approved by a majority vote of the students in a special or general election.
•The implementation of the fee is contingent upon favorable contract negotiations between the AS, WWU administration and the transit service provider. Specific allocations of fee revenue will be researched, reviewed and recommended by a university committee composed of a majority of students, appointed by the AS Board of Directors. Final service contracts must be approved by both the AS Board of Directors and the WWU Board of Trustees. If a favorable agreement cannot be reached between the above-mentioned parties, no fee shall be assessed.