Current students might take the ease of travelling on Whatcom Transportation Authority busses for granted. Students have a new bus pass scanned onto their ID cards each year, and continue on their way, swiping and riding for what seems to be a free fare.
This situation has only been the case for the past five years. In spring of 2007, Western and the Associated Students created a contract with WTA that led to the implementation of the Alternative Transportation Fee, a $25 per quarter fee for students taking six or more credits. Students taking between one and five credits can opt in. This year, the contract expired and the AS and WTA have established a new contract.
Although WTA and Western have been in a contractual relationship for more than twenty years, before the convergence of the Alternative Transportation Fee with the student bus pass, Western students would have to seek out and purchase a WTA student pass on their own.
The pass, which is available to all students in Whatcom County, costs $40 per quarter through WTA. However, because of the Alternative Transportation Fee, the cost is lowered to $25 per quarter with $18 going directly back to WTA.
In negotiating the new contract, WTA Director of Service Development Rick Nicholson said WTA wanted to make sure the revenues they currently receive would not be less than the amount they could otherwise gain if students had to independently buy the student pass.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re in this contract losing money,” Nicholson said. “We’re also not trying to be in a situation where we’re making money on it. We’re trying as best as we can to estimate what our actual revenue from the fare box would be if there were no contract and then let that be the basis for what we charge the university in the contract.”
In the new contract, WTA raised its prices with proposed increases each year. This year, Western will pay WTA $731,844 of the projected $1,057,719 received from the Alternative Transportation Fee. This price will increase about 8 percent each year in the five-year contract until 2016, when WTA will receive a proposed $933,618. As of now, the Alternative Transportation Fee of $25 per quarter for students taking six or more credits will not change.
“Western is our single biggest client base. About 40 percent of our annual ridership is tied to the university,” Nicholson said. “Western students, staff and faculty are a huge customer for us and we have every incentive and desire to keep that going.”
Despite the increased costs for Western, the Alternative Transportation Fee Committee and the AS Transportation Advisory Council, two student and faculty groups that have helped guide the negotiation and ballot writing procedures, currently have no plans to increase the Alternative Transportation Fee this year.
“We’re still going to have our bus passes, and everything’s going to be the same,” AS Vice President for Student Life Sara Richards said. “At the moment, we aren’t planning on raising the fee at all, which is great.”
Aside from the revenue that goes to WTA, the Alternative Transportation Fee provides funding for service, fuel and maintenance of Western’s four late- night shuttle buses. Although the university owns the buses, the drivers who run them are provided by Bellair Charters, the same company that runs the Bellingham to SeaTac shuttle.
The fee also pays for the salary of the AS Alternative Transportation coordinator, David Burgesser and Kay McMurren, student transportation program assistant.
“Not only does alternative transportation help to advance WWU’s sustainability goals by reducing transportation-related carbon emissions, but it provides reliable, convenient, accessible and economical transportation solutions to Western students,” Burgesser said in an email.
Western’s contract with Bellair will expire next year. The ATF committee will vote on the WTA contract along with changes to the Alternative Transportation Fee before both go to the AS Board of Directors. If the AS Board approves the changes, it will be included in the spring student election ballot. If the students pass it, the ballot will be approved or rejected by Western’s Board of Trustees in June.
Richards said that one looming cost in the realm of alternative transportation is the purchasing of new late-night shuttles to replace the current ones that are on their last leg.
“Since we have to get new buses, we’re thinking of getting smaller or quieter buses so we can run them in different areas,” Richards said. “I want to expand the shuttle route, which may mean, in a few years, increasing the fee because we have to pay for drivers and gas and things like that.”