By Shawna Leader/The AS Review
On Monday, Nov. 10, the AS Alternative Transportation Committee met with Rick Nicholson, director of service development for Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA) to discuss the service cuts proposed by the WTA, including the proposed Sunday service cuts.
Nicholson described the proposed service cuts and encouraged students and community members to comment on them. The WTA board of directors will meet at 8 a.m. on Nov. 19 at the county courthouse to discuss the budget. If that budget is accepted, a second meeting will likely happen in the spring to specifically discuss the cuts.
Currently, two plans for service cuts have been proposed. The first, a 10 percent service cut, would not impact bus service to Western. It is based almost entirely on routes or times with low ridership, Nicholson said in an interview after the meeting. In this case, most people would have an alternative route or bus stop nearby, he said.
“The fewest number of people will be affected [by this cut],” he said. However, it still leaves the WTA in the red.
The second proposed cut is the 10 percent cut plus elimination of bus service on Sundays. The difference between this cut and the 10 percent cut is that it removes lines that are very productive, Nicholson said. But the cut will save WTA money on service hours as well as administrative and maintenance costs because all other WTA functions will shut down on Sundays as well, Nicholson said.
According to Nicholson, the most costly aspects of the WTA operations are wages and benefits for drivers and other employees. Fuel and maintenance of buses, stops and stations are second in terms of cost. WTA has already cut $1.5 million over approximately the past two years, Nicholson said. Vacant positions have gone unfilled, nonunionized salaries have not been adjusted for the cost of living and projects have been postponed.
The two cuts that are being proposed are not meant to be a complete solution to the problem, Nicholson said; both are intended to be short-term plans.
“It’s really about, how much time do these cuts buy us?” he said.
Another option is to do nothing and wait for the economy to potentially improve. While this option does not involve service cuts, it has the potential to lead to larger cuts in the future, Nicholson said. Currently WTA is drawing money from reserves, so choosing to do nothing for now will depend on how comfortable the WTA board of directors feels about draining down those reserves, Nicholson said.
“Right now in our 2010 budget we are predicting no growth [in sales tax],” he said.
Cuts in future years may be smaller, but they could also be larger. It all depends on the economy, Nicholson said.
An alternative to the cuts may be a sales tax increase, AS Alternative Transportation Coordinator A.J. Garcia said. However, the call for such an action would have to come from the community, he said.
On Friday, Nicholson said that the Executive Committee (a subcommittee of the WTA board of directors) voted 5-0 to recommend to the WTA board to ask the public for a vote on a sales tax increase rather than cut service. At the meeting on Thursday, possible dates for the vote and how much the increase might be will be discussed.
It is not within the WTA’s administrative role to recommend a sales tax vote, Nicholson said. That is up to the public and the WTA board of directors. Similar to the waiting option, it could fix the problem if it passes but will only increase the problem, leading to larger cuts, if it does not.
Cutting a few times from every route would have a negative effect on students because the longer time between routes would lead to even more crowded buses and people getting left behind at stops, Nicholson.
If the Sunday cut does take place, Garcia suggested that the late night shuttle may be extended in order to cover Sundays. The Sunday cut would negatively affect students who need to get to campus, from the train station to their homes in Bellingham and students who have jobs on Sundays, he said. Having the late night shuttle cover the Sunday service would provide a limited route (it would be similar to that of the late night shuttle) and would mean a greater cost to students.
AS VP for Student Life Mike Pond suggested enacting the 10 percent cut and then further evaluating the situation before eliminating the Sunday service.
“The 10 percent cut is just being financially responsible,” he said, adding that doing nothing would be irresponsible.
Pond encouraged students to express their opinion to WTA via the comment hotline or e-mail.
“More input from the community and our students will have an impact on the final decision,” he said.
Nicholson also expressed that he would like to hear from the community.
“We just all need to be upfront with each other because it’s a difficult time,” he said.