WTA proposed route changes include bringing communities in food deserts closer to grocery stores
“We have to think in terms of the greatest possible good, and that’s what we do,” Rich Nicholson, WTA Director of Service Development, said. // Photo by Ian Koppe
On Tuesday, Oct. 23, Whatcom Transportation Authority, WTA, held their first of three community forums to gain feedback about a new bus service proposal, scheduled to come into effect June of 2019.
Many issues prompted extensive route changes, said WTA Director of Service Development Rich Nicholson. One of which is the chronic lateness of the 190 route through Western.
Because the bus runs three times per hour, to fix this issue they are adding an additional bus to the fleet, Nicholson said. This new bus will open up many possible changes to be made to the routes, which are all intermeshed and affect each other.
Another change prompted by the additional bus will be added service on 32nd Street to seven days a week year-round and two hours later in the evening, as opposed to only the weekdays when Western is in session, he said. This is to accommodate the rapidly-sprouting student housing in that area.
Adding this much service means losing service in some areas, Nicholson said. On Lincoln Street, for example, there are currently three trips to and from campus. With the new proposal, one of these will be cut to prioritize other areas.
Whatcom Community College student Andrew Tse takes bus route 75 every day to and from class. He wants to increase service in Birch Bay and Bellingham since the service in his neighborhood is often late.
“My classmates are late by 20 minutes,” Tse said. “It affects academics a lot.”
This issue is minimally addressed in the new proposal, Tse said. The 75 is increasing service, but not enough in the evening to make a difference.
Nicholson said adding service is a bit more complicated than it may seem, and some riders will be disappointed in any change they make. However, in an ever-changing community, Nicholson said, WTA cannot stay static. They put their resources where the most people will benefit, but that does mean some will lose service.
“That’s true in this proposal too,” Nicholson said. “It’s painful for some people, but we have to think in terms of the greatest possible good, and that’s what we do.”
In the new proposal, WTA’s finance department gave the planning staff 5,000 annual hours to work with. Every time they make a change, service hours must be taken from somewhere, Nicholson said.
“You want more service in Blaine or Birch Bay? Ok, well what will come out of this?” Nicholson said. “That would be a big shift at this point to say, ‘OK we won’t make these changes to the Western service. We’ll put 2,000 hours into Blaine because we think this is more important.’”
That doesn’t mean WTA isn’t listening, he said. The county is expected to grow quicker than the City of Bellingham. Blaine and Birch Bay are the fastest growing areas in the county. Eventually they will have to address it, Nicholson said, but not with this current proposal.
Some other big changes WTA is addressing is bringing communities closer to grocery stores, Nicholson said. They said they are proposing to change route 4 to go from the hospital through the Birchwood neighborhood to Fred Meyer on Bakerview.
This will give Birchwood residents more options, since Albertson’s, the only grocery store in the area, shut down in 2016. Bellingham residents expressed their concerns in a rally last spring that their neighborhood was in a food desert, an area defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “Parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.”
“It’s fixing this food desert issue, which is a big social equity issue everywhere,” Nicholson said.
WTA plans to adjust route 50 to go by Bakerview Avenue as well, so the residents of the Lummi Nation and Marietta Avenue get front door service to Costco and Fred Meyer, he said. Before, they had very few options for groceries.
The final problem WTA wishes to address is the inability to go from small town to small town in Whatcom County without first going through Bellingham. They propose to connect Maple Falls, Kendall, Everson and Lynden via a single route.
This will hopefully address another food desert as Maple Falls and Kendall’s two nearest grocery stores closed within the last two years, Nicholson said. This route change, unlike the others, is dependent on a specific grant they applied for to establish it.
Senior citizen Roger Dollarhide said he relies on the bus almost every day. While he appreciates the increased service in some areas, none of the proposed changes address his major concerns, he said.
Dollarhide lives on Samish Way, and there is no service in either direction on Sundays, he said.
“Forget about shelters, there’s no place to sit anywhere on Samish Way,” he said. “And there are three bus stops.”
Dollarhide said he has been making the same suggestions for many years and is frustrated with the lack of response.
“People already have their minds made up of what they are going to do,” he said. I think [the informational meeting] is just a PR stunt.”
After the three meetings, WTA staff and the operations teams will meet to discuss the public comments, Nicholson said. After they make the next draft of changes they will go to the board of directors and set a public hearing for the last week of November.
In December, WTA will give their board a final report which incorporates the changes made after the public hearing. Afterward, they will recruit a list of potential drivers to start the two-month training process. They will change community signage to match the new routes and install new bus stops, launching the new service in June of 2019.