A WTA Bus pulls to the curb to pick up students at a bus stop on May 19. // Photo by Chris Johansen
By Melody Kazel
For the first time in 10 years the Whatcom Transportation Authority is considering changing their fares, according to Councilwoman and WTA Board Member April Barker. The potential fare increases would be part of stage one of a two-stage plan, Barker said.
“The cash fares will remain the same,” WTA Planning Director Tim Wilder said. “We’re looking at increasing the cost of our passes.”
With these potential changes, Wilder said the WTA wants to focus on making sure the fares remain reasonable.
“One thing we’re concerned about is equity over the cost of the service,” Wilder said.
WTA plans to implement small changes over time, according to Wilder. They want to ensure that any increase in price isn’t so drastic that it makes it hard, or even impossible, for low-income members of the community to ride the bus.
Joshua Osterhaus, a community member who used to be homeless, said access is something he’d be concerned about if the price increases. Osterhaus said he relied on a bus pass to move around the city.
“When I was homeless here in Bellingham, it was really important to have a really cheap bus pass that we can get around,” Osterhaus said. “I mean, there’s no other way for homeless people to really move from place to place in this area.”
The WTA is looking into increasing fares, in part, because of their fare recovery ratio.
A fare recovery ratio is how much fares should contribute to the WTA’s overall revenues. The ratio is set at 15 %, but since the fares haven’t changed since 2009, their rate is currently around 12%. This means that the amount of money rider’s pay is not making up a big enough portion of the revenue. Wilder said the WTA needs to work on getting to that ideal ratio of 15% to continue providing the same level of service they are now.
“The cost of maintenance, all those factors, are increasing over time,” Wilder said. “So in order to provide the same level of service we want, we have to make sure that the revenues are available. And of course, having fares, that’s one portion of our revenues that allows us to pay for the service that we provide.”
Another part of stage one of the WTA’s plan is potentially offering free ridership to youths in the community.
“We’re looking at what it would take to offer youth, that is high school and under, free rides in our system,” Wilder said.
According to City Councilman and WTA Board Member Michael Lilliquist, the WTA currently has a program where seventh graders attending schools in the area can sign up and get free bus passes for the entire year. Providing free ridership to youths 18 and under would be a way to expand the program.
Wilder explained that the WTA has a lot to look into first, including costs as well as the best way to track new youth riders since they have to report their ridership to the federal government each year.
Stage one of this plan will likely be more short-term, though none of that has been definitive, Barker said.
Barker said she was pushing for a short term plan so free youth ridership could happen sooner, instead of after a longer plan of study.
Stage two will likely be a more long-term study, according to Barker.
“Phase two starts next year. And what we hope to do in this second phase is really set goals for our fare policy,” Wilder said.
Some of those goals will likely include looking more deeply into equity, specifically how to ensure that the WTA’s policies and price adjustments are fair to people of all income levels.
According to Lilliquist, the potential fare increases and this plan overall comes back to one question: How can we afford the transit system that the public deserves?
In order to ensure the public can be involved with these proposed changes, Wilder said the WTA will hold a public meeting in mid-October, though the date and location have not been confirmed yet.
After that, there will be two public hearings, one in November and one in December, with the board of directors. Anyone is welcome to come to the meetings to learn about the potential changes or to share their opinion.