The wheels on the bus

WTA’s doing more than just going ’round and ’round

It’s early days, but here’s what’s happening so far: Whatcom Transportation Authority has issued a request for qualifications, seeking a partner to build and maintain affordable rental apartments at Lynden Station, the park-and-ride lot that’s also WTA’s main Lynden transit stop. A study recently completed by RMC Architects shows the site can support 110 to 120 housing units, said Les Reardanz, the WTA general manager.

“So, we anticipate apartments for 200 to 300 people, over two phases of construction,” Reardanz said. “Unlike most people, who have to walk to a bus stop or even transfer from another bus, Lynden Station residents will have bus service at their doorstep. Because youth 18 and under ride free on WTA, the bus will be especially convenient for families with children.”

How did this come up?

In 2021, WTA’s board of directors was looking for ways that public transport could help solve public problems. In other words, step back from just driving the bus and see a bigger picture: How might the resource that is WTA address concerns such as affordable housing, lack of child care, or rising greenhouse gas emissions?

Those problems are bigger than any single agency.

“The thinking was, how can jurisdictions, organizations, businesses and others come together to create solutions?” Reardanz said. “In the meantime, we had this underperforming asset in Lynden, our Lynden Station Park & Ride, and we kept hearing about the need for workforce housing in northern Whatcom County.”

Over the course of 2023, WTA met with farmworkers, social and health services, the city of Lynden and others, all of which reiterated the need for more workforce housing.

What’s meant by workforce housing? Affordable housing near places of employment.

“It’s designed for workers who can’t afford housing at market rates,” Reardanz said. “We see that frequently in Whatcom County — even families making good wages find housing prices too high. We’re specifically looking for a developer experienced in affordable and workforce housing. The developer we select will do additional community outreach to learn what concerns neighbors and other Lynden residents may have.”

About that affordability

WTA will keep ownership of the Lynden Station site while leasing it at a nominal rate, with exact terms to be determined.

“The term of the lease will be a minimum of 30 years but could be as long as 90 years,” Reardanz said.

As Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis pointed out, start with a lower land cost so you can offer lower rent when it’s done.

“Get people near transit so they’ll use transit and not their cars,” Korthuis said.

Reardanz expanded on walkability: “Lynden Station is a six-minute walk to the Food Pavilion and the shops and restaurants near that. It’s a 13-minute walk to Ace Hardware and the Fairway Center. It’s a 14-minute walk to the Grocery Outlet, Safeway, and shops and restaurants there. There are pharmacies nearby, too. Even Fisher Elementary is a walkable distance (of 28 minutes), and Lynden Door, a major employer, is a 19-minute walk away. All over the world, transit works best in neighborhoods where many errands can also be accomplished on foot.”

Stakeholders realize that at least some residents of the future Lynden Station will still need cars to get to work, Korthuis said. Some will be farmworkers, which is morphing into a year-round occupation; as automation performs more harvest work — work that cannot be automated spreads out through all seasons.

“This location would serve our community well,” Korthuis said. “It’s much better than putting it on the perimeter of town.”

Public transport agencies have access to federal money to help with housing that’s associated with transit, which paves the way for affordable housing close to business and services.

Korthuis mentioned a variety of folks to whom Lynden Station could appeal, such as those employed by Lynden Door, a family-owned and -operated company with about 500 employees, or the under-construction 220,000 square foot Canature Kitchen Lynden, maker of freeze-dried pet food.

“Some (employees) live all over,” Korthuis said, “but if they had an affordable option closer to employment, what a great option!”

Where did all the bus riders go?

A lot more of us used to take the bus: Between 2007 and 2008, WTA’s annual boardings rose from 3.5 million to 4.7 million.

“This was one of the highest ridership increases in the United States,” Reardanz said.

It was due to a universal bus pass at Western Washington University and increasing the frequency of buses on WTA’s most productive corridors.

WTA ridership peaked at 4.9 million in 2009. Then, in Whatcom County and across the nation, it seemed everybody stepped off. Except in a few major cities, ridership started declining.

“Reasons are varied and ever changing,” Reardanz said. “They include shifts in work locations, the pandemic, the rise of companies such as Uber and Lyft, and the shift to an ‘on-demand’ mindset. By ‘on-demand,’ I mean people have grown accustomed to summoning what they want, when they want it. Takeout delivery services such as DoorDash, streaming services for music and movies, and same-day delivery by online retailers are all examples. I think the increase in local home prices also play a part, as do land-use decisions. The farther people live from where they work, shop and recreate, the less convenient it is to ride the bus. One of the things we like best about this project is it helps address
this very issue.”

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help, with WTA’s average annual fixed-route rides dropping to 2.2 million during that time. Commuters stopped commuting or commuted less frequently. Social distancing meant “don’t get on the bus, don’t get on the train” or you might get COVID-19.

It’s taking time for that last attitude to change, but in 2023, annual fixed-route rides rose to 3.5 million.

“Ridership continues to recover,” Reardanz said.

Who’s paying?

Passenger fares make up about 3% of WTA revenue, Reardanz said. Most of WTA’s funding comes from a .6% countywide sales tax. Other sources include operating grants from the state of Washington and capital grants from the Federal Transit Administration.

WTA’s 2024 operating expenses are budgeted at just over $53 million, an amount that covers paratransit, vanpool, Zone Service and the Lynden Hop, as well as fixed routes.

(UPDATE: The Lynden Hop was a mobile app ride-hailing service that was wheelchair accessible and open to all at $1 per ride. It operated as a pilot program from June 2022 to June 2024.)

Back to Lynden

The site under consideration, Lynden Station, was originally envisioned as a park-and-ride, Reardanz said.

“The idea was, people from Lynden would park here and catch a bus into Bellingham,” Reardanz said. “Over the years, we’ve found that once people hop into their cars in Lynden, they generally stay in those cars and drive to their final destination. As a result, the parking spots at Lynden Station are underutilized.”

Mayor Korthuis echoes that.

“If you get a person in their car to drive to the park-and-ride, you’ve probably lost the battle,” Korthuis said. “Particularly in Ferndale and Lynden. You’ll probably stay in your car and drive the whole way.”

More like this?

Reardanz is enthusiastic.

“The Lynden Station project is the first of many creative partnerships we’re looking at to help address community challenges in ways that also make it easier for people to ride the bus,” Reardanz said. “Several of these, including transit-oriented development at our downtown Bellingham Station and new service to the waterfront district, are also great drivers of economic development. We’ve got a list of such initiatives currently in the pipeline.”

Not just driving the bus

WTA, by creating affordable workforce housing, will likely raise ridership since that housing will be just steps from public transport. Maybe, in Whatcom County, it’s time to get back on the bus.