Getting around in a county that covers 2,500 square miles has its natural obstacles. A new study about transportation needs among poor, disabled and elderly people in Whatcom County shows that low-income residents in particular still have more to overcome, in part because many choose to live far from Bellingham, the center of employment and social services.
"They choose to live in outlying areas because of the relatively lower rents charged," according to the study, completed in May by the Whatcom Council of Governments.
The transportation needs assessment suggested educating low-income renters about the costs of fuel and vehicle maintenance. When those are factored in, the cost of city living compares more favorably, the study said.
Government and social-service officials said systemwide solutions are possible in addition to the opportunities for educating people about living costs. The trick is to find solutions that are effective and the money to pay for them.
"People will go where rent is going to be most affordable because that's the first basic need to be met," said Debbie Paton, community services director at the Opportunity Council. "More affordable housing in Bellingham is much, much needed."
More homes near jobs and services are in the works. A 42-unit building on Cornwall Avenue downtown, built by Catholic Housing Services to serve low-income and chronically homeless people, should break ground this year. Property tax money started coming into Bellingham's coffers this year for low-income housing projects. The revenue will be awarded to worthy housing programs by the end of September, said David Stalheim, a Bellingham grant program manager.
The Council of Governments study quantifies the difficulties poor, elderly and disabled people have getting transportation. In a survey of 401 people in the general county population, 85 percent used a vehicle most or all of the time when they needed to go somewhere. Among 406 social-service clients, however, 39 percent didn't own a car and more than a quarter got around primarily by bus.
The Whatcom Transportation Authority can do only so much to help disadvantaged people while maintaining a cost-efficient bus service, said Maureen McCarthy, an agency spokeswoman.
Elderly and disabled people can use paratransit, which has a wider reach than WTA's regular routes, but it doesn't go everywhere in the county. The agency's "safety net" service fills those gaps, going anywhere WTA collects taxes, if only one or two days a week. Anyone can use the safety net service, but those vehicles typically are occupied by low-income people, McCarthy said.
WTA has been giving social-service agencies 30,000 free-ride passes annually and will switch to 50,000 free day passes as part of changes to the fare system. Even so, the demand sometimes exceeds supply, McCarthy said.
While McCarthy acknowledged a need among low-income riders for a dedicated route from, say, Everson to Lynden that would be more consistent than the WTA safety net, that route is not likely to be created.
"It wouldn't be on our top 10 list because of the number of people we would serve," McCarthy said. "Just because certain needs are identified doesn't mean we could or would meet them."
Shelly Zylstra, planning unit director of Northwest Regional Council, said WTA has "bent over backwards" to serve the agency's clients, which include seniors and people with physical and mental disabilities. But the agency can't reach everyone.
"Geography is our enemy in this county," Zylstra said.
Organizations need to think creatively about getting clients from the east county into Bellingham, for example. If one agency is providing a transportation service, could another agency's clients share the ride?
"Sometimes clients don't mix well, and that's problematic, but I wish there were a way we could get together as organizations and talk about the use of (transportation)," Zylstra said.
More information on meeting the transportation needs of social-service clients is at wcog.org/planning/each.