Handing over the wheel: WTA general manager retires after 36 years in transit

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 26, 2014 

When Richard Walsh applied to be a bus driver in the 1970s, he almost didn't get the job.

Now 64, Walsh will retire as Whatcom Transportation Authority's general manager on Feb. 1 after 36 years with the agency.

An ex-grad student with two kids, Walsh was mostly looking for a paycheck when he put in his application to what was then Bellingham Transit, the city-run bus system.

"I needed to put more bread on the table," Walsh said.

When the transit department received Walsh's application, it didn't have any openings.

"I just heckled them to the point that the transit director at the time told the City Council they needed to hire me," Walsh said.

Walsh ended up with the system's busiest route in 1978, at the height of the energy crisis. The price of gasoline was fast approaching $1 a gallon, and people across the country were converting in large numbers to mass transit.

Bellingham Transit boomed. The number of riders doubled, from 1 million in 1977 to almost 2 million in 1980 - all on just seven routes.

"We were packing them in in those days," Walsh recalled.

He was promoted to dispatcher at the same time Bellingham Station opened in November 1980 where it stands today, on Railroad Avenue. Walsh's own upward trajectory tracked with the growth of WTA, which replaced the city-controlled system through a popular vote in 1983. The agency now has 5 million riders on 30 routes to all corners of the county and Mount Vernon.

Credit for WTA's ability to grow - or in the worst times, hold steady - goes to Walsh, say those who worked with him.

Since taking the GM job in 1997, Walsh twice had to navigate perilous financial conditions.

In 2000, the agency's revenue was slashed in half, as Tim Eyman's Initiative 695 eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax. The timing was especially bad for WTA, which was getting ready to build a $14 million headquarters on Bakerview Spur.

"(Walsh) didn't cancel the project and retrench," said Paul Schramer, WTA's director of operations. "He had the faith that we had the support of the community to go forward."

Walsh's attitude was contagious, Schramer said, and WTA was able to present an optimistic face to the community.

"Even though we were looking at a very tough time financially, he had faith we were going to get through it, and he convinced us," Schramer said.

That faith was rewarded. In March 2003, voters approved a 0.3 percent sales tax increase to replace the money lost to I-695.

The road got rough again in 2009, when the Great Recession hit bottom. Public agencies were unprepared and wrote rosy revenue forecasts for that year, even after the stock markets and the banking industry collapsed in September 2008. WTA got $3 million less in sales tax revenue in 2009 than it had budgeted for.

In April 2010, a measure asking voters for another sales tax increase was rejected along city-county lines. WTA eliminated Sunday service and laid off 29 employees total.

Buses were rolling again on Sunday by mid-2011, only after Bellingham residents approved a city-sponsored sales tax increase in November 2010.

Sales tax revenue has since climbed to pre-recession levels, helped along by Canadian shoppers.

The agency has grown leaner and wiser since the recession, Walsh said.

"It was a healthy exercise to do, to work smarter," he said.

This positive spin Walsh put on the recession concealed how hard that time was for him.

The cuts were "really difficult on Richard," said Mel Hansen, a Ferndale City Council member and the WTA Board of Directors' chairman for the past four years.

"He was cutting people who were sometimes his personal friends," Hansen said. "He was watching the agency that was his baby for so many, many years go backwards, and he is a very positive, I-want-to-see-it-move-forward sort of guy."

Even though that period was hard on Walsh, Hansen said he wouldn't have wanted anyone else at the helm.

"He had insight on where we should tighten our belts and not destroy the service to the community," Hansen said.

Just as in 2000, Walsh and his staff had ensured before the 2009 downturn that WTA had a cushion so it could avoid drastic cuts.

"A lot of transit agencies in the state of Washington had small reserves and ambitious service plans, and they were caught completely flat-footed," said Pete Stark, director of fleet and facilities for WTA. Stark takes over as general manager in February. "In our case, we were surprised by the downturn, but we had strong reserves. ... We didn't have to make any cuts that were debilitating toward our organization or our abilities."

"Compassion" and "respect" were words used to describe Walsh's leadership style as the WTA board thanked him for years of service at its Thursday, Jan. 16, meeting. His colleagues said the respect he showed, and earned, came from his time as a bus driver.

"He never lost that point of view, of the rider with a question, or the bus driver who works directly with the passengers and knows why they ride the bus," Stark said.

"He carried that all the way through to his years as general manager. He knew what the service was, and he knew what it was for," Stark added.

Walsh fostered a quality of labor-management relations that is rare, said Mark Lowry, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 843, which represents WTA workers.

"I'm unaware of any other agency (in the Pacific Northwest) that has this type of relation," said Lowry, who is a bus driver.

"Those of us who work for Richard, we work for Richard," Lowry said, with the emphasis on "Richard." "We definitely feel like he served us well."

As Walsh hands the wheel to Stark (he literally handed Stark a bus steering wheel at the Jan. 16 board meeting), the outgoing GM believes the agency can stop merely trying to survive the downturn and start planning for the future. In the next couple years, the agency probably will begin an overhaul of its service, Walsh said.

"There are growing unmet needs in our community," Walsh said: buses to the airport, better service to the small cities and Birch Bay, and a greater presence in the east county.

The WTA board agreed this month on new fare boxes that will set the stage for smart cards and even smart buses, which can tell passengers when they will arrive.

WTA's near future is a long way from 1978, when buses had what Walsh called "a glorified coffee can" for a fare box and a "shotgun" transit staffer who answered questions, made change and sold tokens on the corner of Cornwall and Magnolia.

Walsh's last years at WTA have already brought nostalgia.

"It's touching to walk the concourse (at Bellingham Station) and run into people who rode with me back in those days," Walsh said. "We're still familiar with each other, and that's Bellingham."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service