Despite lower ridership, plenty of praise for WTA during storms

Ride a WTA bus on Bellingham's snowy streets

A Whatcom Transportation Authority bus takes passengers on Route 512 from Geneva to downtown Bellingham Monday morning, Feb. 6.
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A Whatcom Transportation Authority bus takes passengers on Route 512 from Geneva to downtown Bellingham Monday morning, Feb. 6.

Waiting out the recent snowstorm at home turned out to be a popular option for Whatcom County residents.

As road conditions deteriorated throughout the second week of February, many kept their cars off the road. Whatcom Transportation Authority buses were an option, but data indicates not many people took advantage of it.

Ridership for the week of Feb. 5-11 was down 23 percent compared to a year earlier, said Maureen McCarthy, marketing manager for the WTA.

It wasn’t what McCarthy expected, but she found several trends that were factors. Western Washington University was closed for two days, and the students represent 40 percent of WTA’s ridership. Many elementary, middle and high schools were closed the entire week of Feb. 6-10, prompting many regular riders to stay home with their children.

Even the areas hardest hit by the storm, such as Lynden, Ferndale, Sumas, Kendall and Sudden Valley, did not see increases in ridership that week.

Many of those who had to get around Whatcom County but didn’t use their own vehicles had positive comments about the experience and wrote about them in emails and social media.

Several emails to the WTA cited drivers on specific routes for remaining calm in difficult situations, whether dealing with an icy patch of road while going downhill in Sudden Valley, helping an elderly woman cross an icy parking lot in Lynden, or figuring out how to safely get up High Street near Western Washington University in very snowy conditions.

Other notes gave general praise, noting that it’s the kind of community service they were proud of, as well as how nice the drivers were throughout the week.

“I never cease to be amazed by how amazing WTA is. Thanks for being so on top of everything,” said one post on Twitter.

Looking back at the winter weather event, McCarthy said one challenge was staying properly staffed. It’s also the middle of the cold and flu season. The staffing challenges were especially true for drivers and customer service representatives, who were giving information on the phones.

The other challenge was getting information quickly to drivers and riders about changing conditions. Even with so many posting about the weather on social media, making sure information was accurate was a challenge as road conditions morphed fast, McCarthy said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz