Whatcom Transportation Authority goes into 2015 financially healthy

Whatcom Transportation Authority plans to spend $800,000 on technology upgrades in 2015, as the agency’s budget continues to grow in what is expected to be a favorable economic climate. The agency anticipates collecting more sales tax revenues next year than it did this year, and it plans no fare increases.

While the budget is robust and cash reserves are growing, WTA officials say they may need to tap into those reserves or cut service if they lose a key revenue source after 2016.

“Reserves are expected to trend upward as long as the city of Bellingham continues to purchase service through the Transportation Benefit District,” WTA spokeswoman Maureen McCarthy said on Thursday, Oct. 9. “If that revenue stream were to go away, and service levels remained the same, we would begin tapping into our ... reserves.”

WTA gets more than $1 million a year from the Transportation Benefit District through a contract with the city that expires at the end of 2016. The district is funded by a 0.2 percent sales tax approved by Bellingham voters in 2010.

Ted Carlson, Public Works Director for Bellingham, said he has no reason to think the contract with WTA won’t be extended beyond 2016.

“It will be a negotiated, agreed-upon discussion between the WTA and the city,” Carlson said. “Those conversations haven’t happened to date.”

In 2015, Transportation Benefit District funds will make up 5 percent of WTA’s total income. Most of WTA’s money, about $22 million of the $28 million expected to come in next year, is from a separate transit sales tax.

Another, smaller source of revenue is going away in mid-2015, McCarthy said — the state grant that pays for Route 80X between Bellingham and Mount Vernon. The WTA board might consider whether to pay out of its own funds for its part of the route, which it shares with Skagit Transit. That would be an additional annual expense of $180,000 for WTA.

“We’re hoping to secure a grant or other funding source,” McCarthy said.

Smart fare cards will be introduced next year, part of WTA’s recent push to upgrade its technology. The cards will enable riders to store tickets and passes, and to reload them as needed.

Of the $800,000 in technology improvements, $100,000 will go to updating the agency website, ridewta.com.

“It will work well on phones and tablets as well as desktops,” McCarthy said. “Given how our website has been added to and added to without an overhaul for many years, there are some truly ungainly aspects to it.”

The 2015 budget will require the approval of the Board of Directors, which will hold a public hearing on the budget at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 16. The board meets at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. The public also may provide comment until 3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, at comment@ridewta.com or 360-715-4500.

The budget is online at ridewta.com/node/186.