Bellingham weighs using transit money to pay for railroad quiet zones

Millions of dollars could become available over the next five years to pay for railroad quiet zones, but City Council members weren’t ready on Monday, June 1, to commit that money to the popular proposal to quiet the trains that move through the city.

The council met as the Transportation Benefit District board on Monday and voted to reduce by one third the amount of funding the Whatcom Transportation Authority receives for Sunday service in 2016. Since the city started paying for Sunday buses in 2011, it has been covering the full cost.

The contract the board unanimously approved pays WTA $611,000 for Sunday service next year, or two-thirds of the estimated $926,000 cost. The WTA board of directors is expected to approve the contract on June 19.

The city has been paying for Sunday service with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase approved by Bellingham voters in November 2010. WTA had eliminated Sunday service in September of that year because of revenue shortfalls during the recession.

With the city spending less on WTA next year, officials estimate they will have about $500,000 available for other transportation projects. The Transportation Commission, a citizens committee that advises the council, recommended earlier this year that the money go toward quiet zones at railroad crossings in south Bellingham and along the waterfront.

If safety features at railroad crossings get sufficient upgrades, then engineers on trains would not be required to blow their horns when they approach a crossing. Officials estimated in 2007 that it would cost $2.7 million to $5.6 million to complete the safety upgrades. The council voted unanimously in December 2014 to authorize Mayor Kelli Linville to pursue the funding.

While some on the Benefit District board were eager to direct the newly available transit money to the quiet zones, others wanted to take a more deliberate approach.

“Having attended some of the quiet zone meetings and seeing the support that seems to be out there for it, I’m in favor of supporting the Transportation Commission’s recommendations,” board member Terry Bornemann said.

Board member Michael Lilliquist said the idea had appeal, but the board didn’t have all the information it needed to make a decision.

“I was kind of like, for a flash moment there, really excited” to learn that money might be available for railroad quiet zones, Lilliquist said. “But I don’t think we know enough yet.”

The Benefit District has been supporting WTA Sunday and evening service with more than $1 million annually. The district’s sales tax revenue continues until 2021, and it remains an open question whether the district will support WTA at all after 2016. If the board ceases funding WTA, then roughly $5 million would become available by 2021 for other transportation projects.

The board is simply not ready at this early date to commit those funds.

Board member Jack Weiss, who is also on the WTA board, said WTA is working on a plan to revamp its entire system, and the transit agency may need funds in the next few years to pay for new bus stops or other construction projects to go with new routes or destinations.

“I’m very supportive of the quiet zones and I think we should go pursue that, but I’m a little nervous about using transit money,” Weiss said.

Bornemann countered that Benefit District funding was provided in response to WTA’s elimination of Sunday service. More than five years later, WTA may need to stand on its own, he said.

“I don’t want us to get into the position where Whatcom transit board are looking at this board as the cash cow to fund things that should be funded through Whatcom transit as a whole,” Bornemann said.

A decision likely will be made later this year on how the city will spend the extra $500,000 that becomes available in 2016.