By Ryan Wynne
Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA) has been scaled back. Street paving, crosswalk and bike lane projects have been put on hold — such is the recession. But the city of Bellingham has a plan that could generate funding for those projects and restore some bus service in the city.
The City Council, acting as the city’s transportation benefit district (TBD) board, voted on Aug. 9 to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to approve an increase of Bellingham’s sales and use tax by up to 2 cents per $10 of taxable items. The city estimates that the increase would generate up to $4 million annually for street overlay, transit and non-motorized transportation projects.
“We can restore essential services for about $1 per month for your typical Bellingham resident,” said Bellingham City Councilman Michael Lilliquist.
That assumes the average resident spends $500 per month on taxable items.
Lilliquist voted in favor of both forming the transportation benefit district, a special citywide taxing district, and putting the funding mechanism for it on the ballot. Projects the TBD would fund are not only in line with the city’s comprehensive plan, he said, but residents are reliant on the WTA, paved roads, crosswalks and bike lanes. Also, waiting to repair them would likely cost the city more in the future.
“Even when your budget is tight, you fix a leaking roof because you know it will cost you more in the long run if you don’t,” Lilliquist said.
That’s not a perspective that everyone shares, though. Brett Bonner, who led an earlier campaign to oppose a countywide levy to maintain WTA service, is now urging Bellingham voters to oppose the TBD measure.
Bonner is the spokesperson for the Whatcom Information Center, which sent out a press release Sept. 16 saying TBD projects are part of a city wish list and urging the city to spend within its means, especially at this time when so many residents are struggling financially.
Even if the measure does pass, it’s unknown at this point whether the WTA board will allow TBD funds to be spent strictly on Bellingham bus service.
Mel Hansen, WTA board chairman and Ferndale City Council member, said the funding issue has already created tension in the county and he doesn’t know how receptive the board would be.
“Just because the transportation district puts together the funds, it’s still up to the WTA board whether the WTA will accept those funds and under what circumstances,” Hansen said.
Lilliquist said the TBD board would work with the WTA to reach a mutual agreement and that the funds wouldn’t be used just for WTA service, but for other important city transportation projects, too.