Submitted by Whatcom Transportation Authority
In 1971, residents of the City of Bellingham turned out to vote on an ordinance to support public transportation in their community. According to the late Dr. George F. Drake (1930-2020) who was then an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Western Washington State College, 67.8% voted in favor of a tax to fund public transportation, while 32.2% voted against.
In advance of the ordinance passing, Drake conducted a survey of riders of Bellingham’s private bus company, which was planning to cease operations. The survey was intended to indicate the social cost of losing bus service, so it could be measured against the financial cost of maintaining it. For Bellingham voters, the financial cost was a monthly tax of 75 cents per household and business, to be collected with the water-sewer utility bill.
According to an article in the Bellingham Herald, Drake received over 700 responses to his onboard survey, and “statistical computations were compiled by the data processing and computer center at Western Washington State College.” The data showed that the loss of bus service would affect all age groups. It also showed that a fourth of respondents, many of them seniors, would be housebound if not for the bus. Many respondents wrote comments in the margins of their surveys revealing their very personal reasons for needing the bus, including inability to drive due to disabilities.
Once the measure passed, the survey conducted by Drake qualified the city to apply for state and federal grants necessary to purchase the buses and other equipment from the private provider.
It was not until 1992 that the city-operated bus system fully transitioned to a stand-alone transportation authority. This new agency, Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA), would grow to serve all of Whatcom County, with the exceptions of Baker Lake and the Newhaven-Diablo region.
In 2019, Dr. Drake reached out to us at WTA. In addition to sharing this history, he made us aware that since 1971 marked the transition from a private bus company to a public transit agency, 2021 was in fact the 50th anniversary of local public transportation. He was looking forward to celebrating this milestone with us.
Dr. Drake passed away in August of 2020. His obituary in the Bellingham Herald details a life of dedicated civic activism, public service, and community development. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of local public transportation, we’re thankful for his vision and his contribution!