Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

No good work goes unpunished

with 13 comments

WTA 822

WTA bus unloading at Bellingham

I must admit I was not aware of what a good job Whatcom County transit has been doing. But then I had also never heard of either – “News of the Great Nearby”.

the Federal Transportation Administration hailed WTA as the bus service with the highest ridership increase in the United States — up 32 percent in 2007-2008. Last year, its buses managed nearly 5 million passenger trips in a service area of only 196,000 people. It carries more riders per dollar than any other communitywide transit system in the state.

The title I chose comes directly from the article. My father used that aphorism frequently, only he said “No good deed goes unpunished”. I had of course heard about the effect that HST would have on cross border shoppers from here to there. Indeed, I do not think most of us in this region think about Whatcom County except in terms of cross border shopping. I did once supervise a project that tried to establish a cross border transit service for the large numbers of people who work on one side of the border but live on the other. That went nowhere – mainly due to inter-governmental bureacracies. A bit like the cock up over the second Amtrak train.

The whole thing turns on an administrative decision at state level that says the HST is not a “sales tax” but rather a “value added tax”. Which seems to me to be a fine bit of legal sophistry.

The exemption is one the state legislature created 45 years ago, for residents of states and provinces with a sales tax lower than 3 percent. Oregon, Idaho, Alberta, and Alaska qualified.

But Alberta doesn’t have a sales tax! Alaska gets in there because of the direct ferry service between the two states: visitors do not have to set foot on Canadian soil.

But I digress. The is no way that the WTA can challenge the ruling in court, because it was not the result of a case but rather the result of a ruling by the state Department of Revenue.

Gov. Gregoire and Director Holmstrom have told border community leaders. B.C. shoppers will get a free pass from Washington sales tax on purchases they buy to take back to Canada.

So no hope of a political decision by the state legislature either – since retailers expect a big boost in sales from the exemption.

Some Bellingham stores do as much as 40 percent of their business with B.C. shoppers. They sniff a bonanza, as the tax-free bargains draw Canadians by the thousands. It may also be bit of a paperwork nuisance.

Based on my own unscientific parking lot surveys at Bellis Fair Mall I would have guessed an even higher  figure. But then how do they measure these things? After all, the people who go cross border shopping are not especially open about their purchases. The exemption does not apply to day trippers. But then neither do the Canadian exemptions. In theory Canadians are supposed to declare everything they buy – no matter how long they are away – and then calculate how much exemption they are entitled to based on the amount of time they have been out of the country. I suppose these days there could easily be a number plate matching program on the computer in front of the border agent. But I rather think that most agents go by other “tells” – and are less concerned about small sums of sales tax than drugs, guns and illegal immigration. If you have to pay for an overnight stay (or two) to get the exemption, then you probably have to spend quite a bit before the trip breaks even.

At one time I used to take advantage of travel exemptions to bring back things like booze and cigarettes – but I stopped smoking many years ago, and decided that having a collection of single malts was not exactly a high priority. And I have always avoided buying consumer durables from places that would be difficult to get to if I needed to return something. So I have no personal axe to grind here. I do teach a course at Whatcom County Community College – and (sometimes) they even pay me!

I do begin to wonder when it will become apparent to politicians and bureaucrats in general that public transportation is something that they have to consider as being something worth spending taxes on  – like they now see defence or prisons.

WTA 827

Written by Stephen Rees

June 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Posted in silly, transit

Tagged with , ,

13 Responses

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  1. Interesting article. I didn’t realize the Bellingham viewpoint re: HST changes.

    BTW, I found this post on the seattle transit blog fun – you could take the public bus from seattle to vancouver – although i wonder if this is different with all the cuts to WA’s transit services.


    June 22, 2010 at 2:59 pm

  2. from which I quote

    “there is no public transit service in that takes people across or directly to the Peace Arch border crossing.” (from Blaine)


    “To get to Vancouver from the border, I have catch a C51 to White Rock Centre. From there I take the 351 Vancouver Express bus to get downtown.

    “It’s still a half-hour walk to the nearest bus stop. I crossed the street to the east side by the visitor centre which was under renovation. I saw workers install a large sign proclaiming “Welcome to British Columbia, Canada. The Best Place On Earth.” I found that statement pretentious and tacky, especially for welcoming people from all over the world attending the Olympics. What’s wrong with “Beautiful British Columbia”?

    … I found a bike path protected by jersey barriers that took me to the first interchange at 8 Avenue. I walked along the shoulder of the exit ramp, crossed the street by the roundabout, and walked west across the freeway on the north side of the overpass. I saw an out-of-service bus pass by and continued along 8 Avenue, which turns into Marine Drive until I got to the intersection with Stayte St (160 St) and walked up the hill to the stop for the C51. ”

    So it is possible but far from easy – and it takes 7.5 hours!

    Stephen Rees

    June 22, 2010 at 3:34 pm

  3. True that it’s not easy. However, Sungsu found that the blogger could have caught the 375 by the 8th ave roundabout and walk only half the distance.,-123.138565&sspn=0.376395,0.821915&ie=UTF8&ll=49.017083,-122.762899&spn=0.002955

    And looking at the map, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to at least service douglas crossing, perhaps extend the 375 to the canadian border.

    In your work for TL, were you able do some demographics about who in the GVRD travels to blaine/bellingham and where? Did potential ridership look promising?

    IMO I am unsure if there would be adequate demand for a direct bus service past the border. I would wonder about proximity, density and demand compared to other border areas where there is cross-border buses, like detroit/windsor or tiujuana/san diego.


    June 22, 2010 at 10:25 pm

  4. to clarify further, the windsor/detroit bus is public, but the tiujuana bus seems to be private, but a return fare runs $6 USD. (versus ~$40 for quick shuttle to seattle)


    June 22, 2010 at 10:30 pm

  5. Interesting that trip from Seattle! but what ARE Jersey barriers? some kind of a knited fence?? or a special barriers too high for Jersey cows to jump over?

    Red frog

    June 22, 2010 at 11:57 pm

  6. Of course Whatcom County voters failed to approve a sales tax increase for bus service so the award winning service will be cutback.

    What’s up with the state of Washington and its transit systems eliminating Sunday service ??


    June 24, 2010 at 11:46 am

  7. Before criticizing the neighbours let’s put our house in order..
    I just checked the West Coast express and it will not run on July 1st. Does it even run on weekends? can’t find any schedule on their site. Also one can’t use it to go East in the am or West in the pm unless I misread the schedules..
    Other towns, even in Canada, have true commuter trains (and not just one measly line either) that run all day long both ways (obviously) and with weekends and holidays service.

    Red frog

    June 24, 2010 at 2:57 pm

  8. ^^IIRC, there is a contract for track-sharing with CN that stipulates when the WCE can run and when it can’t to avoid congestion and collisions with freight traffic.

    They do run special trains for large events like the sun run or the olympics. I am unsure how that is arranged (ie, extra fees paid by translink) as the contract is confidential. IIRC, the contract is up for renegotiation in ~ 2020 (?).


    June 24, 2010 at 9:27 pm

  9. WCE uses CP track – and crews

    Stephen Rees

    June 24, 2010 at 9:31 pm

  10. I know that they have contract with CN but in other countries the national and regional governments tell private tracks operators to share tracks. Freight has all night long to run trains too. And it is not a case of CP running hundreds of trains a day on that line in BC.

    Red frog

    June 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm

  11. You really have to watch that one…

    Red frog

    June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am

  12. @Red Frog.

    Sorry man but that video is fake. The jumps in the video tells me that the amount of time between each train is unknown. Thus we can not assume that each train is that close together. Which it couldn’t be as it would be a violation of so many safety regulations.

    Also as for your comment about the low service on the WCE. Sadly that is a byproduct of the agreement signed with CP Rail. There is supposed to be new agreement signed I believe around 2013 or 2014, I could be wrong on the date though. So hopefully we will see more service then. Of course CP rail could just decide that they want the tracks to them selves and we end up with no WCE.

    Paul C

    June 25, 2010 at 2:33 am

  13. Of course he had to cut the dead time between trains! these videos can only last a few minutes..the point of the video is to show that different types of trains plus trams share tracks during the day. This started in Germany–where the video was made–years ago. The only exception of course being High Speed trains that have dedicated tracks.

    Right now the town of Bordeaux (France) is rebuilding tracks on the West side that will be used by trains first then eventually also by tram-trains, the later being trams that run on train tracks (separated from cars, bikes, pedestrians) in suburban areas then on tram tracks in downtown streets.

    Red frog

    June 25, 2010 at 11:07 am

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