Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Whatcom County

No good work goes unpunished

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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 , ,