Located in Washington State nestled between the Cascade Mountains, the Columbia River and the Wenatchee River is the city of Wenatchee. The area, served by Link Transit, is surprisingly dense due to its geographic location. General Manager Richard DeRock, says, “For a town of our urban area, you would not think that an area this size would have the kind of congestion that we do, but it’s the geography that drives it.”
After a Special Transit Conference in 1989, elected officials passed a resolution for the need for local transit. A Public Transportation Benefit Area was created in Chelan County and the Eastmont and part of Douglas County. The following year voters approved a sales tax increase and the new Chelan Douglas Public Transportation System d.b.a. Link Transit was established.
Initially the agency was a fare-free system. DeRock says, “It really irked a lot of the conservative people in our community.” The feeling was that people should be paying something for the cost; when it’s given away, it’s just a waste. “We were building a transit center in downtown, we were building an operation’s base out in the north part of town,” he says. “What I’ve been told, we were being viewed as being profitable. ‘Why are you spending all this money?’” He states, “We’re a conservative community, our economy is not wonderful — wasn’t at the time — ‘Why are you spending all this money on things that really aren’t necessary?’”
In 1999, the voters repealed a motor vehicle tax and half of that money had gone to transit. Every transit system in the state lost 45 percent of its funding. DeRock explains that most of the systems in the state went back to their voters and tried to raise local sales tax to offset what they lost. “Here at Link, the decision was not to do that.
“The board decided that the voters overwhelmingly passed this and they knew it was going to affect Link and they’ve been irritated with Link because of what appeared to be overspending.” He adds they instead went through a major service cut. “Laid off more than half the staff, cut 45 percent of fixed-route on the first go around and discovered when you cut fixed-route, paratransit demand goes up so that the cost when up on that side. So we had to go back and cut 10 percent of the fixed-route and it just wasn’t a stable circumstance.”
Coming to Wenatchee
While a student in college at the University of California-Davis, DeRock got a part-time job driving buses for its transit system. “I ended up moving into management and ended up being director of operations by the time I graduated.” He adds, “My degree, which was in geology, was not in high demand the year I graduated. The oil industry had collapsed but the transit market was pretty good at the time and I was hired as a contract general manager.”
Right out of college, DeRock started working in northern California running small transit properties and then went down to southern California. After operating one of the contract services for Orange County for about two years, he was hired by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission as a senior planner and went to work for the LACTC doing general public paratransit coordination.
“In the late ’80s, early ’90s, when the ADA was being discussed at the national level, I got involved with some of the advocates and some of the industry folks who were working on the legislation comments,” says DeRock. “The situation in LA was complicated because there are so many entities.”
He explains that while he was there, there were 44 fixed-route transit agencies in Los Angeles County and 83 cities that provided paratransit. The way the statutes were being proposed under the ADA, that was going to cause a major problem for how LA was organized,” explains DeRock. “We were able to get the ADA language changed to allow a coordinated system to be provided in L.A. County.