Small Agency Profile: Link Transit

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.”

Establishing Transit
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In 1999, the voters repealed a motor vehicle tax and half of that money had gone to transit.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.

“Then, we went out and talked cities into doing that and ended up getting the 66 cities, which have some ownership of those 44 transit systems.” He explains, “Some of them are joint ventures, but the 66 cities had legal obligations for paratransit. They all agreed to create a regional system to meet the ADA requirements for Los Angeles County.

“We were able to establish what is now the Access services program for Los Angeles County as an ADA system, but the big part of that was everyone who committed to working on it also committed to maintain their existing services, which, in 1990 when we did this, was more than $100 million a year.” He says, “The entire goal was to make sure that we were keeping that $100 million in the pot and that what we were funding as an expansion was used services that added to the region. That success in maintaining the local investment was a big part.”

DeRock was originally leading that department of the MTA, and then in 1993 the MTA agreed to spin it off as a separate agency and he was hired as its first executive director. “I was at Access for 11 years in Los Angeles and had been at the MTA for seven before that,” DeRock says. And then he started wondering about quality of life issues.

“I was doing a 50-mile-each-way commute. I lived down in south Orange County and our offices were in downtown Los Angeles and even taking Metrolink, which I did most days, it ended up being two hours each way.” And he had been doing it for 17 years.

“My kids were getting older and I wanted to spend some more time with them,” he says. “Thinking back about things I had done at the time, running smaller agencies were some of the best times I had ever had because you could be more hands on, you could be more engaged and so I chatted with my wife and we said we really would like to go someplace where we could live a lot closer to where things are.

“When the opportunity in Wenatchee came open, my initial reaction was, ‘Well, where’s Wenatchee?’ in all honesty,” DeRock laughs. “I didn’t have any connection to the area but I happened to do a little bit of research and thought it sounded really interesting, talked to some of the staff and was very much impressed with the people who I was talking to, a very positive, really consumer-focused attitude.

“I love being an active part of the community, being close. My commute’s two and a half minutes.” He stresses, “There are some really wonderful things about that. “

Meeting People’s Needs
By 2002, when they were recruiting for DeRock’s position, the agency was on a $6 million budget, was a little more than a million dollars in the red, reserves were down to about a year’s worth, and the entire fleet needed to be replaced.

“The board was actually talking about eliminating the fixed-route system, going to just an elderly and disabled paratransit service,” explains DeRock. “But there were some positive things that the community really didn’t see.

“One of the big ones was that Wenatchee had, in 2002, finally qualified as an urbanized area and was able to become a small urban area, which very dramatically increases your federal funds,” DeRock says. Another positive was the operators. “When Link was established, the general manager here put in a really unique idea.” DeRock explains, “We don’t call our riders passengers, they’re guests. Guest service is the primary mission of the organization.

“It creates a really unique environment,” he says. “Universally people will tell you the drivers are just extraordinary; they go out of their way to provide really good service.”

But looking at the system, there was a one-hour headway for most of the routes, to get anywhere in town riders would have to transfer, and the paratransit services were consuming 48 percent of the budget.

DeRock recalls, “I remember taking an economic class years ago and it talked about transit being an inferior good in economic terms and it always stuck with me that in most cases, that’s actually true compared to the choice of a car …” He asks, “What does it take to change it from an inferior good to a choice good and how do we make that happen cost effectively and in a way that the community can then see the value of it?”

The shift in paratransit has created a new agency. With the location of Wenatchee at the foot of the mountains, there’s a lot of snow and ice. DeRock says, “Most people’s disabilities qualify for paratransit at least during the winter, if not for significant parts of time.” He continues, “One of the things that I brought from Los Angeles was a real questioning of the model being super strict on eligibility.

“We’re not in the business of telling people ‘No,’” says DeRock. “It puts us in this funny place where we’re making medical decisions, we’re making other issues.

“One of the thoughts I’ve always believed is that part of the reason that paratransit demand is so extreme is that we don’t meet people’s needs with the regular buses,” he stresses.

They looked at the fixed-routes, spent a lot of time talking to riders and looking at the route structures. One change was that they switched from hubbing to connecting all of the major destinations.

“Another thing we ended up doing,” says DeRock, “we went out and bought a couple of used low-floor buses.

“We couldn’t afford to buy new ones, but we had all high-floor equipment with lock lifts, where were not attractive to people with disabilities.”

He explains that they also worked at marketing it to the community, talking about the cost differences between them, explaining that the subsidy on paratransit was nearly $20 a ride where as the subsidy on the fixed-route was maybe $5- or $6-a-ride. “So it’s a better use of funds for everybody,” he says.

“Over a couple year period, we moved more than 25 percent of our paratransit riders to fixed-route voluntarily. They made that choice,” he states. “Ridership does go up a bit in the winter on paratransit, but no where near as much as it used to and total paratransit ridership is down 30 percent from what it was in 2002, even though our fixed-route ridership is up more than 200 percent.”

DeRock shares, “That reduction in paratransit ridership saved more than, much more than the deficit that we were running, which allowed us to put more service into fixed-route and expand.” He adds, “We’ve actually been able to restore all the service that was cut after the funding loss in ’99 without raising our taxes.

“We did it through efficiencies, through restructuring, brought back Saturday service, brought back frequencies.” He adds, “The number of hours we were operating in 1999 is the same as what we’re operating today on the fixed-route. Paratransit is less, but that’s voluntary. People made those choices because we’ve made the fixed-route work better.”

Connecting a Small Agency
DeRock says he’s convinced that being involved in the industry is important. Being involved, you know how to take advantage of opportunities and know where to look for money, he says. “You hear about them early so that you can position yourself in the right place so that your community or organization can take advantage of those that are out there.”

One example he uses is with Link Transit’s affiliation with the Washington State Transit Association. “When I got up here, no one was hedging and we weren’t big enough to hedge by ourselves,” he says. So a number of the properties put together a consortium of six properties in Washington State and they contract about 125,000 gallons a month. He adds, “It has given us price stability. It just takes that risk off the table.”

He adds, “You couldn’t have done it without the connectivity and working on a broader basis to get these things done.”