“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?”