Who are you and what do you do?
I’m the executive director of the Whatcom Council of Governments, which has been in existence for over fifty years. But most people don’t know who we are or what we do.
The Council of Governments was created by the State Legislature in 1966 to serve as a forum for all of the jurisdictions in Whatcom County—the seven cities, the county government, the Port, the tribes, etc. We also have associate members, including Western Washington University and the Opportunity Council. The federal government was encouraging regional cooperation in the sixties. The goal was to create a framework to enable the member jurisdictions of these regional councils to come together and find solutions to problems that extended beyond local borders.
In the early 1980s the Census Bureau designated Bellingham as an “urbanized area,” which required that the federally-prescribed transportation planning process be carried out to enable Bellingham to receive federal transportation funding. In 1982, Governor Spellman designated the COG as the region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, or “MPO,” to carry that out. Then, when Washington State’s Growth Management Act was passed in 1990 we were also designated as the Regional Transportation Planning Organization for all of Whatcom County. Transportation is critical to the region’s economy, so all of the jurisdictions are voting members in our Whatcom Transportation Policy Board, which determines how federal, state and local transportation funds should be invested.
Beyond transportation planning, we also administer a number of different programs. One that you’re probably familiar with is our Whatcom Smart Trips program. It’s been in existence now for ten years. If you go on the website you can see that there have been over three-and-a-half million smart trips recorded in online trip diaries totalling nearly 60 million miles! It’s a very popular program that’s making significant improvements to mobility and the environment. The other major initiative of the COG is our International Mobility and Trade Corridor Program, or “IMTC.” We started IMTC almost twenty years ago to bring together all of the entities involved in border transportation from both sides of the border, so we have federal, state and provincial transportation departments, both countries’ customs agencies, local governments, business groups – all for the purpose of moving people and freight through our five border crossings as efficiently as possible. That program is viewed as a model for international cooperation on border transportation in both countries
We also provide bike safety education programs for elementary school kids through the County as well as teaching seventh graders how to travel independently, and safely.
You teach this in schools?
Yeah, we have staff that teach workshops at the middle and elementary schools. We set up a mock road course, bring bicycles to the school and teach kids when to stop, to be aware of cars, you know, how to be safe when they ride. We’re also administering a program in partnership with the Whatcom Transportation Authority that will provide free quarterly bus passes to every seventh grader in the County. If their school agrees to participate, we teach a one-day class at the school and the kids who take it then get a quarterly bus pass, if it’s okay with their parents. Thousands of kids have benefitted from those kinds of programs over the years.
We also facilitate the North Sound Connecting Communities Program, or what we call the “Farmhouse Gang” because we used to meet at the Farmhouse restaurant in Skagit County. This is a really great program because it brings together our neighbors in northwest Washington – San Juan, Island, Skagit and Snohomish counties – to address transportation issues that extend beyond any one of those jurisdictions’ boundaries. That’s been going on now for about seventeen years.
And recently we’ve gotten involved in regional economic development again. We used to have a pretty big role in that, but we stopped in the late 90’s. But in 2014 the County Executive asked us to prepare something called the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for Whatcom County, which is a requirement of the Federal Government if a jurisdiction wants to be eligible for certain funds through the U.S. Economic Development Administration. It lays out the County’s aspirations for economic development.
So we do a lot of things, but we do them very quietly.
Transportation is like many other aspects of infrastructure in that you only notice it when it is done badly.
Right. And that’s why planning is so important, to ensure that what gets built will actually solve the problem, and not just the immediate problem but issues that are likely to arise in twenty, thirty, forty years from now. One of my most dreaded questions is, “Explain what you do.” People hear “transportation” and they think that you operate something, or you design, or you build. We don’t do any of that. We do the planning and basically ensure that the money is available to make these projects happen. There are two main tasks we have to carry out to meet the federal planning requirements. The most important is developing a Regional Transportation Plan, which we’re actually in the process of doing right now. That plan looks out to 2040 and will guide transportation investment in the County for five years, when we have to update it again. We have to develop the plan with fiscal restraint; in other words, what we propose has to be realistic in terms of cost. We can’t shoot for the moon; there has to be some basis in reality for the projects that we identify in the plan.
In conjunction with that we program transportation funding in something called “the TIP,” the Transportation Improvement Program. It’s basically the capital program for transportation. The TIP is a listing projects that are funded and they have to be consistent with our regional plan in order to be funded. That’s both a federal and state requirement. As I said earlier, local elected officials make these decisions, although they do it in cooperation with the Washington State Department of Transportation and our federal partners. It’s a process that brings transportation decision-making down to the local level.
So are you the guy that I should complain to about one-way streets?
No! [Laughs] I will give you that guy’s name, though!
What brought you to Bellingham?
Well, I had run two other MPOs, one in Virginia and, before that, in Connecticut. In 2011, I accepted a position with the state of Virginia, but after three months my boss decided she wanted to go in a different direction by reorganizing the senior staff, and I was the odd man out. Since there are only about 340 MPOs in the entire country – and at any given time only a few chief executive positions are available – you have to go where the job is. My wife and I are both from the East Coast – Huntington, New York, to be exact – and we’d never even been to the West Coast, but like I said, you go where the job is. We feel very lucky to have landed here, though. My wife, kids and I have really enjoyed the four years we’ve been here.
So what’s your favorite spot in town?
Oh, boy. We live in Geneva and really like it there. I also love Fairhaven—especially by the corner of Harris and 11th Street. Elsewhere in the region, I love Front Street in Lynden. So much stuff has been going on there with the recent redevelopment of the Waples Mercantile building.
The County itself is just so beautiful. I love the farmland here. I love seeing the raspberries when they’re ripe and ready to be picked. I tell my friends and family back home that it’s hard to imagine any place in the country that’s more beautiful than here, with the Cascades, the San Juans, having access to both Vancouver and Seattle. It’s just great!
What does Bellingham need?
I think Bellingham is in the same boat as most small cities. Just keeping your transportation infrastructure in a state of good repair is a challenge, never mind trying to add more, but Bellingham has done a good job with both. The recent improvements to Alabama Street have been a Godsend. In fact, I used to avoid Alabama but now I use it all the time between Geneva and Downtown, where my office is. The City has also responded to what its citizens want, like the new bike lanes. And in the 2015 State legislative session, Bellingham received funding to build a new connection between Birchwood and East Orchard Drive that will provide much-needed east-west access in north Bellingham. The COG supported that project and I lobbied for it in Olympia. So I think Bellingham is doing a really good job, especially given how limited funding is these days. We work very closely with them, and to their credit they’ve been a reliable funding partner for the Whatcom Smart Trips program, so we really appreciate that.
So when the self-driving car arrives how does that change the transportation infrastructure in Whatcom County?
Well, while there’s no doubt that self-driving cars are coming, I don’t think we’ll see a noticeable impact from them for at least ten years, and maybe not even that soon. Even if they were widely available right now most people wouldn’t be running out to buy one, for a lot of reasons. Most people hold onto their cars for years. Self-driving cars will probably be expensive initially. I also think that most people actually enjoy driving and will still want to drive their cars themselves. But there’s no question that self-driving cars are going to be a part of the equation. As the technology develops we’ll certainly incorporate self-driving cars into our planning, but since they’re intended to use existing roads it may not alter the way we plan in a significant way. But it’s an interesting time to be working in transportation planning, which really hasn’t changed all that much in the last thirty or forty years.
What was the last big innovation? Was it the Interstate System?
Well in terms of capital improvements, yes. That began in the 1950’s and was basically completed by the 1970’s. You’re probably not going to see that kind of capital investment in roads ever again. It would be an enormous feat just to maintain what we already have, which, in itself, will require a huge investment.
But both technology and demographics are impacting transportation, especially over the past five years or so. Uber and Lyft are having an enormous impact on people’s travel choices, including even whether they should own a car or not. And young people now are waiting longer than ever to get their driver’s licenses. You know, other than the birth of my children and the day I got married, the happiest day of my life was the day I got my driver’s license. I can still remember the date—April 13, 1978. But that’s just not that important to a lot of kids today. Now, I think that most of them will end up driving, and they’ll certainly have different views when they’re thirty or forty and have families. But I suspect many of them will continue to use transit, even well into adulthood. So responding to the needs and desires of millennials is going to impact how we plan. Of course, we also have to engage seniors as we develop local transit and infrastructure and make sure that their needs are met. One of the things we’ve done at the COG is travel training for senior citizens. It’s not uncommon to find people in their eighties who have never been on a bus, and it’s intimidating for some of them. A lot of people have a hard time understanding transit timetables and maps, and there can also be a fear factor about who they’ll encounter on the bus. We have to factor those kinds of things into our planning.
If you could go back to school with unlimited time and money what would you go study?
Oh, there’s no doubt, I’d study American history. That’s my real passion. I’m an avid reader of it, especially the American Revolution. I’m also very interested in the history of major public works projects, like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal – I even read a book once about the history of New York City’s public water system! My wife still teases me about that.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
I’m reading a good one now. It’s called Adopted Son and it’s about the relationship between George Washington, who’s my personal hero, and the Marquis de Lafayette, the young French nobleman who came and fought in the Revolution. Washington had no children of his own and Lafayette’s father was a soldier who died when he was very young, and a very special bond formed between them. Lafayette became a major general in the Continental Army when he was only nineteen, and he was a good one. I didn’t really know much about his life after the American Revolution, but he was at the center of everything in France before, during and after their revolution. An amazing man!