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STA Fueling Up for Tax Proposal On Ballot

STA bus stop
Paige Browning
/
Spokane Public Radio

Spokane Transit Authority will be asking voters to approve a sales tax increase in April to help fund an ambitious series of transit improvements. The STA “Moving Forward” plan calls for 28 new projects. Among them, new high performance lines with more frequency that will serve Cheney and the central city line to Spokane community college, 75 new passenger shelters, a West Plains transit center to serve Airway Heights and Medical Lake, and buses operating later in the evening.

STA CEO Susan Meyer says they did some intense surveying of the public to come up with the plan.

Meyer: “We’ve been in progress for two and half years listening to people, finding out what is the most important. We started with a list of 100 projects, and narrowed with the board to 28 that were the most affordable, within our means”

The projects would require a 3 tenths of a percent sales tax increase to be approved by voters, and that tax would end after ten years. That is on top of an already existing 6/10th of a percent tax used to fund STA.

City Councilwoman Amber Waldref says the need for more transit options is there, and cites what happened when recent cuts in the budget were made four years ago, following the economic downturn:

Waldred: "We cut about ten percent of our service in 2010-11 , and yet we hit 11. 3 million rides in 2014, basically our highest ridership ever, since STA was formed over fifty years ago.”

It’s likely ridership will increase even more if improvements are made. STA’s Susan Meyer says when service was increased by 15 percent back in 2005, ridership actually jumped by 45 percent.

But the 3/10’s of a percent tax increase proposal does have its critics. County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn worries that the financing is not sustainable. She says by bringing that taxing rate up to 9/10’s of a percent.  STA is at the taxing limit set by the legislature, when it comes time for renewal.

O'Quinn: “So, to sustain the plan, not only does STA have to go back to taxpayers, since there is a sunset clause, and ask for renewal of the 9-tenths, they also have to go the legislature and ask for the authority to increase taxes beyond the 9-tenths.”

But Amber Waldref says other transit systems in the state face the same dilemma, and they have ten years to change the state limit on financing.

Waldref: “The other larger transit districts in Washington State are already at their maximum so they have been pushing for two to three years for the legislature to allow more capacity there, so I’m very confident the legislature will address that issue in the next five years.”

Susan Meyer says Snohomish and Kitsap counties have bills pending this session to raise their transit tax cap.

One other aspect of the STA “Moving Forward “ plan that concerns Shelley O’Quinn is the central city line. The plan calls for looking into using a modern electric trolley system that is made in the USA, but O'Quinn wonders if regular buses might be a better option.

O'Quinn: “There’s no currently identified vehicle that is built in the United States. And we still don’t know what energy source were going to sue. They says the overhead lines would be too expensive. I would like to see us try to implement that line now, and actually see what the ridership is.”

Amber Waldref says there are some domestically made trollies that would work:

Waldref: The vehicles exist. We’re working with the manufacturers to have them meet the look we are looking for, and I’m fully confident that will happen.”

The built in U-S specification is important because they need to be able to qualify for federal grants that will fund this part of the project. Proponents say those type of grants are common for such transit upgrades all over the country, and don’t foresee any problems with that part of the plan.

The STA tax increase will come before voters in the areas to be served by STA in April.

Steve was part of the Spokane Public Radio family for many years before he came on air in 1999. His wife, Laurie, produced Radio Ethiopia in the late 1980s through the '90s, and Steve used to “lurk in the shadowy world” of Weekend SPR. Steve has done various on air shifts at the station, including nearly 15 years as the local Morning Edition host. Currently, he is the voice of local weather and news during All Things Considerd, writing, editing, producing and/or delivering newscasts and features for both KPBX and KSFC. Aside from SPR, Steve ,who lives in the country, enjoys gardening, chickens, playing and listening to music, astronomy, photography, sports cars and camping.
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