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Proposition 1: Funding for Spokane Transit Authority Improvements

Atomic Taco via flickr
Spokane Transit Authority

Spokane County voters will have a chance to decide if they want to approve a sales tax increase to fund major improvements to Spokane Transit. Voters have had a chance to weigh in on The STA Moving Forward plan before. Two years ago, it failed at the polls. This time around, the specifics of the improvements are much the same, but the funding proposal has been changed.

Listen Now: Full interviews with Brandon Rapez-Betty, Tom Truelove, and Steve Peterson

STA Spokesman Brandon Rapez-Betty says, “It’s a lower sales tax ask: it was three tenths of a percent, [then] it was two tenths. It’s also phased in over a period of time rather than happening all at once. So one tenth happens in 2017, and another tenth happens in 2019. And the third thing is some of the projects that were happening later in the plan.  The board made the decision to move those to the beginning so people would receive the services faster.”

Besides the sales tax increase, funding would come from state and federal grants, increased revenue from more riders, and phased-in fare increases. The improvements include the electric-powered Central City Line bus--connecting Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College by way of Downtown Spokane and the University District--new routes to hospitals, schools and job sites, more service to 7 regional corridors, and more options, including a West Plains transit center."

STA officials say they were able to downgrade the previous 3 tenths of a percent hike in part because of increased tax revenues due to increased sales tax growth in the past couple years. The tax increases would expire or “sunset” no later than the end of 2028.

Some, however, feel that is still too much of a burden on taxpayers.  One such critic is County Commissioner Shelley O' Quinn, who says, “Rather than doing the two tenths with a sunset, I would have rather advocated for one tenth without a sunset and said show us that you are capable of implementing these. And then come back and demonstrate to the public that you are good stewards. And then come back and ask for another tenth if you need it.”

Cheney Mayor and STA board member Tom Truelove disagrees. “There was no way a tenth could do the whole number of projects in a ten year period. I think there would not be room to do the bigger, new projects. The West Plains transit center, the extension of service with the central city line. If you didn’t have a sunset on the proposal you would be looking at over 20 years, but you wouldn’t have a system that was robust early on. You’d be spreading it over many more years.”

Another critic is County Commissioner candidate Josh Kerns who feels plans for the electric Central City Line bus is a bit overblown. Kerns says, “I get the desire to have this iconic route from Browne’s Addition to the community college, but I don’t think we necessarily need an iconic vehicle to create an iconic route.”

STA Spokesman Rapez-Betty says the electric bus was actually scaled back quite a bit from the original proposal. “The cost of the overhead cantalever system, which would have made it an electric trolley, was higher than expected.  So the project was scaled down so that it is now an electric bus that runs on a 6-mile route in Spokane that is equal to other routes.” The STA Spokesman says that is the way much of the industry is moving because of the lower maintenance cost of electric vehicles.

At least one critic wonders if the cost of the whole project is worth what’s being delivered. Liberty Lake Mayor Steve Peterson says his community has 374 people who use STA every day. “Right now, I have 374 boarding. The City of Liberty Lake, under this plan, will pay in 2 million dollars. A boarding for me will cost me--my citizens here--on a yearly basis about $8,000 each. I mean you could buy a guy a car.”

Peterson is also critical of the characterization of the 0.2% sales tax as a small increase in costs for citizens, and such tax will hurt his town's businesses. “Our sales tax revenue is derived from cars, homes, and motor homes. That’s about 90% of our sales tax revenue. It’s not a $15 shirt; it’s a $300,000 home. That nickel has changed into $2,000 or 3,000.”

You can find out more specifics about the plans for STA’s  “Moving Forward” proposal ontheir website.  

Full interview with Brandon Rapez-Betty and Tom Truelove
Full interview with Steve Peterson

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.