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Opinion

STA tax victory a pleasant surprise

Wow!

A transit measure getting seven out of every 10 votes? In a county that booed a similar tax increase 18 months ago? For an agency that pitifully backtracked from a claim that service would have to be drastically cut last summer?

To repeat, wow!

Even the opponents’ excuse that Tuesday’s election was held in the spring to suppress turnout was blown away. Preliminary results show that more people voted in this transit election than in the last one, which was held during the primaries in September 2002.

On the day after the election, the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza was decorated with a couple of “thank you” signs and a few balloons. Some buses flashed neon “thanks.” The modest celebration is in keeping with an agency that has effectively cracked down on spending and has become much more serious about its mission.

The electoral turnaround for a service that most voters don’t directly use is remarkable, and many people and organizations deserve credit.

The changing fortunes of bus service in Spokane County can probably be traced to the hiring of Kim Zentz, formerly of Avista, to run an agency that many felt was taking taxpayers for a ride. Her private-sector sensibilities and aggressive reforms earned grudging respect from the business community, which eventually signed on to the sales tax increase.

Some business interests weren’t enthusiastic (they make a good argument for non-political representation on the STA board), but they were able to secure a sunset clause for the tax increase, which will force the STA to make the case again in three years. That clause was key to wider acceptance.

The Spokane Alliance, a broad-based collection of religious and labor groups, was instrumental in persuading a hesitant STA board to go back to the voters. The Alliance lost its battle on the sunset clause, but that didn’t stop its members from campaigning vigorously. The Alliance went door-to-door — following up with phone calls — and worked street corners and community events to get the word out.

Alliance members also rode buses, talked with riders and encouraged them to register to vote. One of the stinging realizations from the 2002 vote was that riders themselves did not make a strong showing at the polls.

The final piece of the puzzle was Save Our Transit, which raised funds for the important marketing and advertising efforts that helped convey just how important bus service is to any thriving community.

A mere 18 months ago, 34,644 voters rejected a tax increase to preserve bus service. Thus far, with some absentee ballots to be counted and a higher turnout overall, fewer than 21,000 voters said no. That’s a remarkable transformation, and the key players deserve congratulations and thanks.

A community’s health can be measured by its ability to bring disparate factions together to preserve vital functions. On Tuesday, Spokane County showed that it still has a big enough heart to turn “boos” into “wows.”

(For a discussion of what STA should do next to justify the voters’ faith, see Sunday’s editorial page.)

 

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