SUNDAY, MAY 4, 2008

Yes for mass transit

Four years ago, voters approved a three-tenths of 1 percent increase in the sales tax for Spokane Transit Authority with the stipulation that they would get to revisit the issue. The tax expires at the end of this year and renewal will be on the May 20 ballot, but this time the tax would not carry an expiration date.

So voters must ask themselves two questions: 1) Should STA continue to receive this dedicated source of funding? 2) Should the sunset clause on such funding end?

We think the answer to both questions is yes. Without an extension of the sales tax, STA would lose half of the sixth tenths of 1 percent it receives from that source. Voters approved the first half in 1981, which was sufficient at the time because STA also received significant money from the motor vehicle excise tax. When the Legislature rolled back the MVET in the aftermath of Initiative 695, STA was faced with sudden financial peril and service was curtailed.

The 2004 tax hike has allowed STA to deliver on the main goals established by the board. Routes were restored and ridership has increased 25 percent, topping the per capita rates in Tacoma, Vancouver and Everett. At the same time, STA has achieved the lowest operating costs of any urban bus and paratransit service in the state.

The need for reliable bus service has grown since the last vote. The average price for a gallon of gasoline in the state hovers around $3.60, and it is expected to rise inexorably. The Sightline Institute reports that the state’s gas consumption has dropped 11 percent from 1999 to 2007. That’s good news for energy conservation, climate change and traffic challenges.

With all of the momentum toward decreasing fuel consumption, it would be a serious blow for voters to throw the county’s progress into reverse by crippling transit service. Had the 2004 vote failed, STA planned on laying off 153 employees. The loss of revenue would mean huge cutbacks in service.

The sunset clause was a good idea in 2004 because STA management had a checkered past, including breaching the public trust. However, under the management of former director Kim Zentz and current director Susan Meyer, the agency has adopted sound business principles and become more transparent and responsive to the public. Meyer, a critic of STA from the outside, changed her mind when she saw that it had tightened its practices.

The sunset clause needed to build credibility will become an impediment to improving service. If the agency is constantly on probation with voters, it will struggle to make long-range plans that will improve service. For example, STA would like to replace 75 of its buses in the next five years, but committing to that plan would be difficult with the sales tax in continual jeopardy.

That’s not to say the agency should be given a blank check. The public and media would be watchdogs. If the agency faltered, supportive politicians could be held accountable. Plus, ballot measures could be introduced to rescind the funding.

All of the sign posts point to this region needing reliable transit service. All of the recent changes show that STA can be trusted with the money.

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