It’s a showdown for the right to sit down.
The Spokane Transit Authority board on Thursday rejected a $38,000 contract to replace some of the bus benches ordered removed by the city of Spokane because they violate the city’s sign regulations.
That decision means riders may have no place to sit unless Spokane Mayor Mary Verner reverses her order to advertising companies to remove their 250 bus benches within city limits by May 25. The proposal before the STA board Thursday would have provided 100 benches that comply with the city’s ordinance, but it failed after some questioned why the transit agency should have to bear the cost of a city regulatory decision.
Verner, following a review started by former Mayor Dennis Hession’s administration, decided last summer that the benches should no longer be allowed to remain in the city’s right of way. City leaders say the signs have been illegal since a 2001 sign ordinance.
Thursday night, Verner said she will work with STA to try to find a way to maintain the benches.
“We want to be able to provide benches without interruption,” Verner said. “My concern is the bus riders.”
But she added that she likely will consider extending the deadline to remove the benches only if it is for a “reasonably short period.”
“Right now the benches that are out there are in violation of the code and have created a legal quandary,” Verner said.
Most of STA’s board argued that it would be unfair for the organization to spend money on benches only in the City of Spokane, especially when other entities, like Spokane Valley and Spokane County allow bus benches with ads.
“Every other city in this area is taking this on themselves,” said Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson.
As it stands, STA has little say over bus benches. Instead, cities and Spokane County have the power to regulate them and determine where they’re placed. In Spokane, Sunset Outdoor Advertising, which also goes by Emerald Outdoor Advertising, had a contract for the right to provide the benches.
Sunset paid the city about $9,000 a year until administrators didn’t renew the contract. After it lapsed, Lamar Outdoor Advertising also began placing benches.
Sunset officials have questioned the city’s interpretation of the 2001 sign code and have said they are still deciding if they will comply with the ordered removal.
Spokane City Councilman Richard Rush was the only STA board member to vote in favor of the purchase. Rush said the city should have a right to regulate the benches and that it makes sense for the transit agency to control and purchase new ones.
“Should we defer this contract, our clientele will go without bus benches,” Rush said.
STA rider John Billington, who is legally blind, testified that he uses a bus bench near his home.
“You shouldn’t have to spend the money for the city. The bus benches are necessary,” Billington said. “I hope that you go ahead and make the City of Spokane take care of their own problems.”
Others testified that the proposed new benches, which would be metal and backless, would be uncomfortable for some riders and would be too hot or cold depending on the weather.
Robert Herold, a former city plan commissioner, testified that he and his wife researched benches on the South Hill and found some benches far from bus stops. He said as the bench program stands, seats are placed where they benefit ad companies, not bus riders.
“There are bus benches that have never been sat on,” Herold said.
The STA board also rejected a proposal by City Councilman Al French to begin a bid process whereby STA could take over the benches and administration of ads. French has said he believes he has enough support on City Council to approve an amendment to city code to allow bench ads.
Most STA board members argued that moving forward with bids before a City Council decision even allowing ads would be rushed.
“I would prefer a district wide standardization of benches,” said Airway Heights Mayor Matthew Pederson, whose city also has banned ads on bus benches.
Verner said she met last summer with STA officials, including French, and that there was no disagreement in purchasing new benches or transferring oversight to STA.
“I had what I thought was an agreed-upon strategy as of last summer,” Verner said.