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Our View: STA owes voters, patrons a balanced funding plan

The Spokane Transit Authority and its riders needed help in 2004, and the voters came through, approving a 0.3 percent sales tax increase, at least for four years. Last spring, by a lusty 2-1 margin, they extended the tax – indefinitely.

It was the responsible thing to do. A reliable public transit system contributes to a vital community by improving air quality, reducing traffic congestion and assuring affordable mobility for the elderly, the disabled and the needy. And fares alone won’t support an adequate level of service.

Fares in Spokane have been unchanged since 2002, however. As STA considers an adjustment, it also is talking about closing the gap between the amount charged to bus riders on fixed routes and that charged to disabled patrons who require special paratransit vans.

The vans are mandated by federal law, but operating one costs STA more than five times as much per ride as operating a conventional bus. That’s partly because paratransit drivers transport their riders from door to door anywhere within a service area that extends three-quarters of a mile beyond the standard routes. Drivers must assist the passengers to and from the van – and carry their packages. The vans usually carry only a few paying passengers at a time. But paratransit rides are more expensive for another reason, too: Riders pay only half the fixed-route fare. The new fare structure, if approved next month, would gradually increase fares to $1.50 for both buses and vans by 2012. (At present, they’re $1 and 50 cents, respectively.) That concept has earned the agency some harsh and unjustified criticism.

“STA is targeting those who can’t speak out,” said an adult family home owner quoted Tuesday in The Spokesman-Review.

In fact, the proposed structure would continue to provide a significantly larger subsidy for paratransit users than fixed-route riders. In many states, said CEO Susan Meyer, transit fares are higher for the costly van service, but Washington law prohibits that.

It’s reasonable to provide extra help for riders whose disabilities are accompanied by financial disadvantage, which is often but not always the case.

A better solution would involve a means-tested rate structure, something Meyer says STA is looking at. The agency may also reopen discussions about coordinating the efforts of social service agencies that distribute monthly passes to their clients. Meyer says STA provides 3,000 such passes a month, but some recipients use them only a few times rather than daily.

Meanwhile, a sluggish economy has undercut the flow of sales tax dollars that STA needs, adding urgency to the fare-increase discussion.

Five years ago, Spokane was leery of an STA that had stumbled under dubious administration. New management has turned the once-faltering agency around, as reflected by steady increases in ridership, not to mention last spring’s enthusiastic renewal of the sales tax.

STA earned the voters’ trust, and they responded at the ballot box. STA has a duty to respond in kind by balancing the cost of an essential community service between fares and taxes.

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