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Spokane may run its own transit ballot measure this fall

The city of Spokane could go it alone in building a new Central City Line and other transit improvements, after a regionwide sales tax increase to pay for those projects narrowly failed last April.

The Spokane City Council wants a ballot measure for transit improvements sent back to voters in November.

The Central City Line would use rubber-tire trolley cars from Browne’s Addition through downtown and east to Gonzaga University and Spokane Community College. It’s pitched as a way to better serve some of the most densely populated areas of Spokane and as a magnet for economic development along a fixed route.

Spokane Transit Authority has been lining up state and federal grants to pay the entire $70 million cost.

Local tax funding would be needed to operate the line and to make other transit improvements, including new and expanded park-and-ride facilities.

The 0.3 percent sales tax measure in 2015 failed by just 572 votes out of 76,800 that were cast. Opposition was strongest in suburban areas, including Spokane Valley.

But in the city of Spokane, voters were 54 percent in favor of the measure. Support also was strong in Cheney and Medical Lake, which would be in line for transit improvements, including the construction of a new West Plains transit center along Interstate 90.

The Spokane City Council last week approved a resolution that puts the STA board of directors on notice that the city is willing to shoulder the funding burden even if other parts of the transit service area are opposed.

If Spokane voters were to agree to pay for the improvements, however, the expanded transit service likely would occur only inside the city.

STA is governed by a nine-member board made up of elected officials from Spokane County and the cities served by STA.

The transit agency’s board believes its finances are rosier than they were last spring when the ballot measure was defeated, so the Moving Forward projects could be built with a lower tax increase than the one voters rejected.

The board changed revenue and spending predictions for the next decade in light of an improving local economy. Revenue is now projected to increase 3 percent annually, up from 2.5 percent, which amounts to an additional $26 million over the next 10 years.

At the same time, expenses aren’t going up as fast as in past years, in part because of savings on the cost of fuel.

Now, the STA board is pondering a series of ballot scenarios that could seek sales tax increases of 0.1, 0.2 and 0.3 percent. Because of the extra money from the changed fiscal predictions, the STA staff said it could build last year’s Moving Forward projects for 0.2 percent in additional sales tax, not the 0.3 percent that was rejected.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who chairs the STA board, is urging fellow board members to make a decision on a ballot measure as early as next month.

He said several STA board members would prefer that all voters within the transit agency’s service boundaries have the opportunity to decide on the Moving Forward project, not just those in the city of Spokane.

But fellow STA board member Ed Pace, a Spokane Valley city councilman, is not among them. Pace said he supports the idea of improving transit, but believes the Central City Line should be funded by city of Spokane dollars.

In the resolution adopted in a 6-1 vote Monday, the Spokane City Council said it wants a measure on the ballot during the general election in November to allow for a voter turnout in the presidential election year.

“We would like to see Moving Forward move forward,” said Spokane City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, an STA board member.

Grant funds for projects could be jeopardized if the STA board drags its feet, she said.

County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, an STA board member, said she prefers a go-slow approach to allow STA board members to reach consensus on the timing of a ballot measure and the amount of any request.

O’Quinn, a Republican, is up for re-election this year and could end up on the November ballot if she survives a primary election in her district, which includes Spokane Valley.

The makeup of the STA board changed at the start of the year, with the city of Spokane losing one of its three seats.

The city accounts for 78 percent of all bus rides.

If the STA board won’t put a measure to voters this November, then the Spokane City Council would ask its voters for a tax increase through an existing transportation benefit district, which encompasses the city.

The council created the district five years ago, which allowed the city to add a $20 fee to annual vehicle registrations to pay for streets and sidewalks.

Among the options for raising money for transit:

The transportation benefit district could place a sales tax measure on the ballot, according to state law.

The city could impose developer charges.

The district could seek a property tax increase.

The current vehicle registration tax could be increased to $40 without a public vote.

The sales tax and development charges would need a simple majority to pass, but a property tax increase would need a 60 percent majority.

If voters were to approve new taxes or fees, then the city would negotiate an agreement with STA to build a Central City Line and make other improvements such as better weekend and late-night bus service, Waldref said.



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