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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Scale back ambitious STA plans

Spokane Transit Authority directors will vote Thursday on an ambitious plan that would boost revenue and service throughout Spokane County by 30 percent and launch a new central city line that would carry passengers from Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College.

To help cover the projected $160 million cost of the plan, the local sales tax would be raised 0.3 percent, or 3 cents per $10 purchase, the most allowed under Washington law. Still, most of the necessary funding is expected to come from federal and state grants.

With the directors’ OK, the sales tax increase would go to voters in April. But a scaled-down plan that could be implemented with a smaller sales tax increase should be undertaken first, with the remaining tax increment kept in reserve.

Many of the planned changes are laudable: a new West Plains terminal that will allow bus users to get around without having to ride all the way downtown, new or expanded park-and-ride facilities, more express service, and extended night and weekend service.

But questions remain about what technology would be deployed on the central city line, and the system’s hub – the downtown Plaza – remains its weakest link.

STA moves more than 11 million people annually. For many, buses are their only transportation, and more and more urban residents throughout the country are embracing life without a personal vehicle.

Some, unfortunately, also pursue a life around the Plaza that has little or nothing to do with transportation. Their loitering, language and smoking is an ongoing nuisance to downtown workers, customers and visitors. The Plaza is oversized: Three of the region’s largest business organizations last month recommended against new investment in the facility in favor of closing the second floor and walling off excess space.

Its single virtue is its location, and STA officials say the Plaza will continue to be its operations center, but one more frequently bypassed by allowing passengers to make connections elsewhere. Also, more frequent buses will get riders in and out of the terminal more quickly.

The rationale for a central city line is the return on investment. Its projected $46 million cost – mostly grant-funded – could generate more than $170 million in other investment around new stops. It’s the same reasoning that in the 1800s had western cities like Spokane begging railroads for service.

But what kinds of buses would be deployed, or even where they are made – the United States, if federal dollars are involved – has not been determined. The city would have to make zoning changes in some areas before investors would be on board.

In their strong support for new street and park bonds, Spokane voters have showed they will support officials who deliver the results promised. STA is a well-run organization, but it will be asking a lot from voters also facing a new round of school bonds and uncertainty in Olympia.

Better to go for 1 or 2 cents, institute the route improvements, including a protracted trial run on the central city route, build financial reserves, rethink the Plaza’s form and location, and come back for more as voters see the return on their money.

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