Battle lines were drawn early by transit officials in a four-hour-long meeting Thursday afternoon, but the eventual 6-3 split sending a 10-year, $300 million project to the ballot wasn’t clear until the vote was called and hands were raised.
Voters will decide in April if they want to increase sales tax by 0.3 percent to fund a plan that would extend hours and expand service to new areas, as well as fund a trolley-like fixed route between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College.
Spokane Transit Authority board members Shelly O’Quinn, Chuck Hafner and Ed Pace voted against sending the issue to voters, but not before receiving stiff pushback from other board members, including fellow conservative Al French, a county commissioner.
At one point, O’Quinn asserted the transit agency’s financial projections were flawed and that it “simply can’t afford” the plan even with the tax increase. French called the projections “ultra-ultra conservative,” and noted that financial assumptions are never perfect.
“I would rather try and build a community based on an aspirational perspective than the doom and gloom,” he said. “Change happens. What we do as elected officials is adjust to change.”
Currently, STA receives most of its funding from a voter-approved sales tax of 0.6 percent. The new funding is expected to generate $300 million over 10 years and would allow the transit agency to begin implementing its long-range plan.
About half of that money – $146 million – would go to maintaining current services and replacing aging vehicles. Of the remaining pool, $12 million would go to the Central City Line, a streetcar-like electric trolley that runs on rubber wheels, not rails. Other funds would create new commuter routes from Liberty Lake and South Spokane, new transit centers and two high-performance transit routes, thus expanding bus frequency and hours of operation to Cheney and on North Division, North Monroe and East Sprague. A West Plains transit center also would be built.
Officials estimate the improvements will increase annual ridership by 3.4 million from its current average of 11 million.
After hearing more than 20 people speak on the plan, the vast majority in its favor, board members settled into discussion that turned contentious more often than not.
O’Quinn was the sole member to argue against the measure from beginning to end, continually calling it “unsustainable.” After the board followed her lead in stripping specifics from the plan on how it would be funded, which members later voted on, O’Quinn still voted against the plan, the only member to do so.
She had more company when they voted on the plan’s finances.
Pace, a Spokane Valley City Council member, said the city of Spokane should fund the central line, and recommended delaying action on the plan for a year.
Hafner, another Spokane Valley council member, said he didn’t oppose the transit system, just the plan, which he said wasn’t “financially sound” and had little benefit for other municipalities, calling it “a Spokane city project.” He also warned of “ballot fatigue” from voters, mentioning Spokane’s recent approval of a $60 million park bond and 20-year street levy, as well as upcoming school bond measures in February.
Candace Mumm, a Spokane city councilwoman, disagreed.
“Our voters are smart enough to discern what’s important to them,” she said. “To not let the voters decide is irresponsible.”
O’Quinn received the most pushback. French at one point suggested her arguments were merely political.
“A lot of the debate I hear at this table is campaigning,” he said, before taking aim at Pace and Hafner for attempting to “balkanize” the transit system. “We’ve done our due diligence. Turn it over to voters and let the voters decide.”
Richard Schoen, a Millwood City Council member, agreed that voters should have a chance to consider the plan, which he supported.
“These are conservative assumptions,” he said. “This is not a straitjacket. It’s an ongoing discussion.”
Mike Allen, a Spokane city councilman, potentially saved the plan by getting the board to agree to a 10-year sunset on the tax, which he said would fill what he called a “big gap in accountability.” The board unanimously approved Allen’s amendment. If it’s passed by voters, the tax will retire at the end of 2025.
Amber Waldref, a Spokane councilwoman who chairs the transit board, said she supported Allen’s amendment because it bettered the measure’s chances to make the ballot, due to Allen’s support.
“I think transit is very important. I do believe it’s a priority,” she said. “We’re in a good place. Momentum is on our side.”
Also during the meeting, board members unanimously agreed to revisions to STA’s downtown plaza renovation. After powerful downtown business interests argued the plaza was a nuisance, the transit agency agreed to rethink its plans. The project has been scaled down from $5.8 million to $4.95 million, but won final approval. Waldref said the project is expected to be complete in 2017.