Local voters have been in a generous mood lately.
Last fall, they approved ballot measures for Spokane city streets and parks, and in 2012 said “yes” to an expanded Spokane Convention Center. School and fire district levies fared well in February elections.
Up this month is Proposition 1 – the Spokane Transit Authority’s long-anticipated request for a major expansion.
Voters in the STA service area are being asked to approve an additional 0.3 percent sales tax to pay for improvements that would reach into virtually every neighborhood from West Plains to Liberty Lake, and from north to south. Mail ballots go out this week for the April 28 election.
An independent, scientific poll conducted for STA last fall showed support ranging from 55 percent to 60 percent among 400 residents served by STA. Whether that translates to voter support is the question.
Associate professor Kevin Pirch, the chair of the political science department at Eastern Washington University, said the outcome will depend largely on how voters “see their own personal economy.”
“Issues like this are kind of a barometer of the economy,” he said.
If approved, the measure will raise an estimated $270 million in local sales taxes over 10 years to be combined with $60 million or more in state and federal grants. Voters would have to approve an extension of the tax after 2025.
County Auditor Vicky Dalton said she expects turnout to exceed 40 percent, which would be a strong showing for a special election. The measure needs a simple majority to pass.
Pros, cons of expanding services
The improvements outlined by STA would be implemented as the new taxes are received during the 10-year funding period to avoid costs associated with bonded debt – a long-standing STA policy.
Proponents say that a vibrant city needs a strong mass transit system; that the millennial generation is choosing a lifestyle that depends on good mass transit; and that the investment will bring economic growth.
“We all know that economically vital cities that have a high quality of life also have a good transit system,” said Kitty Klitzke of Futurewise, an environmental land-use advocacy organization, who is working on a campaign to win approval.
Opponents argue that there are other pressing needs for the local tax dollar, such as public safety; that STA is over-reaching in the scope of the plan; and that predictions of economic growth are not likely without incentives for developers.
“It is a significant amount of money for Spokane County,” said County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, a member of the STA board and a vocal opponent.
“We all have these demands in our community. What can we afford?” she said, pointing out that the county needs new jail funding and is also planning a parks measure.
STA officials said they crafted the plan with extensive public outreach and have struck a balance between new services and the existing system.
“This isn’t the STA telling you; this is the community telling us, ‘This is what we want,’ ” said STA’s Susan Meyer, the chief executive officer.
The number of rider boardings annually would go from 11.3 million last year to 14.5 million in 2024, according to STA estimates, which are based in part on population growth.
Without increased funding, STA is facing substantial service cuts in about two years, which would cause ridership to shrink to about 8 million boardings a year, officials said.
Central City Line
The centerpiece of the proposal – the big-ticket item that’s getting much of the attention – is a new Central City Line that would bring frequent electric trolleys on a fixed route from Spokane Community College to Browne’s Addition by way of Gonzaga University, the University District and downtown.
The $70 million cost would be paid for with about $60 million in federal and state transportation grants.
County Commissioner Al French, who supports the measure as an STA board member, said Spokane taxpayers have paid federal fuel taxes for decades and just now are getting a chance for a return on those taxes that go to transit systems across the country.
Several high-capacity transit projects are being funded in Western Washington through the federal grant program that STA is eyeing. Spokane’s application is pending voter approval of Proposition 1 to provide a required 20 percent local match.
The line would feature quiet electric trolley buses with batteries that could be charged en route using wireless technology and magnetic chargers embedded in the pavement.
The high-frequency trolleys would serve a corridor filled with homes, apartments, jobs, college campuses, businesses, nightlife, lodging, recreation and other traffic.
The electric line and stations would create a fixed route that proponents say would draw new development.
The likely route would be on Spokane Falls Boulevard and Main Avenue downtown, First and Sprague avenues west of downtown and Hamilton Street and Mission Avenue northeast of downtown.
Fares would be prepaid to speed up travel times. The cost per passenger trip would be about $4.70 after fares, which is higher than the regular bus average of $4 a ride. (That $4 cost is lower than the average for urban transit systems in the state.) About 880,000 annual boardings are expected.
An economic impact study showed that property values in the vicinity of the Central City Line could increase by $45 million and that the value of future real estate improvements could be $175 million or greater, according to ECONorthwest, based in Portland.
Benefits to downtown business
A study done by the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Eastern Washington University concluded in 2012 that public transportation is viewed as environmentally responsible, especially among the so-called millennial generation of younger adults.
“Today, as people try to save money on transportation costs and reduce their impact on the environment, transit will continue to be an increasingly attractive mode of transportation,” and “emerging trends of the younger demographic show that our culture is undergoing an interesting shift in its transportation patterns,” the report said.
The Central City Line is one of the reasons the Downtown Spokane Partnership recently endorsed Proposition 1, DSP President Mark Richard said.
He said the trolley line would bring more people to shopping, restaurants and other attractions in the core. He pointed out it has been part of the city’s downtown land-use plan for years.
In addition to the trolley, Proposition 1 would improve night and weekend service across many routes so that people could spend an evening downtown, confident a bus would be available until after 11 p.m., Richard said.
Employers downtown are eager to see improvements to give workers greater flexibility, especially at night and on weekends, he said.
The system expansion would need about 69 new drivers plus support staff.
Opponents said there is another way.
“You could simply add more buses,” said Chris Cargill, Eastern Washington Office director for the conservative Washington Policy Institute.
Bus rapid transit, which provides frequency and reduced travel times, could be done for less money and offer flexibility to revise routes as time goes on, Cargill said.
He also said that economic development associated with the Central City Line would need additional subsidies to attract private development.
French said those subsidies would likely be the long-accepted practice of using increased property taxes to pay for public infrastructure needed for any new development or for tax breaks available for historic restoration.
Who should pay?
Spokane Valley City Councilman Ed Pace, a member of the STA board, said he thinks STA did its homework to come up with a good plan. The problem is timing, he said. The STA measure comes when voters have opened their wallets for millions of dollars in other public works projects, with more requests on the way.
Pace also said he thinks only Spokane residents should pay for the Central City Line. STA collects sales tax of 0.6 percent within a 248-square-mile Public Transportation Benefit Area that includes the cities of Airway Heights, Cheney, Medical Lake, Millwood, Liberty Lake, Spokane and Spokane Valley, as well as surrounding unincorporated areas.
“It feels to a lot of my constituents we are being taxed to death,” Pace said. He noted that Spokane Valley voters are being asked again in August if they want to pay for $22 million in new library facilities.
Gretchen McDevitt, a Spokane resident opposed to the measure, said, “I am concerned about our rising cost of sales tax.”
Proposition 1 would take the total sales tax from 8.7 cents on the dollar to 9 cents – higher than most rural areas in the state but still lower than the most densely populated cities in Western Washington. Seattle’s sales tax is 9.6 percent.
McDevitt, a Republican activist, also said she is troubled by the high subsidy of tax dollars. Riders collectively pay about 20 percent of the cost of running the bus system.
Proposition 1 “is like buying a Cadillac when you can afford only a Ford,” she said.
While there is no organized opposition to the measure, proponents are mounting a campaign under a Coalition for Economic Activity with $70,000 in contributions, including an in-kind donation of $18,000 from Avista Corp.
Klitzke, who is working with the coalition, said residents of the west side of the state have been paying the extra local sales tax to support transit for years.
She asked, “Why would we not have just as nice of things as Seattle?”