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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

STA, policy center spar over Proposition 1 ballot measure

The head of the Spokane Transit Authority says a conservative think tank is intentionally misconstruing facts about a ballot measure that would raise the sales tax to expand transit in Spokane.

The Washington Policy Center, meanwhile, is standing by its evaluation of the measure, Proposition 1.

CEO Susan Meyer of STA said the Washington Policy Center is distributing material with factual errors in a series of published papers and appearances. Meyer wrote a memo to the policy center asking for corrections to and clarifications of seven statements.

In a response, the policy center this week said, “The WPC research staff has reviewed each of the points of dispute” and “found that none of the objections made by STA officials merit a correction.”

Mail-in ballots for the April 28 special election ask voters to approve an additional sales tax of 0.3 percent to pay for improvements to the transit system – raising an estimated $270 million in local sales taxes over 10 years.

If Proposition 1 is approved, the sales tax in much of Spokane County would rise to 9 percent, from 8.7 percent currently. STA’s share would be 0.9 percent of that.

The policy center is challenging the cost of the proposed Central City Line, and is arguing that other types of enhanced bus service would be more appropriate. That line would add high-frequency service – as often as every 10 minutes at peak times – on a fixed line running from Browne’s Addition through downtown and past Gonzaga University to Spokane Community College. It would cost $72 million, but STA officials say it’s eligible for a federal grant that would pay for 80 percent of that cost.

The Washington Policy Center argues that a $57 million federal grant is still taxpayer money regardless of where it comes from.

“We don’t play that game that if it comes from the federal government it’s free money,” said Chris Cargill, Eastern Washington director for the policy center.

County Commissioner Al French, an STA board member, said local drivers have always paid federal fuel taxes, a source of the grant funding, and this is a chance to recoup some of that money.

The policy center has said Spokane would be better served by a “bus rapid transit” system rather than the Central City Line.

In her memo, Meyer said the line meets the federal definition of “corridor-based bus rapid transit,” which includes a defined corridor with features like park-and-ride lots, transit stations, traffic signal priority and off-board fare collection, among others.

But Cargill said the policy center stands by its statement because the line will lack dedicated lanes and signal priority.

Meyer said downtown lacks sufficient room for dedicated lanes, but that signal priority is possible in the future.

The Central City Line would operate with a new type of electric vehicle that can be charged via charging points potentially in the pavement on the route.

The policy center argues that the technology and buses are not available from U.S. manufacturers currently, a requirement of the federal grant program.

Meyer said that claim is inaccurate because multiple charging technologies are available in the U.S.

The policy center also challenged the Central City Line because its cost per ride would be about 70 cents higher than the current $4 per trip average for STA. Meyer in her memo pointed out that 14 lesser-used routes currently have higher per-trip costs.

Finally, Meyer rejected the policy center’s claims that any economic development along the Central City Line would require additional tax incentives or public subsidies. She said an independent economic analysis shows that property values would increase by $175 million along the Central City Line without incentives. Potential development incentives would be up to the city or county, she said.

The policy center counters that the same economic analysis notes “supportive measures (regulations, zoning and direct development subsidies), where justified, are an important catalyst for transit-oriented development.”