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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Con: Proposal too costly, not sustainable

Public transportation is the backbone of every great city. It moves people, reduces congestion, and helps drive our local economy.

We fundamentally believe that transit is an important part of a thriving community. We are not “anti-transit” nor are we “anti-Spokane Transit Authority.” As current STA board members, however, we are opposed to STA’s Proposition 1 request to increase the sales and use tax rate by up to 0.3 percent.

This tax increase will yield an additional $300 million over 10 years. This is a 50 percent increase in STA’s current sales tax funding, increasing its annual sales tax revenue from 0.6 cents to 0.9 cents. To put STA’s request in perspective, if the ballot measure passes, STA will collect more sales tax revenue than our local cities, which are capped at 0.85 cents and have the responsibility of providing an array of services to our citizens including police and fire.

It is not, however, just the $300 million price tag of the proposal that we find objectionable. It is the lack of long-term sustainability for the system.

Good leadership is about building a system that we can afford and sustain in the future. If approved, STA will be at the maximum sales tax allowed by state law. With the proposed system expansion and Central City Line, the system is forecast to run out of money in 2025. STA’s hope is that by 2025 there will be new ways to raise your taxes to support the system. In fact, it is banking on it. Otherwise, the system is going to collapse at that time.

Under the proposal, STA will spend $300 million over the next 10 years to build out a system that it cannot support or sustain. This is no way to manage public finances. Sustainability of the system is paramount, as many people count on this system to get to work, medical appointments, college and home.

STA insists its request for an additional $300 million is necessary to maintain existing levels of bus service, support expanded transit operations, and enable new capital investment, such as buying new buses and building transit centers. But STA confuses what it “wants” with what it “needs,” and makes arguments for Prop 1 that deserve public scrutiny.

Public presentations by STA officials imply that if the ballot measure does not pass, the board will “have to cut service by as much as 25 percent by 2017,” and that it takes “half of the .3 cents or up to .2 cents tax increase just to maintain the system.” Neither of these statements is true, and we fundamentally disagree with the doom and gloom scare tactics being presented to the public.

Finally, $300 million is a significant sum to take from taxpayers for public transit alone. When we think about the capital needs of our community – a crumbling transportation/infrastructure system, an almost 40-year-old jail, the city of Spokane’s stormwater efforts to clean up the Spokane River, just to name a few – and the investments we need to make in our schools, libraries, mental health system, fire, police and more, it begs the question: Should STA demand so much money when voter approval will be sought to finance other community priorities in the next few years? STA will take $300 million from taxpayers at the expense of equally if not more valuable public needs. As a community, we need to have a conversation about the type of system we can afford and sustain in the context of all of the demands on our taxpaying citizens.

We support having an efficient, effective public transit system, as it is integral to a vibrant community and economy, but STA does not need a $300 million tax increase to provide the level of service our community expects. We would, however, support a modest tax increase to cover the capital costs for replacing the aging bus fleet, to invest in technology upgrades, and expand hours and service frequency. With this modest investment and with sales tax growing just under 5 percent each year, we have an opportunity for well-managed growth of a system that we can afford and sustain.

A no vote on Proposition 1 does not mean that we do not support STA or mass transit. Instead, it is a vote that supports a long-term, sustainable investment in our public transportation system.

Shelly O’Quinn is a Spokane County commissioner and member of the Spokane Transit board of directors. Chuck Hafner is a member of the Spokane Valley City Council and STA board.
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