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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

STA sales tax increase failing

STA CEO Susan Meyer, Spokane City Councilwoman and STA board member Amber Waldref, and Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder react Tuesday night to news that Proposition 1 to increase sales tax funding for public transit is too close to call. (Colin Mulvany)

Spokane County voters on Tuesday were turning down a 0.3 percent sales tax increase to pay for improvements to public transit.

But the measure still was too close to call, according to supporters of Proposition 1 from the Spokane Transit Authority.

The measure was down by 863 votes after the initial count Tuesday night. If approved in the final count, the sales tax in Spokane County’s transit benefit area would rise to 9 percent, from 8.7 percent currently being collected. STA’s share would be 0.9 percent.

The agency estimated the measure would raise $270 million in the 10-year term of the tax increase.

With a loss, STA officials have said transit may face substantial cuts in service starting in about two years.

“It could go either way” said Jon Snyder, a Spokane City Councilman addressing a gathering of Proposition 1 supporters at Cassano’s Grocery at Napa Street and Mission Avenue on Tuesday.

“We are not defeated yet,” Snyder said, acknowledging the numbers were not what supporters had hoped to see.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French, a member of the STA board, said he hopes that a media campaign over the past several days will increase the yes votes in the late count.

County Auditor Vicky Dalton estimated that about 8,000 votes are waiting to be counted, including those on hand and those that arrive late in the mail. Nearly 70,000 ballots were counted so far.

If the measure goes down, it would go against a generous trend among voters dating back three years.

Last fall, local voters 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.

County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, who opposed the transit measure, said voters may have felt that Proposition 1 was too large of a tax increase.

“I think you are seeing the concern the request is a little too much,” she said.

O’Quinn had argued for a ballot measure with a 0.1 or 0.2 percent sales tax increase.

But a smaller request would not pay for the list of improvements developed through years of public outreach by STA. The plan reaches into virtually every neighborhood from West Plains to Liberty Lake, and from north to south. New transit centers, park-and-ride lots, route amenities, more crosstown service, and expanded night and weekend bus runs are in the plan.

The centerpiece of the proposal is a new Central City Line that would run 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.

Loss of the measure would be a major setback in STA’s effort to secure $57 million in federal grant funds to pay for a $72 million Central City Line. Some of the money also would go to shore up existing service in coming years, STA said.

A campaign for the ballot measure by the Coalition for Economic Vitality asked voters to consider the tax as an investment that would strengthen the economy by improving transit for workers, students, seniors and the general public. The coalition built its campaign through support from business, labor, neighborhood groups, the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority and individuals. The group as of Tuesday had reported $122,000 in contributions of both cash and in-kind services.

The two largest cash contributions of $10,000 each came from bus maker GILLIG, based in Hayward, California, and the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County. Avista provided $18,000 for in-kind services, according to state public disclosure records.

There was no organized opposition, although the 17-member Spokane County GOP Board voted unanimously to recommend against the measure. An independent ad against the measure appeared in The Spokesman-Review.

STA estimated that under the plan the number of rider boardings annually would go from 11.3 million last year to 14.5 million in 2024, in part because of population growth.

STA currently collects sales tax of 0.6 percent within a 248-square-mile Public Transportation Benefit Area that includes Airway Heights, Cheney, Medical Lake, Millwood, Liberty Lake, Spokane and Spokane Valley, as well as surrounding unincorporated areas.

The measure included a sunset clause, which would cause the tax to expire in 2025.