Spokane city leaders can now use tax dollars to fund public transportation, allowing the city to circumnavigate the Spokane Transit Authority.
“If the regional system does not act, we will go at it alone,” Council President Ben Stuckart said.
The council on Monday voted 6-1 to allow the city to use sales taxes and vehicle licensing fees to fund public transportation in addition to streets and pedestrian infrastructure.
The move was spurred by the council’s support for the Central City Line, which would connect Browne’s Addition to the University District and Spokane Community College. The STA’s board has wavered on whether it will ask its voters a second time for a sales tax to fund the project.
Monday’s vote didn’t create any new taxes, but it allows the council to ask city voters for the tax in November if STA doesn’t.
Last month, STA postponed a decision to put a measure on the ballot asking for a 0.2 percent sales tax increase. City ordinance sponsor Amber Waldref hopes the STA board decides to put the measure on the 2016 ballot.
“This just gives us an option,” said Waldref, who serves on the STA board.
Councilman Mike Fagan, the single no vote, said the change could take money from road repairs and opens the door for increased vehicle licensing fees.
“No. No. And hell no,” Fagan said when asked about the issue before the meeting.
Although the change undermines the STA’s regional authority, Spokane Valley Councilman and STA board member Ed Pace said he supports the change.
“I’ve always supported the Central City Line, but I always thought the city of Spokane should pay for that,” Pace said. “I don’t think Spokane Valley taxpayers should pay for something that’s benefiting the city of Spokane.”
If the STA board put the measure on the ballot, voters in most urbanized areas of Spokane County would vote on the issues, including in Spokane, Spokane Valley, Cheney and Liberty Lake.
County Commissioner Al French, also a member of the STA board, said he prefers to have STA fund and oversee all public transportation.
“In a perfect world it would be handled through STA,” he said. “But right now the funding strategy to fund some of the projects inside the city has been stalled.”
Stuckart also prefers that transit issues be dealt with at the regional level. Otherwise, he said, certain communities such as Cheney and Liberty Lake won’t see improvements.
The STA program calls for a 25 percent service increase over the next 10 years. A transit measure in April 2015 was defeated countywide by about 500 votes, although 54 percent of Spokane city voters approved the measure. That measure called for a 0.3 percent sales tax increase.
But STA officials now say the measure would need a 0.2 percent increase to fund improvements thanks to an improved economy.
A city sales tax increase also would be 0.2 percent, Stuckart said. Additionally, Stuckart said the city’s current vehicle licensing fee of $20 could be removed thanks to increased tax revenue. Stuckart said $2.5 million from the tax also would be used for road repair and maintenance.
If the STA board doesn’t put the measure on the ballot this year, the City Council will put it on the November ballot, he said.
Spokane is eligible for $70 million in state and federal grants to build the proposed line. The line would connect Spokane colleges with downtown and Browne’s Addition and would use rubber-tired trolley-like cars.
However, it would cost $4 million per year to operate the line. That funding would have to come from a local source. Grant money could be jeopardized if the STA board doesn’t make a decision soon, Waldref said in January.
The STA is governed by a nine-member board made up of elected officials from Spokane County and the cities served by the STA. The board is scheduled to meet again on April 21.
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