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

Getting There: STA board debating new ballot measure for 2016

Spokane Transit Authority officials are talking about their next steps to improve transit service after last April’s narrow defeat of an STA ballot measure that would have raised the sales tax 0.3 percent for systemwide upgrades.

STA has not given up on its 2015 Moving Forward plan that included funding for a Central City Line on a fixed electric route from Spokane Community College through the University District and downtown to Browne’s Addition.

Support has emerged to rerun a ballot measure this year, possibly during the November general election when turnout would be at its highest, said Spokane County Commissioner Al French, a member of the STA board.

The large turnout expected during a presidential election would give the largest number of voters a say in the decision, he said.

The rubber tire trolley was the centerpiece of a series of proposed service improvements that would have also extended bus service on nights and weekends and made other big improvements across STA’s service area, including the West Plains, South Side and Spokane Valley. New park-and-ride facilities also were part of the ballot measure.

The sales tax increase would have raised $270 million over 10 years and brought in $60 million in state and federal grants.

The ballot measure in April lost narrowly with 49.6 percent yes to 50.4 percent no.

STA Chief Executive Officer Susan Meyer said the Central City Line project has been working toward winning a $50 million federal “small starts” transit grant.

Since the ballot measure defeat, state lawmakers last year added $15 million for the Central City Line to satisfy the matching requirement for the federal grant.

Meyer said that “means we don’t have to come up with anything more” to get the line built if the grant is approved.

However, operating the line would become a local funding responsibility.

Meyer said STA would like to submit the application for construction funds later this year to be eligible for funding in the 2018 federal fiscal year.

The STA board has been talking about the future of the Central City Line and the other proposed transit improvements in the months since the ballot defeat. Board members asked for a new financial outlook.

Late last year, the board voted to continue supporting the Moving Forward plan that was the basis for the unsuccessful ballot measure.

“Now we are looking at a funding strategy to implement it,” French said.

County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, a critic of last year’s ballot measure, said the STA board should not be constrained by last year’s plan from choosing different funding options and schedules for improvements, according to minutes of an STA planning committee meeting last fall.

Like any local ballot measure, STA would have to compete with other public priorities, including schools, county parks, criminal justice, a Spokane Valley library and emergency communications, French said.

When to send a transit package to voters is a key question, with some board members wanting to go to the ballot in November and others wanting to consider other election dates.

O’Quinn said last fall that November might be too soon to take the measure back before voters. She is potentially up for re-election then.

French said he hopes the STA board can reach some consensus on its next steps, including a likely ballot date, within the next two months. That would leave time to take the proposal back before voters well before an election.

“We are still making sausage of putting the package together for moving forward,” he said.