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

Getting There: STA board split over transit expansion

Spokane Transit Authority board members postponed a decision last week on asking voters for more sales tax money to improve bus service and build a central city trolley line.

On a 5-4 vote, the board opted to wait at least one more month before deciding on any future ballot measure.

In the meantime, Spokane City Council members said they may break from the STA board and seek funding from Spokane voters for city-only transit improvements, including the proposed Central City Line through downtown.

A transit measure in April was defeated by about 500 votes.

The strongest support came from Spokane city voters as well as cities on the West Plains.

On Thursday, Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, who sits on the STA board, lost an effort to postpone any ballot measure until November 2017. Her position is up for election this fall.

The indecision on the STA board stems from deep divisions on how best to run the transit agency at the same time the city is in line for $70 million in state and federal grants to build the proposed trolley line connecting Spokane colleges with downtown and Browne’s Addition.

STA would need a sales tax increase to pay the $4 million annual cost of operating the line.

Known as bus rapid transit, the trolley would use electric vehicles and provide frequent service on a fixed route that might draw new private development.

A sales tax increase of 0.2 percent would fund systemwide improvements and the trolley.

City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, an STA board member, said other cities with bus rapid transit lines have gained a 4-to-1 return on investment.

On the plus side, STA has lined up state and federal grants to pay the $70 million cost of construction.

County Commissioner Al French, the STA board chairman, said he learned at a recent conference in Washington, D.C., that federal transit funding is likely to be awarded to Spokane if an application is submitted later this year.

Spokane Valley City Council members Chuck Hafner and Ed Pace, who sit on the STA board, said they are concerned that an STA ballot measure for a central city trolley would benefit Spokane at the expense of outlying areas, including Spokane Valley.

Hafner said he is concerned about the higher cost of operating the trolley.

French pointed out that some of the routes serving Spokane Valley are more expensive to operate on a per-passenger basis.

Hafner and Pace teamed up with O’Quinn in an effort to block a ballot measure this November that would include money for the trolley. However, the board voted 5-4 to defer the issue only until April.

Voting in favor were French, Waldref, Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove and Liberty Lake City Councilman Keith Kopelson.

Voting no were O’Quinn, Hafner, Pace and Airway Heights City Councilwoman Aspen Monteleone.

Pace said he is happy to wait for the Spokane City Council to take up a Spokane-only tax measure since he thinks city residents should pay for a new trolley line, not residents living outside Spokane.

O’Quinn and the two Spokane Valley council members said STA service should be improved, but with a smaller tax increase.

French and other proponents of an expanded system said all areas within the STA’s service area would see improvements under their preferred option of a 0.2 percent sales tax increase.

O’Quinn argued that a 0.1 percent sales tax increase could move STA toward those goals while reserving taxing capacity for other needs like criminal justice and law enforcement.

STA staff have said the 0.1 percent increase would drastically reduce the scale and number of improvements.

Also, STA staff pointed out that their ridership analysis shows that transit moves people across the urban area regardless of city limits. For example, students living in Spokane Valley use transit to get to colleges in Spokane and Cheney. Workers using transit often live in one location and work in another jurisdiction, they said.

New park-and-ride lots, a West Plains transit center along Interstate 90, extended hours on weeknights and weekends, and “high performance” improvements are part of the 0.2 percent tax proposal.

Specific local requests also could be accommodated under the measure, proponents said.

Those include improved service to Airway Heights, Fairchild Air Force Base, Indiana Avenue east of Sullivan Road, Medical Lake and the Argonne Road corridor to the Northwood neighborhood.

Waldref, French and Mumm argued that a November ballot measure would allow the largest number of voters to decide the issue since presidential elections attract the heaviest voter turnout of any election.

Last April’s request for a 0.3 percent sales tax increase was defeated by about 500 votes with a small turnout typical of special election dates.

An improving sales tax economy has allowed STA to scale back the sales tax request to 0.2 percent, yet maintain the scope of improvements proposed last year.

Lincoln/Monroe detour coming

Completion of road improvements on Lincoln and Monroe streets from Second to Eighth avenues will result in a major detour starting March 28.

The plan calls for putting two-way traffic onto Lincoln Street from Fourth to Seventh avenues during completion of the project, which started last year.

The work involves stormwater facilities adjacent to Monroe at Fourth.