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

STA takes another run at transit expansion, including electric bus service in central Spokane

Proponents of a modern public transit system want sleek, new all-electric buses in the central part of the city serving a network of more traditional transit to move more people more efficiently across the Spokane metropolitan area.

The Spokane Transit Authority board is asking voters to approve a two-tenths of a penny sales tax increase on Nov. 8 to achieve that vision.

Proposition 1 this year is a revised and lower-cost version of a proposal that was defeated by 572 votes in April 2015.

This year’s measure would raise the sales tax one-tenth of a cent on April 1, 2017, and another tenth on April 1, 2019, with both taxes running through Dec. 31, 2028.

The measure in 2015 would have raised the tax by three-tenths of a cent.

After the 2015 rejection, transit board members went back to the drawing board to re-examine their earlier plan.

Over more than a year, they changed budget projections, gained more money in grants and updated the number and timing of service improvements now before voters.

Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove, a member of the STA board, said an efficient transit system is critical to Spokane’s growing population and expanding economy.

“I think people recognize the role of transit in a growing economy,” he said.

Parts of the Spokane urban area are increasingly choked by midday traffic, Trulove said, and transit is one way to mitigate the problem.

“Transit is increasingly important as the population increases,” he said.

Refining the measure also has reduced public skepticism of a tax increase for transit, he said.

But opponents remain. They say that existing sales tax revenue should be sufficient to make improvements.

Spokane Valley City Councilman Ed Pace, an STA board member, said he supports the agency master plan that outlines improvements but said, “I think we should try harder to fund it with existing taxes and grants.”

If approved, bus service across STA’s service area would see enhancements from a series of 25 projects involving new routes, bus replacements and additions to bus timetables.

Riders would pay a share for the upgrades. The STA board already has approved fare increases to take the cost of a one-way trip from $1.50 to $2 by 2018.

An estimated $200 million over 11-plus years would be raised by the local sales tax if voters approve Proposition 1.

That money would be used in part to capitalize on $86 million in state and federal grants that are available.

The grant money would be used to establish an all-electric Central City Line, a 6-mile route serving the heart of the city from Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College by way of downtown and the growing University District.

That project alone is projected to draw 500,000 new rides annually.

Grant money also would be used to pay for a $12 million West Plains Transit Center on Interstate 90 at the Medical Lake interchange.

STA officials said the ability to attract grant money validates the need for a stronger and more comprehensive transit system in Spokane.

Critics have said the plan weighs too heavily in favor of a new Central City Line, which would cost $4.1 million a year in operation costs.

Proponents argue that the Central City Line is like a backbone of the wider system serving the urban area. STA board members and staff have fashioned the ballot measure to serve areas beyond the central city.

Riders from Spokane Valley will regularly use connections to jobs and schools at Airway Heights, Cheney, Spokane Community College or the University District, proponents said.

The plan also would reduce reliance on the downtown Plaza as a transfer point, allowing buses to move through downtown more quickly rather than stopping and standing as they do now.

For example, the plan calls for intersecting routes with the Central City Line to eliminate the need to travel to the downtown bus Plaza.

The Logan and Lincoln Heights neighborhoods are among locales to get routes intersecting with the Central City Line.

Spokane Valley would see extension of bus service in 2017 on Indiana Avenue east of Sullivan Road to Greenacres. That area has seen development in recent years with new medical services and offices.

Park-and-ride lots would be added or expanded at Liberty Lake, the Mirabeau Park area, Moran Prairie, Spokane Community College and the West Plains Transit Center.

A new cross-town route from Five Mile to Moran Prairie is included. It would have express service, too. Bus frequency would increase from every 30 minutes to every 15 minutes. The improvements are slated for 2019.

The plan also calls for reinstating the nonstop express service to Liberty Lake and upgrading service on routes that have high ridership now, including East Sprague Avenue and North Division Street.

Evening and weekend service would be extended throughout the STA system.

Near the end of the plan’s 10-year implementation timeline, an experimental run into Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene in 2025 would be added.

Opponents have objected to using an increase in local sales tax rather than improving transit with existing sales tax revenue.

“I contend they have enough money,” said Chuck Hafner, a former Spokane Valley city councilman and STA board member.

He said a Central City Line is a “good deal for the city” of Spokane and should be financed by Spokane city residents rather than the larger STA transit service area.

Hafner said he is concerned that increasing the sales tax for transit would use up taxing capacity needed for other priorities, including emergency communications.

However, STA’s use of sales tax is below that of other large transit systems across the state.

STA currently collects a local sales tax of six-tenths of a cent, which is the bulk of the agency’s funding.

Other large jurisdictions in Washington, including King County, are collecting the state maximum of 0.9 percent in sales tax.

Proponents are hammering hard on the economic growth benefits of transit.

“Our county is growing. The pressures on our transit system are going to be immense,” said Adam McDaniel, campaign manager of the Yes for Buses campaign. “Transit is a significant part of a thriving 21st Century metro area.”

STA officials said that for every dollar in new tax, about 23 cents would go to maintain the existing system, including purchases of new buses to replace aging ones in the fleet.

Another 33 cents would go to increase bus frequency and service hours.

The remaining 44 cents would go for expansion of service.

Wherever the STA extends its routes, it also would be required to also provide paratransit service for people with disabilities.

Even as STA seeks to increase service, the number of riders boarding buses has declined in recent years, largely due to cheaper fuel prices, officials said.

While STA has seen a 40 percent increase in riders since 2005, it also has dipped 3.3 percent through March of this year over the previous year.

The Yes for Buses campaign in favor of the ballot measure reported raising about $140,000 through Monday in cash and in-kind contributions.

Major contributors are unions, bus manufacturer Gillig, the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane and the Downtown Spokane Partnership.

But also contributing are agencies that help low-income residents, including CHAS, the Community Health Association of Spokane, and Skils’kin, which provides training to people with disabilities.

No organized opposition has surfaced.