An effort to research the creation of a local transit pass for low-income people hit stiff resistance – but overcame it, at least for the time-being – at the most recent Spokane Transit Authority board meeting.
Disagreement about whether the STA should continue researching such a plan has set up a potential showdown between Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke and County Commissioner Al French, who are both board members.
Burke, the most outspoken supporter of the program at the meeting, parried with French over the agency’s role to help the region’s least fortunate. French, who has been involved with transit planning for nearly two decades, said the program could jeopardize the agency’s goodwill with the voters, as well as tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.
The debate, and vote to delay discussion of the program, came as STA staff members still were examining the impacts of such a pass, which would reduce fares for people who qualify for other assistance. Similar programs are offered in King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties.
In an attempt to derail the effort, French called for a vote to stop staff from researching the proposal and put discussion aside until the Central City Line is built.
“Nonriding taxpayers pay the lion’s share of the revenue this agency survives on. It’s not the fare box,” French said at the June board meeting. The agency, he said, should “fulfill current commitments that we’ve made to the voters. To take that energy and resource and divert it away from current, voter-approved commitments, to chase new initiatives, just seems like it’s a disservice to the voters.”
Before any vote was taken on French’s proposal to table the program, Burke urged the board to think of the community’s poorest members. She noted that she hears frequently from people who “contact my office that are becoming homeless or are on the verge of becoming homeless and transportation is one of the biggest barriers.”
“For us to not be able to discuss it and have conversations around it is ignorant,” she said. “For us to make decisions, we need to know information. The reason we have a board of directors is so we can take on these issues, have staff look into it and then we can discuss further and make decisions, because that’s what we do as elected officials.”
The idea for such a program began in 2016 when STA last approved fare increases. The transit agency met with multiple human services providers in the region to discuss the impact of a fare increase on the “extremely low income” population, according to meeting notes from STA. The result was the STA board’s adoption of an 18-month, $150,000 state grant-funded program for low-income riders. Though five service providers sought to administer the program, all “identified a more substantial need” and none ultimately wanted the contract.
According to census data from the American Community Survey, 34% of Spokane County residents live on an income at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, which equates to $33,820 for a family of two and $51,500 for a family of four.
This proportion of people is higher than the other regions that offer income-based programs, as STA has found. In Kitsap County, about 24% of people live on an income on or below 200% of the poverty line. About 22% do in King County and about 21% in Snohomish.
STA estimates that 2.9 million rides were taken in 2018 by people living below this income level, which amounts to 35% of the 8.3 million rides taken. Considering the use of other fare programs, like the Universal Transit Access Pass, STA estimates that 700,000 rides were purchased by people who would qualify for an income-based pass program. In all, STA figures the program would amount to a loss of $1.5 million in fare box revenue.
According to STA policy, fare box revenue must account for 20% of the cost of operating the agency. This “fare box recovery” policy has driven up fares over the past decades. Beginning in 2002, a regular single fare cost $1. That lasted until Jan. 1, 2010, when fares were bumped up to $1.25. The following year, fares increased to $1.50. In July 2017, the fare went up to $1.75, and last year they reached $2.
In 2018, fare box recovery accounted for 17.6% of the agency’s operation cost, which meant fare boxes brought in $1 million less than the policy demands.
French, who was part of the team that instituted the 20% fare box recovery policy, said his main concern was jeopardizing the goodwill of the voters, who have approved raising taxes to support the agency, most recently in 2016 with an increase of up to 0.2% in the local sales and use tax to help maintain, improve and expand public transit. He said voter support of STA was based on the 20% fare box policy.
He also suggested discussion of an income-based pass program threatened the recent federal outlay of $53.4 million for the Central City Line, a bus rapid transit line connecting Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College that is expected to begin operating in 2021. The Federal Transit Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that awarded the money, warned STA not to make any big changes to the agency, French said.
“I’m just really concerned to engage in this conversation when we’ve made commitments, and this is contrary to commitments made to voters who approved this,” he said, arguing the income-based pass program sent an “inconsistent message and something that’s out of character for this agency in terms of what we’ve done to get us the kind of voter support and approval to get us to where we’re at.”
Burke was not assuaged, though she emphasized that the current effort was one of research, not implementation.
“I do think there’s a need in this community for us to look into this,” she said. “We’ve heard from multiple community members and people that serve vulnerable families and children and adults. I think it’s our due diligence to look into it and really learn what we can and see if we can make things work.”
The board eventually voted 4-4 on French’s motion to table the program, defeating it for the time being.
That means the STA will continue researching the idea of creating income-based transit fares. The next STA board meeting is July 25.
STA has a number of transit pass programs, but nothing like the income-based proposal. The agency currently has transit pass programs with the city of Spokane, Eastern Washington University, Community Colleges of Spokane, Gonzaga University, Spokane County, Washington State University-Spokane and Whitworth University.
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