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Spokane to offer free STA bus passes to those receiving homeless assistance

UPDATED: Fri., March 8, 2019

College-age young people board and disembark from a bus at the Jefferson Park and Ride in downtown Spokane in this photo from January 2012. The Spokane City Council passed a measure on Thursday, March 7, 2019, that would set aside $30,000 to buy day STA bus passes for those receiving homeless assistance in the city. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
College-age young people board and disembark from a bus at the Jefferson Park and Ride in downtown Spokane in this photo from January 2012. The Spokane City Council passed a measure on Thursday, March 7, 2019, that would set aside $30,000 to buy day STA bus passes for those receiving homeless assistance in the city. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane will begin providing free daily bus passes to those receiving homeless assistance services following an abrupt vote by the City Council.

“I think it solves numerous problems, in the short term,” said Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, one of six members of the panel who voted on the measure during a special meeting Thursday.

The ordinance moves $30,000 that would have been paid to the city employee handling communications into an account controlled by the city’s Community, Housing & Human Services division to buy day passes from Spokane Transit Authority. Council members said they were moved to act by the opening of a new social services center on the east end of downtown and a lack of transportation options for those living on the streets downtown and attending community court to reach those providers.

“We hear from all of our services, that bus passes would be really helpful,” said Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke.

Those in charge of providing the services would be responsible for doling out the passes, which can be purchased by the general public for $4. That means the $30,000 could potentially buy up to 7,500 passes. Stuckart said officials in community court and at the warming shelters would act as gatekeepers of the passes, and dismissed notions that they would attract homeless people to come to Spokane for free assistance.

“People aren’t going to get arrested, go to community court, or come from out of town and get arrested to get a $4 bus pass,” Stuckart said.

Councilman Mike Fagan cast the lone vote against the proposal. Fagan called the measure a “last-minute” move by the panel that was passed without answers about passenger safety and whether the city should be responsible for the full cost.

“I probably would not have had a major problem with the question of transportation, but the way this thing was rolled out, it was last minute,” Fagan said.

Fagan said he had concerns about passengers bringing their personal belongings on the bus, as well as pets. Stuckart said STA drivers already must deal with those concerns and that shouldn’t stop the city from providing a transportation option.

The passes would not be sold to the city at a discount, said Brandon Rapez-Beatty, STA spokesman, because fares already are subsidized by tax dollars. The day pass provides more flexibility to customers trying to access services than a two-hour pass, which is cheaper, he said.

Rapez-Beatty said anyone holding a day pass would be subjected to the same coach rules as other passengers, which includes a prohibition on pets that aren’t service animals from being outside a carrier and a ban on storing personal items on a bus.

“From our standpoint, there won’t be any extra attention paid to this particular issue,” he said. “These are fare-holding passengers who are using our coaches for their needs.”

The council hurriedly approved contracts this winter for the operation of several warming shelters, following a reduction in beds at the House of Charity at the end of last summer. Fagan said the cost of transporting those receiving services should have been a part of negotiations with churches and nonprofits who offered to establish the shelters. He also said the city should have approached STA to find out if the agency could pick up some of the expense.

Fagan believes some taxpayers are wary of the growing spending at City Hall to deal with homelessness.

“I think I can safely speak on behalf of a lot of citizens in the city who have sat there, watched this, and had to pay for it all,” Fagan said. “They, I believe, would like to do something different.”

Stuckart and Burke said the initial investment should be seen as a pilot program, with the money coming from a communications position that Mayor David Condon has not decided to replace in the final year of his last term. Burke said she and other members of the STA Board of Directors already are discussing how to make the program sustainable in the long-term by building in lower rates for low-income residents.

“We have great bus services, but when you can’t afford a $45-a-month pass, it’s kind of a moot point,” Burke said.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the council’s plan was developed in coordination with city staff. Condon would prefer to see future funding for the program not be taken from the mayor’s office budget, as the next elected official to fill the office might want a person in that position when they take office.

Like the council, Condon views the spending as a pilot program, Feist said.

“What we’re trying to do here is evolve this system so it makes sense, and gets them to a permanent, supportive housing-type of situation,” Feist said.

Burke said there are similar services available through ORCA, the public transportation system that serves King County, and last summer New York City approved a half-price fare system for low-income users of its Metro subway, rail and bus service.

Council members said they didn’t hear any pushback from STA or city administration on the plan, which was approved at a special meeting called by the council Thursday afternoon. Under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, such special meetings of the council must receive public notice 24 hours before the meeting begins. An email noticing the meeting was sent out by city staff just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the meeting beginning at City Hall at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

Fagan questioned why the matter needed to be passed Thursday, and couldn’t wait for the panel’s regularly scheduled Monday meetings.

“I truly don’t think the other council members had an opportunity to vet this,” Fagan said. “There’s no reason why we had to do this on a Thursday afternoon.”

Stuckart said lawmakers had been hearing from advocates for months that transportation options were necessary, and that action needed to be taken to get a system in place “as soon as possible.” Burke agreed.

“If we can take some of those barriers away, we can help more people,” she said.

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