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Getting There: Fare-free buses came to Spokane out of necessity; 1 councilwoman wants STA to keep it

UPDATED: Mon., April 13, 2020

Riders catch an STA bus at Sprague Avenue and Helena Street  on April 2, 2019. Citing social distancing and the safety of drivers, the transit agency is not charging any fare during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Riders catch an STA bus at Sprague Avenue and Helena Street on April 2, 2019. Citing social distancing and the safety of drivers, the transit agency is not charging any fare during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Kate Burke – a Spokane City councilwoman and Spokane Transit Authority board member – wants to make public transit in Spokane free.

That aim looked more like a dream. And then, of course, everything changed.

After the coronavirus hit, STA workers found themselves in a precarious position: providing an essential service, getting people with no other means of transportation to work, doctor’s appointments, pharmacies and elsewhere – and doing so without the kinds of protections and precautions afforded to other front-line workers like nurses, police officers and paramedics.

STA has been resolute in its decision to keep going, even as ridership has plummeted some 70% and some unionized drivers have raised concerns about their safety.

In an effort to balance both imperatives – maintaining service and protecting workers – STA has implemented a number of gradual steps on its fleet of buses and paratransit vans: enhancing cleaning, posting signs reminding people to follow social distancing guidelines, even doling out its stockpile of N95 masks to drivers, despite guidance that said such personal protective equipment ought to be reserved for health care professionals.

Then on March 26, STA announced it was temporarily eliminating fares and boarding buses by their rear doors to reduce interactions between drivers and riders, thereby reducing the odds of viral transmission.

Without fares, drivers would no longer have a steady stream of people lingering far closer than the recommended social-distancing distance of 6 feet away from them, in the confined space at the front of their buses.

Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s director of communications and customer service, said the agency’s “decision to suspend fares is only related to the safety measure related to the COVID-19. It’s not an experiment for a long-term plan.”

While that is undoubtedly true, Burke sees STA’s switch to a fare-free system from an opposite point of view.

“I think this is a good experiment for us to see what’s happening in our system,” Burke said, though she acknowledged it was a flawed experiment conducted under duress, when ridership is down due to the highly unusual situation.

While she regrets the circumstances in which the opportunity for such an imperfect experiment has arisen – namely, in the midst of a deadly global pandemic – she says the chance to fundamentally rethink how public transit operates in Spokane shouldn’t be wasted.

“Unfortunately, we have this great opportunity to relook at why we’re here and look at our vision at STA,” Burke said.

For Burke, that re-examination begins with one important number: 11%.

That’s the share that fares contribute to STA’s $111 million operating budget.

Burke says it’s both unfair and inefficient to charge only those who rely on public transportation to contribute that $12 million amount to keep the system running.

“Are we here to make 11% off the backs of the vulnerable people in our community?” Burke asked. “Or are we here to provide accessible transportation for all?”

She says STA has done the right thing by dropping fares to ensure “vulnerable people” who rely on public transportation are still able to get where they need to go during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she questions why STA would stop doing so once the coronavirus threat has lifted.

“Those vulnerable people were still vulnerable before COVID,” Burke said.

The temporary fare suspension “opens up the door and allows us to have these kinds of more candid conversations” about making the suspension permanent, she said.

Those conversations, she said, would revolve around whether to charge only those who ride the bus or to increase taxes on everyone to spread the burden of paying for the public transportation system. Taxes, she notes, are how we pay for streets and highways — not by charging people each time they drive.

“That’s essentially how our taxes work,” Burke said. “We all pay a small amount for our roads, and we all get to enjoy them.”

Public transit could do the same, she suggested: Everyone could chip in a certain share each year and, in turn, “everyone could ride for free.”

“If we agree as a board that 11% is not worth it … if our goal is to get more ridership or help more low-income people, I think we could accomplish that with fare-free,” Burke said. “It just depends what STA wants to do.”

Rapez-Betty said eliminating fares is not what STA wants to do – and he said there’s “a pretty straightforward reason” why it doesn’t.

“In the last five years, STA’s brought in about $58 million in revenue from passenger fares,” he said. “And that’s revenue that’s putting service on the streets. And one of the things we hear most often from the public is they want more transit. … It’s simply incompatible to provide more transit and reduce the amount of revenue we’re bringing in.”

At the end of the day, he said, “We charge fares because it’s part of our strategy to put transit on the street.”

But Rapez-Betty said STA does acknowledge the importance of lessening the burden of bus fare on those vulnerable populations of riders that Burke points to.

Spokane Transit has a city-funded program that provides free transit to young people during the summer, works with local colleges and universities to provide rides to their students, and has a reduced-fare program that provides fares at 50% for people who are 65 and older, have a disability or receive Medicare.

Jessica Engelman, founder of the local active transportation advocacy group SpokAT, said she sees both sides of the free-fare equation.

“I would love to have fare-free transit as a goal,” Engelman said. “I think it is something that would be a wonderful way to support the low-income riders who rely on transit. I think it would be a great way to offset a lot of the invisible subsidies that are built into our system for driving.”

But while there are benefits of eliminating fares, Engelman said there likely would be trade-offs, too.

“One concern with making transit free is that funding has to come from somewhere,” she said. “So if you make transit free without having some additional funding source, without compensating for the fare-box revenue, you’re going to end up with worse service.”

And that, she argued, would hurt a lot of people who rely on transit.

“In the transit-dependent population, there are people who are time-wealthy but money-poor … and then there are people who are time-poor and may be less money-poor,” Engelman said.

Those who have more time on their hands but less money may not mind waiting longer for a bus. But those who don’t have the money to pay for a car but who are trying to get to “a second job or to utilize a day care that’s farther away but cheaper” may well suffer with an underfunded but free STA, Engelman said.

If buses were free, there may also be the issue of people “riding the bus all day,” not because they are trying to get somewhere but because it is a “safe place where you can hang out,” she said.

“And obviously that’s not what we want transit to be used for,” Engelman said. “We want transit to be used for people to get places. And I worry about that happening in Spokane, because we are not doing a very good job of serving our homeless population.”

“It’s not to say that we can’t do it or we shouldn’t do it,” Engelman said of free fares.

But if we do, Engelman said, it’s important to consider other factors, like lost revenue and the potential for people to use transit for purposes other than transportation, and “ make sure that we have plans to compensate for them.”

Meanwhile, she said, “There’s definitely more we could be doing that’s not making the system full-on fare-free,” such as expanding the kinds of reduced-fare service STA currently offers.

Burke, though, hopes her fellow STA board members and City Council members will use the coronavirus crisis to think big – and differently.

“If you can find any silver lining of COVID-19, it’s that governmental agencies and service providers can really take a look at what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how they can expand and change and morph,” Burke said. “I think it’s a really good time for us to go back to the drawing board.”

Division survey is live

Last week, this column carried news of Division Connects, a two-year, $1 million study that aims to gather community input and come up with a plan for remaking Division Street with bus rapid transit and other amenities once the street is freed up by the completion of the North Spokane Corridor.

Planners behind that study are seeking input from the public about what they’d like to see along Division, and they’ve just added a quick, 12-question community survey to the study’s website, divisionconnects.org.

There, you can chime in about how you use the street now and what you’d most like to see it offer in the future.

WSDOT seeks input on NSC designs

Speaking of the North Spokane Corridor, the Washington State Department of Transportation is asking people to provide feedback on designs for bridges and walls to be built at Wellesley and Euclid avenues as part of the long-awaited highway.

But time is running out. The online survey closes today and is available at surveymonkey.com/r/MC8QSP8.

The concepts WSDOT is proposing “are based on themes relevant to the surrounding Hillyard and Minnehaha neighborhoods as identified during recent workshops and meetings,” according to a news release.

Work to watch for

Several streets around the Maple Street exit off Interstate 90 will be closed today and tomorrow for work on the Maple Street Gateway and Fourth Avenue Living Wall, a $375,000 project that aims to make landscaping improvements. Areas with closures are:

The east lane of Maple Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues;

The north lane of Fifth Avenue between Maple and Walnut streets;

The west lane of Walnut Street between Fifth and Fourth avenues.

Closures for non-city work include:

Northbound Wall and Howard streets will be closed between Main Avenue and Spokane Falls Boulevard and the eastbound curb lane of Main Avenue will be closed between Wall and Howard streets on Wednesday and Thursday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Avista work.

Both north and south curbside lanes of Third Avenue between Wall and Bernard streets will remain closed at separate times until Friday for Avista work.

The center lane of Maple Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues will remain closed until April 20 for Quanta work.

The north curbside lane of Third Avenue between Jefferson and Lincoln streets will remain closed until April 21 for Quanta work.

The east curbside lane of Ruby Street between North River Drive and Desmet Avenue will be closed from today through April 24 for Avista work.

The south curbside lane of Second Avenue between Jefferson and Cedar streets will remain closed until May 7 for Avista work.

A one-lane reduction on First Avenue between Washington and Bernard streets will remain reduced to one lane until May 7 for Avista work.

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