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Getting There: While ridership is down, STA services won’t be cut this fall

A passenger boards a Spokane Transit Authority bus in August 2020 at the STA Plaza in downtown Spokane.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Though bus ridership has plummeted during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Spokane Transit Authority plans to avoid cutbacks to ensure that essential workers and others dependent on public transportation have a way to get to work.

According to statistics posted to the Washington State Department of Transportation’s website, STA has had consistently lower ridership since the beginning of the pandemic, with a 70% reduction in bus riders compared to last year. Now that Spokane County has moved to Phase 2 of Governor Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, ridership has improved slightly, with around 50% fewer people taking the bus than last year.

Those who are still riding are often essential workers, or those who require public transit to access groceries or medication, said Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who is also an STA board member.

“These routes are still essential to a lot of people,” she said. “We have a responsibility to make sure that our schedules and our routes are whole.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said STA had received CARES Act funds that offset some losses, but the organization will likely have to dip into reserves, which he said was necessary because public transportation is a needed service.

“There’s a significant part of our employment base that relies on this service,” he said.

French is hopeful CARES funding and reserves will carry STA through lower ridership until society reopens and people began using transit as much as they did in the past.

“We’re hoping that we’ll be able to restore and get back to our normal lives so that we can get our ridership back to where it was and continue to grow the system,” he said.

Brandon Rapez-Betty, communications and customer services director for STA, said there will only be one reduction this fall, to the route to Eastern Washington University in Cheney from school day-level service to normal service, but that won’t take place until after Thanksgiving.

He said keeping bus service at existing levels was important to allow people to socially distance on the bus, and aligned with best practices released by national transit organizations.

In addition to continuing the same amount of buses to ensure social distancing, there are now also dividers between the driver and passenger and extra sanitizing in place. Everyone is also required to wear a mask.

Rapez-Betty said ridership for STA’s vanpool and paratransit were down as well, despite paratransit being expanded to include rides for passengers over the age of 60.

Paratransit has seen a 44.3% reduction over last year and vanpool has seen a 34.2% reduction, he said.

Rapez-Betty said both those programs would continue and have also been altered to increase safety precautions.

Vanpools, which had required five passengers for use before the pandemic, now only require two people. Paratransit also has a reduced occupancy due to social distancing. Rapez-Betty said expanded service has been underutilized during the pandemic, and said seniors can use it for any essential need.

What to watch out for

Crews will be working this week to finish connections on a massive underwater stormwater tank behind the downtown Spokane library. The north lane of Spokane Falls Boulevard between Post and Monroe streets will be closed Wednesday and Thursday as workers remove temporary bypass pumps. Sidewalks outside City Hall will have detours.

The northbound lanes of Nevada Street between Cozza Drive and Lyons Avenue will be closed from Monday through Wednesday for Baker Construction work.

The west curb lane of Maple Street between Indiana and Shannon avenues will be closed staring Tuesday through Sept. 4 for Black Diamond Asphalt work.

Shoshone Place between Bernard and Stevens Street and the intersection of Oneida Place and Shoshone Place are closed. Crews are replacing a 111-year-old steel water main and 17 service lines.

Work to relocate city utilities in anticipation of the North Spokane Corridor has moved to Cleveland Avenue between Regal and Market streets. Expect additional traffic and signage if you’re traveling through the area.