The Spokane Transit Authority has received a $23.4 million cash infusion from the federal government that will help keep Spokane’s bus system operating in the near term. But it likely won’t be nearly enough to cover the long-term repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on the agency.
The money, announced Tuesday, is STA’s slice of some $25 billion in funding for public transportation nationwide that was included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed late last month.
“We know many of our nation’s public transportation systems are facing extraordinary challenges and these funds will go a long way to assisting our transit industry partners in battling COVID-19,” said K. Jane Williams, acting administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration, in a news release.
STA’s challenges have been mounting since early March, when ridership started to decline as people had fewer places to go due to pandemic-related closures and when the agency began increasing cleaning protocols throughout its system.
Since then, ridership has plummeted by as much as 70% on some days, leading to a huge drop in revenue collected through fares. On March 26, STA stopped charging people to ride the bus in an effort to reduce interactions between drivers and passengers. That brought declining fare revenue down to zero.
The agency has reduced its service by about 11%, dropping express service, but otherwise has kept buses and paratransit vans rolling.
Meanwhile, STA broke ground on its long-awaited bus rapid transit project, the City Line, and has been forging ahead with plans to expand service to Spokane Valley, Airway Heights, the West Plains, Cheney, north Spokane, the University District and elsewhere.
Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA communications and customer service director, said the funding announced Tuesday will help maintain service through the rest of this year.
As for pursuing those longer-term projects – many of them funding through the agency’s 10-year, voter-approved Moving Forward plan – and keeping service at its pre-pandemic level in the future, Rapez-Betty said the outlook is cloudy.
While STA is already taking a major hit to the 11% of its $111 million operating budget that comes from fares, Rapez-Betty said the agency anticipates “a much deeper hit” next month. That’s when state sales tax revenue forecasts are expected to be released. And with few people spending money, those forecasts are expected to be grim.
“Like other government agencies, we’re kind of waiting on pins and needles, waiting to see where we are sitting,” Rapez-Betty said.
The expected blow could be softened if a bill that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives is signed into law and pumps another $16 billion into the nation’s public transit system, but that looks unlikely due to strong Republican opposition.
Instead, STA will likely have to draw on some combination of spending its savings, reducing service levels and delaying projects to stay afloat, Rapez-Betty said.
STA is a “zero-debt agency,” meaning it not only has no debt but also has almost $105 million saved for future projects and costs.
While those reserves will be useful, STA’s board of directors will be left with difficult decisions about how to prioritize their use.
Rapez-Betty said the “board would consider every option on the table” before deciding what to put into – and what to leave out of – its 2021 budget. He said it’s highly unlikely, but possible, that the City Line would find itself on the chopping block. Everything else, though, will be up for consideration.
“This has created a recession,” Rapez-Betty said of the pandemic. “And we’ll have to figure out how to get out of it.”
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