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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

STA approves free summer bus passes for kids; details still to come

Hannah Tsipras, 10, waits for a STA bus at the Plaza on April 15 to take her and her mother, Jennie Hudson, to an appointment on Division Street in downtown Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Elected leaders and the Spokane Transit Authority were blown away by the number of local students who took advantage of the free bus passes offered by the city of Spokane in the summer of 2019.

So blown away, in fact, that they’re bringing the concept back in 2021 and offering it not just to Spokane Public Schools students, but to young people throughout the area.

The details of the pilot program are still being ironed out, but the Spokane Transit Authority’s board voted unanimously on Thursday to eliminate the cost of an unlimited summer bus pass for youths.

The proposal was championed by Spokane City Council members who sit on the STA’s board and touted the program’s benefits in 2019.

“Coming out of COVID this would be a great thing for our youth,” Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm told The Spokesman-Review.

The concept

The STA has offered a discounted bus pass for young people in past summers at half the standard price. But the 2019 program launched by the city of Spokane exceeded expectations and demonstrated a high demand when the ride is free.

The specifics of the program are still being finalized, stressed Brandon Rapez-Betty, a spokesperson for STA. Instructions on how to access the passes will be shared before the summer program begins.

The tentative goal is to launch the program on June 15 and allow young people to access the bus passes through local libraries and other community partners who agree to participate. STA estimates that about 15,000 young people in the region could be eligible for the passes, which would expire on Sept. 15.

The passes will be free to anyone between 6 and 18 years old, or someone older who is enrolled in the 12th grade or below.

When STA shares more about the program with the broader community, Rapez-Betty told the STA Board Thursday that “part of our marketing and communications will be about the safety of riding STA buses, particularly with COVID safety measures.”

Those measures include facial coverings, hand sanitizer and routine bus cleanings.

Emphasis continues to be made on reducing traffic congestion through increased use of public transportation as Spokane girds itself for added growth. Rapez-Betty highlighted the benefit of “helping people be more familiar” with the public transit system at a young age.

Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear echoed that sentiment, calling the program a “game changer.”

“For the future of STA and future ridership, it’s a great way to bring on young riders and get them used to using the bus,” Kinnear said. “That is the best way that they can get around prior to having a driver’s license and hopefully after they have a driver’s license.”

To Mumm, the free passes make it more feasible for a young person to get a summer job outside their immediate neighborhood. It will also be a boon for single parents, she said, and families who have had to convert homes into classrooms during the pandemic.

“This will just be a free pass back into Spokane and have STA welcome them along with these other partners,” Mumm said.

The cost

The program will be funded by the Spokane Transit Authority with money saved from a separate project, the construction of the Spokane Community College transit center, which came in significantly under budget.

The cost to the Spokane Transit Authority was calculated partly based on the ridership during the city of Spokane’s summer 2019 program, which was paid for by the city and not STA.

This time, the STA will foot the bill and estimated the program in 2021 will cost about about $283,000. The STA Board authorized it to spend up to $380,000 on the effort.

Board member Tim Hattenburg, a Spokane Valley City Council member, asked why the STA planned to use unspent capital funds instead of COVID relief dollars to fund the project.

E. Susan Meyer, the CEO of STA, explained that the board will have strategic discussions about how best to use coronavirus aid, but “unspent capital project money seemed like the best way to fund a one-year pilot program.”

The STA expects the pilot program will help gauge ridership levels. Although no personal data will be collected, STA will document the grade level of each student and the school they attend.

“We’re going to track the usage and track the data,” Rapez-Betty said. “In the end we’ll know how close we came to our cost estimate.”

If third parties like the city of Spokane or Spokane County want to continue the program into 2022 and beyond, they’ll have to pay for it based on estimated ridership and cost. That’s not unusual, as the city of Spokane and Spokane County already pay for similar programs for their own employees.