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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Free ride: Demand high already for STA program that lets kids take the bus at no cost

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)
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)

Spokane Public Schools students are out for summer as of midday today, and the Spokane Transit Authority may have just the thing to help keep them occupied until class is back in session: a free bus pass.

In the first six days of the program, the regional public transit agency gave away 2,206 cards to kids and teens, said Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s communications and customer service director. About 600 of the passes were distributed the first day, June 15.

Rapez-Betty called that a “great turnout” so far, and it’s easy to see why the program is so popular. Holders of STA Summer Passes pay nothing and are entitled to unlimited rides through Sept. 15.

STA offered half-price passes to students on summer break before launching a similar free-pass program in 2019.

The popularity of that test run compelled the agency to expand the parameters this time around.

Instead of limiting eligibility to Spokane Public Schools students, as they did last time, STA is offering to anyone in the region who is between the ages of 6 and 18 or to any enrolled student from kindergarten through 12th grade. Further information about eligibility and availability is online at stasummerpass.com.

Rapez-Betty said the passes are intended for kids who live within what’s known as the public transit benefit area, but that STA won’t be enforcing any residence requirements.

“It took away the intention of the benefit of the project to create strict boundaries,” he said.

Passes are available at all Spokane Public Library, Spokane County Library District and Liberty Lake Municipal Library branches.

The Spokane Public Library system has also made them available at high schools in the city.

So far, Rapez-Betty said, direct outreach in high schools has proved the most popular way for the passes to be picked up, with almost 1,100 cards given away.

Other hot spots for getting passes include the Hillyard library branch, where 219 passes have been distributed, and the South Hill branch, where 145 passes have been provided.

The most common routes summer passholders have used so far are also some of the most popular in the STA system: Route 4, which travels between the Moran Station and 5 Mile park and rides; route 25, which plies Division Street; and Route 33, which runs along Wellesley Street.

Funding for the free passes came from savings STA realized on construction of the Spokane Community College transit center.

The agency has estimated the project will cost about $283,000 this summer, though the STA Board authorized the agency to spend up to $380,000 on the effort.

That financial buffer exists in case demand exceeds the current supply of 15,000 cards.

If it appears that’s likely to happen, Rapez-Betty said his agency will “make a decision about whether we need to rush order some new cards.”

In 2019, students snapped up a total of 5,300 free passes.

Rapez-Betty said demand could be especially high this year due to the regional scope of the program, the city library system’s in-school outreach effort and the potential for increased need “in the wake of the pandemic.”

Rapez-Betty said the STA board had a few objectives when it decided to offer the passes.

One, it hoped to increase access to public transit. Two, it aimed to “develop future riders” by offering an “opportunity to get kids on the bus and help them feel comfortable with it so it’s a public service they’ll feel free to use” in the future, he said. And three, the board wanted to “help establish cost estimates” for similar projects in the future, according to Rapez-Betty.

STA also offers a Community Access Pass Program that enables social service agencies that work with the homeless and other populations to purchase monthly passes at a 50% discount. That allows the agencies to “essentially double the reach of their resources” and boosts ridership for STA, Rapez-Betty said.

Both programs are considered pilots that the STA board will evaluate before determining whether to offer them again.

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