Back in January 2020, bus riders contributed more than $950,000 to the Spokane Transit Authority’s coffers.
But within a few months, drivers had stopped collecting fares altogether to minimize their contact with customers and their odds of contracting the then-new threat from coronavirus.
That led revenue from STA’s fixed-route service to fall below $19,000 for the month of April.
It also sent agency officials scrambling to prepare for the expected financial fallout from the pandemic.
And if you looked just at ridership numbers since then, you’d expect that those preparations were prescient.
But you’d be wrong.
Very, very wrong.
While ridership was still down about 40% in September from pre-pandemic levels, revenue is 48% higher this year than the agency expected, and the agency’s coffers are bursting for the future.
That’s thanks, in large part, to the federal government, which gave $89 million in pandemic relief money to STA. But local shoppers also contributed significantly, giving the agency $45.6 million in sales tax revenue, a figure in keeping with pre-pandemic levels instead of the downturn officials anticipated.
The result is a transit agency flush with cash and looking for ways to spend it.
One thing STA can’t buy, however, is rolled-tube steel, which the transit agency needs to construct the shelters for its long-awaited City Line.
It usually takes four to six weeks for steel of this kind to be delivered, according to Karl Otterstrom, the Spokane Transit Authority’s director of planning and development. But due to supply-chain shortages, the timeline is now more like eight months.
And without the steel, crews can’t build the shelters at the newly constructed stops that have been popping up along the City Line’s route between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College.
And without the shelters, Otterstrom said, the whole line has been put on hold as STA waits to deliver the entire completed project at once, instead of in a piecemeal, haphazard fashion.
The result is a very late arrival for a transit option touted as offering frequent, reliable and fast service.
Instead of opening its doors to riders in May, the City Line isn’t slated to open now until July 2023.
Meanwhile, STA staff and board members have begun strategizing about how to deploy the ample stockpile of cash.
So much is on hand, however, that STA isn’t even looking to spend the new money yet.
Instead, STA staff have identified for immediate use some $19 million in savings the agency made between 2017 and 2020.
In response, the board of directors drew up a wish list of 24 projects that they plan to whittle down at their meeting next month and implement by the end of 2023.
Among those ideas are:
- Extend the City Line’s western terminus from Browne’s Addition to Spokane Falls Community College.
- Increase Sunday service systemwide.
- Launch a
- pilot program in the Latah Valley.
- Boost bus frequency along West Broadway to better serve Kendall Yards and West Central.
- Increase shuttle service from the Plaza to the Spokane Arena on weekends and nights to meet demand for the coming downtown stadium, the soon-to-be-opened Podium and the arena.
- Enhance service and facilities along Fifth Avenue in East Central.
- Create a new line from Spokane Community College to Hillyard.
- Deploy a looping east-west route in Mead.
- Buy land in the Five Mile, Seven Mile or Latah Valley areas for future park-and-rides.
- Add a new route that would start at the West Plains Transit Center and serve the nearby Amazon fulfillment center and other area businesses.
- Add a new route in northeast Spokane Valley, to serve its Amazon fulfillment center and other businesses.
- partnerships with developers to add housing or commercial amenities to existing STA property.
Otterstrom and other STA staff are in the process of evaluating, scoring and packaging the proposals.
The STA board is planning to decide which to pursue at its Dec. 16 meeting.
But that will only represent the beginning of STA’s spending spree.
Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s communications and customer service director, said in an email that the agency’s ample remaining funding will be “considered for the region’s next 10-year plan that would outline transit improvements through 2035, which is intended to be the product of the strategic planning process STA will begin in the coming months.”
That next long-range plan will succeed STA Moving Forward, a suite of projects paid for with a sales tax increase that voters approved in 2016.
Many elements of that plan have come together, including construction of the West Plains Transit Center, creation of the high-frequency Monroe-Regal line and improved service along Division Street.
But STA isn’t limiting itself to the Moving Forward package.
On Division, the agency’s plans for a second bus rapid transit line are coming together quickly, with a contractor on board to begin designing and engineering a route that will include Spokane’s first dedicated bus lanes.
The agency also recently put its first battery-electric buses in service, as it pursues a broader electrification push, and is revamping its fare collection system.
STA has so much on its plate, in fact, that among the criteria used to evaluate its list of 24 near-term projects are provisions that they not require the agency to add organizational capacity and that they not detract from existing priorities, according to a presentation at last month’s Board of Directors meeting.
And while the delay for the City Line did increase the cost by about $3 million, the project is still slated to come in $11 million under budget overall.
That’s just another pot of money that could be use to expand the system.
As for whether more money, more service and more buses will mean more riders, well, only time will tell.
Work to watch out for
Flaggers will be out for trucks entering and exiting west of the new roundabout on the north side of Highway 90 near Medical Lake as crews relocate a water main.
Five Mile Road will be closed between Cascade Way and Audubon Street on Tuesday and Wednesday for installation of a water pipe.
The two north lanes of Sprague Avenue between Monroe and Post streets downtown will be closed Monday through Thursday for fiber line work.
Leaf pickup this week will occur in the Corbin Park area.
Crews will begin closing the right lane of North Market Street at Garland Avenue to near Rockwell Avenue on Monday to begin construction in the area of the Children of the Sun Trail. The right lane will be closed through at least January.