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Opinion >  Column

Chris Cargill: Spokane Transit gets too much tax revenue for service it provides

The people of the Spokane region are being overcharged for public transit. You might be surprised to hear that, but the facts demonstrate it’s true.

Statistics from nearly every database show ridership on the decline. Public data shows ridership for Spokane Transit Authority has steadily dropped while taxes paid by area working families to support transit continue to increase.

Numbers for the five years leading up to COVID (2015 to 2019) show STA ridership fell by 8 percent, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

The numbers were even more dramatic last year. It’s not a surprise that COVID negatively impacted ridership in 2020, resulting in a 42 percent decrease. But the long-term numbers tell a more troubling story. Looking at the first four months of 2021 and comparing it to the same period in 2019 pre-COVID, ridership at STA is about 35 percent lower.

Transit is about moving people from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible. There are different ways to look at efficiency. One way is to look at passenger miles traveled per revenue mile and at what cost per mile.

For example, in 2015 STA buses carried an average of 8.4 passengers, at an operating cost of $8.55 per mile. In 2019, the average STA bus carried just 6.6 passengers at a cost of $9.02 per mile.

At the same time, the amount of local revenues STA takes increased by 63 percent. The increases in local tax revenue should not come as a surprise. Less than five years ago, STA officials pushed voters to approve another increase in its sales tax rate, while promising new routes and projects like its once-rejected and still controversial downtown Central City Line.

The costly new services have not led to an increase in ridership. This is all the more remarkable because the population of the Spokane area – and therefore the potential STA ridership base – has only increased over the years.

Higher sales taxes are a particular hardship on low-income people. Sales taxes are regressive, and 2019 census data revealed that only 4.2 percent of people who earned less than $25,000 a year took transit to work. That means nearly 96 percent of low-income workers were disproportionately paying for transit rides they weren’t taking.

All of this points to one thing: Spokane Transit Authority is spending more money on services and buses that are not needed, and the area working families who pay STA’s bills deserve a break.

This is not an unusual request. Spokane-area families have limited resources to spend on the regressive taxes that fund government projects and priorities. They want to know that when needs rise and fall, government will be flexible enough to respond.

This smart, priorities of government approach is what leaders in the Tri-Cities called for this summer. Because transit ridership has also declined there, elected leaders wanted to slightly reduce the amount the Ben Franklin Transit agency received, and instead allocate it to cover mental health services in the region. Not surprisingly, transit bureaucrats in the Tri-Cities rejected that approach – they didn’t want to lose the tax money they receive.

Instead of funding empty buses in our region, perhaps tax money could be better utilized addressing mental health issues or homelessness or even be given directly back to taxpayers in the form of a lower sales tax rate for working families.

We should not be afraid to address this issue. No government agency deserves an unending source of revenue, especially one that is serving fewer people every year.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Seattle and Olympia. Online at washingtonpolicy.org.

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