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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Brian A. Kamp: Public transit and political footballs

By Brian A. Kamp

By Brian A. Kamp

Imagine a great city: effective governance, teeming economy, impressive schools, reliable police and fire departments, smart traffic engineering, pragmatic waste management, effective water treatment, clean air and water, a vibrant arts scene … and a reliable, friendly and clean mass transit system.

Mass transit is a bellwether of a great city. Without it, a city will always be considered “less than” … a poser amongst the “real cities.” Spokane should be proud of its transit system, even if you don’t use it (and, for the record, you should).

As Mark Twain explained regarding persuasiveness of numbers: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Chris Cargill’s recent column (“STA gets too much tax revenue for service provided,” Sept. 3) is an example of this phenomenon. His numbers are hand-picked to demonstrate his central point: “taxes bad – transit bad.” Unfortunately, within his essay, his verisimilitude only nibbles around the edges of the truth.

For instance, Cargill compares ridership from the first four months of 2019 to 2021 and computes a 35% lower ridership. What could account for this drop in ridership? Has there been anything in the news? Hint: It rhymes with “BOVID-19.”

Just as much of our economy has not fully recovered from COVID-19, bus ridership is still anemic. People are still afraid to shop, eat out, recreate and, indeed, ride the bus. We are not “out of the woods.” To assume otherwise is foolhardy.

Winston Churchill once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Cargill must have listened; he is not letting the COVID-19 crisis go to waste. By using cherry-picked ridership statistics, he claims that the Spokane Transit Agency is giving less service for each tax dollar. As Cargill attempts to leverage the pandemic in a cynical attempt to further his political agenda, his numbers don’t accurately tell the story.

Political opportunism is a trademark of the institutionally ambitious. Public transit is just too damned important to make it a political football.

A misleading allegation left unchallenged, however, becomes the “truth.” Therefore, I will heed Churchill’s charge and, likewise, not let “a good crisis go to waste.”

STA has handled the global COVID-19 pandemic impressively. No one publishes a pamphlet on how to deal with a global pandemic. There were no time-honored guidelines. STA was forced to rely on its common sense and agility. It has made many good choices, recognized when it made poor ones and was quick to fix problems.

There were the obvious things: obtaining hard-to-find PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies and requiring mask usage for employees and passengers alike; disinfecting vehicles multiple times per day; and assuring driver safety by making equipment modifications, etc.

But did you know that STA used its partially idled paratransit drivers to deliver for Meals on Wheels as requested by the regional emergency response group? Did you know that it provided door-to-door trips for vulnerable seniors beyond ADA requirements? Did you know it is currently implementing a contactless payment system? Did you know it made arrangements with vaccination clinics to fill no-show appointments, assuring reduced vaccination waste? These are things done not just by a good transit agency, but a good community citizen as well.

The STA Moving Forward 10-year plan is dedicated to “maintain, improve and expand transit services.”

What does this mean? More routes, buses arriving more frequently, additional bus shelters, electrification of many coaches, more convenient transit centers, safer stops and many other items. This plan was not to just increase ridership, but improve the riders’ experience. A happy rider becomes a consistent rider. (Read more

I am not an employee of STA. I serve as chairman of the STA’s Citizen Advisory Committee. This committee provides a voice to the riders and citizens in the entire transit area.

Membership in this committee allows a unique view into all aspects of STA’s operations. Does this committee ask hard questions of STA management? Constantly. Does this committee criticize when we identify a problem? Always. It is so rewarding to see a large institution truly listen.

Is STA perfect? Of course not. STA, however, is a well-run institution dedicated to constant improvement. One that makes a good city a truly great one.

This year, STA is celebrating 40 years of service. The COVID-19 pandemic has, undoubtedly, been the most difficult of those years.

STA has forged ahead knowing that, someday, we will return to normal … and it will be ready.

Brian A. Kamp, senior lecturer (retired), Eastern Washington University; chairman, STA Citizen Advisory Committee.