By Chris Cargill
Here’s a riddle. What always costs more than expected and is seldom delivered on time? Answer: A government transit project.
The joke isn’t lost on Spokane taxpayers. We’re paying more than ever to the Spokane Transit Authority, but we’re not getting what transit boosters promised.
When they asked voters twice to approve new taxes to build the 6-mile-long Central City Line electric bus system, transit backers promised a price tag of $72 million and a completion date in 2021.
We’re now learning that officials have ballooned the cost by almost 20%, to $92.2 million. Given their track record, it’s a good bet the cost will be $100 million before all is said and done.
And despite all that money, the Central City Line buses are still not running in downtown Spokane. The project has been delayed again because STA officials say there is a “national shortage of rolled-tube steel” used to complete the bus shelters.
When seeking a tax hike to pay for the project, STA officials promised the electric buses would bring development and an increase in surrounding land values. The research showed that likely wouldn’t happen without separate action or more tax subsidies.
Now, STA, a transit agency, is hiring a real estate development manager. STA says, “We have realized the need to onboard (a person who can take) the lead on our efforts for mixed use and transit-oriented development.” The position pays up to $102,000 a year plus benefits, including a Cadillac health plan, a gym membership and free bus passes. Meantime, the median household income in Spokane hovers around the $50,000 mark – and most of us don’t have access to free gym memberships.
Transit ridership has declined, but working families in Spokane are still dishing out more money for STA. Since 2016, the amount of revenue the transit agency has received has increased 38%.
But spending that cash hasn’t led to more riders. In fact, STA bus ridership is down substantially. This isn’t because of COVID mandates. Even now that all economic restrictions have been lifted, ridership is still nearly half what it used to be. And months before COVID even arrived, ridership had fallen from peak levels in 2014, according to the National Transit Database.
Now, STA officials say they want to expand their taxpayer-funded business to North Idaho. How this would work is still unclear, as Idaho taxpayers don’t foot the bill for a Washington state bus agency.
In the end, public transit serves an important need. The goal should be to get people from point A to point B as efficiently as possible – without wasting taxpayer money.
But the statistics don’t lie. Spokane Transit Authority clearly takes too much money from the public for the service it provides, even while it struggles to complete promised projects on time and on budget. The 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 government projects and priorities. They want to know that when needs rise and fall, government will be flexible enough to respond. They want to know government officials will be held accountable.
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 week.
For years, STA’s budget has laid out a vision that proclaims, “We aspire to be a source of pride for the region.” If STA officials want the community to be proud, they should become the most efficient transit agency in the country. And they shouldn’t make promises they can’t keep.
Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director of Washington Policy Center. Online at washingtonpolicy.org. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.