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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County to get millions of dollars from feds for bus upkeep

By Lauren Rendahl and Ellen Dennis The Spokesman-Review

More than $14.5 million in federal cash will soon be headed to Spokane County to fund public transportation.

The money is part of a $20.5 billion investment announced this month by the Federal Transit Administration to bolster public transport across the country under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Some $388 million of that funding will go to Washington state in the form of grants.

Spokane County plans to use its piece of the pie to maintain and replace buses, as well as to support nonprofits that provide transportation for older adults, people with disabilities and low-income families, said Karl Otterstrom, the chief planning and development officer with the Spokane Transit Authority.

“Transit is really integral with healthy, vibrant cities and urban areas,” he said. “Congress recognized that long ago, over 50 years ago, and it’s because cities matter to the health of the country and the vitality of the nation.”

Each year, the transit authority prepares a financial forecast and creates a list of projects where federal funds can be allocated, so the expenses are already predicted in their budgets, Otterstrom said.

He added that STA is already spending money on those projects, and the federal funds will be used to reimburse the organization once they complete paperwork and grant writeups.

“It’s like something you’re going to buy, and a loved one says, ‘I’ll pay you back for part of it,’” Otterstrom said. “You only get paid back when you’ve purchased, in this case.”

Roughly $12.7 million will go toward preventative bus maintenance, which is “taking care of our buses, maintaining them (and) doing all the regular service checks on them, as well as our facilities,” he said.

Another $1.2 million is allocated for the transit authority’s capital improvement program that will cover bus replacement and repairs, along with the construction of bus-related facilities such as stops, stations and lots.

Otterstrom said STA replaces paratransit buses on a regular basis, usually every 15 years. Ideally, he said the organization staggers the purchase of new buses over time due to their high cost. Diesel buses cost the county more than $500,000 apiece, and battery-electric buses cost upwards of $1 million.

The transit authority will give the last $670,000 to local nonprofits that provide transportation for elderly and disabled people in areas where existing public transportation is inadequate.

“Later this year, we will do a call for projects and seek proposals from nonprofits in our region to see how they can deliver either a continuation to the programs they’re already providing or new programs,” Otterstrom said.

STA has previously worked with The Arc of Spokane and Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners to purchase or reimburse the organizations for vehicles tailored to elderly or disabled people, he said.

Along with the city of Spokane, the transit authority oversees public transit for Airway Heights, Cheney, Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Millwood and other urban parts of Spokane County.

“We’re able to provide more service and better service because of that partnership with the federal government, and it’s important that Congress continues to invest in transit across the country,” Otterstrom said. “This is emblematic of that investment, scaled to the Spokane region.”

In 2021, roughly 8,000 households in Spokane County relied on public transportation for their daily commutes to work.

In the United States, data shows Washington ranks third-highest in terms of cars per capita, with about 37,000 registered automobiles per 100,000 people, behind Montana and Alabama. Yet more than 10% of Spokane County residents use public transportation, walk, bike, carpool or use cabs to get to work.

Nearly 80,000 adults in Spokane County don’t currently have a vehicle registered with the state. There are 449,675 registered vehicles in Spokane County right now, according to the state Department of Licensing. The population of Spokane County was just over 550,000 as of the 2023 census, with 21% of those residents being under the age of 18.