We could say we told you so. Okay, we will: We told you so. Told you, that is, that passing Initiative 695 would gut mass transit here in Spokane and around the state. That's just what happened, and now people who supported that Tim Eyman brainchild are left to wonder why they're being asked to pony up more money to keep the bus routes alive. Sure, the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax was goofy, but in a state without an income tax, as Tony Soprano would say, "Whaddya gonna do?" Under the old system, at least the guy with the brand-new Lincoln Navigator, driving to work by himself every day, got soaked just a little bit more than the rest of us.
But that's all water under the bridge, which is why we can't pretend it never happened, as Proposition 1 encourages us to do. Let's be clear: The people who brought us I-695 and those who voted for it are the ones who stuck a knife in the back of mass transit, not the people who are planning to vote no on Proposition 1 on Tuesday. The Spokane Transit Authority has the power to ask for a sales tax increase, but this is not the right time to grant it.
If Prop. 1 passes, the STA, we're told, will be able to maintain its status quo. Yet this is pure fantasy, because the status quo has been upended and a new reality is firmly entrenched. You don't have to like this new reality -- we hate it -- but it's a cold, hard fact. Now is the time for a leaner, meaner STA to emerge, and a no vote at this juncture will force that change. A yes vote simply delays the STA's day of reckoning.
STA officials have said that if there is a yes vote, they will study and implement changes to their system. Sorry, but that's not good enough; nobody gets a blank check these days. Had the STA brought a detailed overhaul plan along with its request for more money, perhaps we'd be making a different recommendation here. But the state budget picture is bleak, and to think there won't be another rainy day for mass transit sometime down the road is na & iuml;ve. The STA needs to hold onto its additional taxing authority for a real crisis.
It's easy to say the STA is accountable to no one, has made poor decisions and that it generally needs a good ear-boxing. These may be valid points, but they're too pat -- even lazy -- and they're not good reasons to vote against this measure. By most accounts, the STA does fine work at a thankless job. That bus drivers may lose their jobs and that low-income people may not be able to get to work is sad, but again, blame I-695 and its ilk. We believe that mass transit is a crucial element to any city that hopes to have a brighter future. Look to Portland, where transit works, and to Seattle, where it doesn't (and where Boeing's departure has led to the nation's highest unemployment).
And Portland can be invoked as another reason to vote no. Perhaps as soon as next fall, residents here will be asked to fund a STA-led light rail project between Spokane and Liberty Lake, which could extend to Coeur d'Alene and beyond. A system like this is wildly popular in Portland, and while we're not quite Portland, it could be a major turning point in the history of the Inland Northwest (as Robert Herold discusses in his column this week, on page 6). People shouldn't necessarily link this vote to the one on the light rail project, but they may. If people hold the line this fall, maybe they'll be more willing to get behind the light rail project next year. (For the record, this is no formal endorsement of that emerging plan, but at this time there is clearly a lot to like about it.)
In the meantime, if Proposition 1 fails, the STA will undoubtedly have a tough year ahead. Major changes will be required for the agency to continue to fulfill its mission. But times change, and so must institutions; if the STA can engage the public -- even its toughest critics -- and open its collective mind to new ideas, by next year it could be something completely different. It won't be easy, but if the STA can make the leap successfully, all of us will be more likely to support its requests for additional funding, whether for the exciting light rail project or for bus routes that make good sense.