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The Ties That Bind 

Why public transit needs your support at the ballot box

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

Three months ago, I played a fun game with Spokane County Commissioner Al French.

Invited to participate in a transit summit with local elected officials, nonprofit and business leaders and other riders, our goal was to design a network for a fictional town named Prairieville. Shades of Spokane were evident: access to hospitals, schools and business districts like Garland and South Perry fell in the "cut or keep" paradigm. I was electrified to see French, a Republican who can sometimes strain city and county relations, articulate how a mass regional transit system can stitch together a strong community and urge us to "dream big."

click to enlarge dillonpaul.jpg

He wasn't alone. The biggest takeaway was a vote among the participants at the end, showing strong support for a ballot initiative to fund existing and new bus services with an additional sales tax of 0.3 percent — three cents on a $10 retail purchase.

And that's exactly what Spokane County voters will weigh in on with Proposition 1. After years of thorough planning by Spokane Transit Authority (STA), your ballots will arrive soon, due to be returned by April 28. Hours would be extended, service expanded and better connections built to areas such as the West Plains.

"Spokane's most valuable export is our youth," French says as we chat now about the dream becoming a reality. "And there isn't a more valuable asset for young folks than public transportation."

True. Until recently, I never owned a car and used the bus almost daily. I attended Eastern Washington University while living in Spokane, and the bus was so crowded I remember the humiliation of passengers left at stops. That was a decade ago; buses are more packed now and frustrations persist. After 7 pm and on weekends, routes are infrequent. Getting to work on nights and weekends, or for those who just want to ride the bus for something other than commuting, is challenging.

In the next 25 years, our region's population is expected to increase by 165,000 and the demand for public transportation will grow concurrently. Yet despite the population growth, bus service in Spokane hasn't expanded significantly since 1981.

A growing community needs a growing transit network. Organizations from the Downtown Spokane Partnership to Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington have endorsed the proposition. Still, there's opposition from the Washington Policy Center, a right-wing think tank bankrolled by anti-transit crusader Kemper Freeman, a billionaire Bellevue developer.

The WPC detests congestion — ignoring that even if you don't ride a bus, we all benefit. Also, for an organization hawking fiscal accountability, Proposition 1 contains a sunset clause so the revenue it generates will end after 10 years. Voters then can evaluate how effectively the money was spent and decide if they want to continue spending it.

STA now provides 40,000 rides each day, second in the state only to Seattle, and 2014 was the highest ridership year since 1953 at 11.3 million. Proposition 1 provides the additional service the bus system needs, with access for the folks who depend on bus access most: students, working families, seniors. Even a new category: imports to Spokane.

"Us boomers are becoming less mobile," French says. "We need to closely ask ourselves what kind of a community do we want to leave behind for future generations?"

Proposition 1 will move Spokane forward to the transit system it needs. ♦

Paul Dillon is the Eastern Washington Program Director for YMCA Youth & Government, teaching democracy to youth through hands-on civic engagement.

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