On Sunday, thousands of runners took the bus to get to the start of Bloomsday. A $1 sticker guaranteed a ride to and from outlying parking areas and a chance to mingle with fellow Bloomies. Yet taking the bus downtown may not be an option for next year's runners, if voters don't approve a sales tax initiative that's on the May 18 special ballot. That's right, the Spokane Transit Authority is broke -- again.
In September 2002, voters turned down a proposed sales tax increase, a result many took as a rebuke of STA management.
Today, STA has spent all of its reserve funds, and if voters don't trust the organization with more funding, bus riders are going to see their options severely limited starting in July. If the May 18 vote fails, buses would run only Monday through Saturday, with no service on Sundays, holidays or at special events such as Bloomsday. Buses would not run after 7 pm, and service to Fairchild Air Force Base, Millwood and Medical Lake would be cancelled entirely.
The ballot initiative is asking for voters to approve an increase in sales tax up to 0.3 percent -- that's 3 cents on a $10 purchase -- with an automatic expiration on June 30, 2009. At its March meeting, the STA Board decided to start out at 0.3 percent.
"Asking for up to 0.3 percent allows the [STA] Board some flexibility in case the full amount isn't needed," says Pam Behring, co-chair of the Save Our Transit steering committee. "It's the only way we can go. When STA was founded in 1981, we had matching funds from the state. We don't have that anymore. That's why the budget is so dire."
According to STA's numbers, the operating budget for 2004 is about $30.2 million. Of that, 8.7 percent goes to administration, 25.4 percent goes to provide paratransit rides and by far the largest portion -- 64.6 percent -- goes to operate the fixed-route bus services.
Since the repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET), also known as I-695 -- and the ballot initiative that really put Tim Eyman on the legislative map -- sales tax revenues have provided about 68 percent of STA's income, or just slightly above $17 million.
The passage of I-695 cut about half of STA's funding, leading to the first trip to the ballot box. Voters, however, said no to more funding, so the transit authority turned to its reserves to keep going. Those reserves are completely depleted today.
"More than 40 percent of STA's funding came from the MVET. People saw between a 75 percent and several hundred percent reduction in the price of their license tabs, and every other transit system had its budget cut," says Al French, a Spokane city council member and chairman of the STA task force, a group that was formed to take a closer look at the transit authority early last year. "With I-695, people were saying that they wanted more of a say in where their tax dollars go and that tax money should stay here, locally. Well, if voters approve the sales tax increase, those taxes will stay here locally -- they won't go anywhere else in the state."
STA seems caught between a rock and a hard place, with state law dictating that the only means for funding public transit is through sales tax - and STA is having to get by one the same allocation as when the system was founded.
Unlike roads or sewers, which are used by everyone, only a fraction of voters actually use the bus system themselves. Many are balking at having to pay for someone else's transportation needs. One passenger trip on a fixed-route bus costs, on average, $3.60 -- even though the rider only pays $1. A paratransit trip -- a service that must be provided by STA, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act -- costs $19.
"We do have a need for transit," says Behring. "We are a poor community. The bus system is something we all pay for but it benefits our people. We have found that 25 percent of those riding the bus don't have any other means of transportation. If the bus isn't there, they can't get around. And consider this: The remaining 75 percent would be on the street driving their car, adding to pollution, congestion and the wear on our streets."
In other words, even if you don't ride the bus, you benefit from other people riding it.
This time around, the area's chambers of commerce are backing the initiative as well.
"It's good business," adds Behring. "Most businesses employ people who need transportation. The Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Spokane Partnership all back us up -- just to name a few."
The Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce sent out a compelling collection of testimonials from area business leaders late last month.
"I'm asking for only the most minimal of service to the base so we can continue to serve the needs of those who have honorably served our nation," wrote Col. Anthony M. Mauer, commanding officer of Fairchild Air Force Base. Mauer added that he hopes "to continue our partnerships that provide employment to so many disabled people; and remain a base recognized for unparalleled community support."
Gary A. Livingston, chancellor and CEO of Community Colleges of Spokane, wrote: "CCS serves one of the largest student populations in the country -- students who use STA services almost every day of the school year. Reducing bus services to SCC and SFCC will have a profoundly negative effect on our students' lives and, in some cases, the lives of their families."
That's all fine and good, but critics of STA are not about to give up without a fight. Joel Crosby, a former city council and former STA board member, is one of the most outspoken critics of the tax initiative and STA.
"The problem is that the STA system is really inefficient," he says. "I'll eat at the food court downtown, and I watch the buses and every single one of them has two or three people in them. If you were to purposefully design a system to be wasteful and pollute the environment, you couldn't do better."
Crosby says it would be a lot better and more efficient to replace the big buses with smaller ones that could go into the neighborhoods and pick people up.
"If the bus system had smaller vehicles and hubs other places than downtown, you'd just call up the bus they'd come down and pick you up and take you to the hub, and from there you could just take the bus downtown," he says. "This would function much like airport shuttle services."
Crosby doesn't know of a city that operates a system like the one he outlines, but he does believe that STA doesn't deserve another dime.
"They just spent the money that was left over, so they can come and ask for more. The STA hasn't changed -- it's just window dressing," he says. "They shouldn't be rewarded with a big tax increase -- they'll just keep spending it like it didn't matter."
He doesn't believe there will be cuts in services if the initiative doesn't pass. "The STA is just guilting and bullying people into paying more," he says, adding that the initiative is on the ballot now because STA is counting on low turnout to pass the initiative.
French, for one, is very tired of Crosby's complaints. "He didn't attend one hearing or one meeting throughout this past year," says French. "The voting schedule has everything to do with when STA runs out of money and nothing to do with us counting on voter apathy."
French says there has been real change inside STA and a lot of it has come from the public hearings and meetings that were held by the STA task force.
"For instance, people want us to measure our success by ridership, not by the cost per mile of running the system -- they want more people on the bus," he says. And just as promised back in 2003, there are no sacred cows.
For example, the downtown plaza is currently being appraised and it could be put up for sale. And new discount ridership cards, such as the Eagle Card for commuters to EWU's campus in Cheney, have already gotten nearly 500 more people on the bus every day.
There are more discount deals in the works, says French. "The overall goal is to increase ridership by 5 percent," he says.
When the CEO of STA, Kim Zentz, was appointed a year ago, one of her goals was to establish attainable goals for the organization to make it possible to measure how STA is doing.
"It's been a lot of hard work. I'm proud of the progress we have made, but I'm very realistic about how long it takes to change a culture," says Zentz. "We're just getting started changing STA. I'm sympathetic to people who say, 'Gee, I see no changes.' It takes a long time to reestablish credibility -- it wasn't lost overnight either."
The public meetings have been crucial in determining the new goals of the organization.
"I've received a lot of encouragement through thousands of conversations over the past year, and through testimony at hearings," says Zentz. "People very much did not want to lose Sunday services or the special services for Bloomsday and such."
One point was made very clear: "Nearly 100 percent of the testimony was, 'Please put it on the ballot so we can choose,' " says Zentz. "When people realized that we honestly wanted to listen to what they had to say, I don't recall any audiences being left cynical at all. We wanted to get the community talking about public transportation -- both listening and talking."
Behring says it's time for voters to overcome cynicism and look at what's really going on with STA.
"Yes, the buses do serve a social need, and yes, you will meet some of the less advantaged people in our community on the bus. But we have to understand that these people are part of our community," she says. "It's not like poverty and illness and the disadvantaged will just go away. To those who say STA has an image problem, I'd like to ask, 'Have you ridden a bus in the last 10 years?' If not, what do you know? People are so willing to share their ignorance."
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