STA 45
Route 45 Bus in Spokane – Zachary Ziegler (Twitter)

For all the vast differences between Western and Eastern Washington, many political dynamics endure. Much like Seattle vis-à-vis suburban King County, Spokane often finds itself an island of pro-transit urbanity within a largely hostile, anti-transit county. STB (especially former writer Bruce Nourish) has fawned over Spokane Transit Authority (STA) in the past, praising the agency for cutting-edge mapping, customer information, and graphic design, as well as running very efficiently and productively for an agency of its size.

STA lost its STA Moving Forward (full plan PDF) vote in April 2015 by a heartbreaking margin, 50.3% to 49.7%, or just 572 votes. The .3% sales tax boost would have funded an ambitious and even revolutionary proposal for mobility in Spokane and the Inland Empire, including:

  • Operational funding for the $70m Central City Line, a frequent electric trolleybus service between Browne’s Addition, Downtown Spokane, WSU-Spokane, Gonzaga University, and Spokane Community College
  • Bringing Spokane-Cheney/EWU service up to frequent service standards
  • Construction of a new West Plains Transit Center to connect Cheney, Airway Heights, Medical Lake, and Spokane Airport without the need to go to Downtown Spokane
  • Boosting evening service to midnight or later on core routes
  • Implementing articulated buses and Rapid Ride style treatments on the busiest routes on Division and Sprague 
  • Improving all-day, two-way express service between Spokane, Spokane Valley, and Liberty Lake
  • Introducing pilot service to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (which also happens to be my hometown)

Within Spokane – 78% of STA’s ridership – the measure passed modestly but healthily, 54-46. Emboldened both by those results and by the resurgent economy, Spokane is getting ready to try again. The Spokesman-Review reports that the Spokane City Council is looking at a Spokane-only vote this year. Since last November, STA’s 10-year revenue forecast has improved by $26m, giving the agency the ability to ask more transit-friendly voters for less authority than before (from .3% to .2%).

Precinct-level results from the 2015 STA Moving Forward Vote (courtesy Spokesman Review)
Precinct-level results from the 2015 STA Moving Forward Vote (courtesy Spokesman Review)

Much like Seattle’s Prop 1, cities and their distinct mobility needs should not be held back by rural voters within a transit district who are neither likely to be persuaded nor well-served with transit. A city-only measure would hurt some pro-transit voters, too, especially those in Cheney who voted for the previous measure even more strongly than central Spokane. But Spokane is nonetheless right to go it alone, and perhaps interlocal agreements can be forged to boost service to Cheney/EWU. In the meantime, Cheney could direct their ire toward the likes of Spokane Valley, whose anti-transit and generally backwards politics are only getting worse.

35 Replies to “Spokane May Go It Alone on Transit Funding”

  1. This is great to hear. In the long term, it could also act as an economic catalyst for urban Spokane to attract and retain businesses.

  2. A few years ago, the last time I was in, and then trying to drive out of Spokane at rush hour, the place certainly has the two main conditions for major transit improvement:

    A very large compacted population, and rush-hour traffic that can’t move. But recalling the hours slowly entering and leaving Spokane and a few more leaving, I’m surprised the vote outside city limits was so close.

    Olympia is a pretty and progressive city. Surrounded by a growing collar of suburbs out of Sci-Fi movies featuring extra-terrestrials desperately trying to imitate Earthling life either as conquerors or refugees. In turn surrounded by a Depression without a Roosevelt, named, say, Thurston County.

    Pretty much like San Jose, which is equally spooky, except with much better light rail and buses. And like both cities above, surrounded by people who get absolutely nothing out of either nearby urban areas or their transit systems. Which give no support to the struggling meth industry in nearby rural areas.

    Places, incidentally, whose sawmill workers, small farmers, and loggers for years returned people like former US House Speaker Tom Foley. Back when working people actually had…guess what? Which was also a time when their kids didn’t have to flee to Seattle to get the what!

    Replaced by the stripe of retirees who flee to places where coyotes and eagles eat their cats, but they don’t get bothered by light rail taxes. Painfully regressive solution, though, there is one move that could possibly start defusing hate for transit and schools: Have every transit vote include investment in local industries where kids can drop out of
    school and get work.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Spokane Valley is the 11th most populated city in Washington. It’s not that they can’t be served by transit. From the “only getting worse” link at the end of the post it sounds like the primary problem with transit there is that you don’t have to show your passport before using it.

      1. Wonder how many people have to show their passports to pick fruit. Or what’ll happen to the staple crop if everybody dark-skinned in the Valley who remember how to pick apples-which takes a hell of a lot more skill than what the average 62-year-old retiree used to do- get deported.

        Same IT in South Lake Union. Doesn’t US immigration law still actually pay rich people from other countries to come here and bring their money with them? Why not have these people pick the apples too?

        One reason for political hope is plain arithmetic. 62+what means you’re dead, and not just politically? Unlike Tom Foley’s replacement who came in thundering for term limits, who decided after a term or two his country needed him in DC.

        Fortunately, Nature’s term limits don’t cave to hypocrisy and lies. Also, when the big birds have eaten all the cats and poodles, like any predator, a starving coyote will eat everything dumber, slower, and older.

        Meantime though…might think about how many more young pro-transit voters can be drawn back out there with one simple move: Not automating transit-driving. Also, trolley buses are great news too, because skills are almost as demanding as picking apples.

        Meaning that mass deportation will put every neighborhood back to diesels. Thereby allowing an influx of 62-year-old ex-councilmen who will swamp Customer Services with complaints. And also union meetings with nothing but grieved terminations for agenda!

        Mark

      2. All I know about Spokane Valley is the part along Sprague/Appleway feels like being in Big Island. There’s something about the relative scale of things that’s off in a way that’s different from any other place I’ve been (including other suburban auto-malls, and I drove through a lot of those growing up).

        I guess one concrete thing is that if you ride the bus there you’re let off on the side of a 5-lane one-way street. It’s the widest-split one-way couplet I’ve ever seen, and to make matters worse, some bus stops are over a quarter-mile from a crosswalk in either direction. It’s truly an option for people with no other option — even biking would be better (the couplet bike lanes are sort of goofy, but people probably ride the sidewalks, as along Aurora and Rainier).

    2. @Joe,

      I tend to agree. Areas that really won’t be getting service of some sort don’t need to be in the district or paying the tax.

      Of course I know from experience that cutting these people out will:

      1). Result in their whining about not getting the same service as their brethren in the city, never mind that they choose not to pay for such service, and…
      2) result in a lot of people from outside the district driving in to park and then use the subsudized service that their brethren are paying for.

      The first item is just annoying, but it would be nice to find a way to have out of district users pay more of the full cost. How you do that I don’t know.

      1. Lazarus;

        As to 1, I’d just say if you don’t want to pay into the system or the system can’t serve you, no tax and no service.

        As to 2, Back home in Skagit, we have a “bedroom community” that only has ONE bus run to the nearest I-5 bus stop/county connector. So many residents of this “bedroom community” have to fill up free-in-name-only park & ride slots when an earlier bus route to make the 5:46 90x or 6:15 208 would alleviate this.

    3. The rural description is incorrect. Spokane County is more or less like Pierce County. Spokane city is slightly larger than Tacoma and has a similar jobs profile (e.g., the hospital is one of the largest employers). It may have more agricultural-related businesses since it’s the market center for the surrounding farm counties. Spokane Valley to the east was built up in the late 80s and 90s, so it’s like Spanaway sprawl. I haven’t been to the west side (Cheney, airport, Fairchild air force base, Medical Lake); they may be more rural towns. From the map it looks like Cheney may be like central Bellingham, and only Medical Lake may be as small as Mt Vernon. But they are all together just a few miles apart, while Mt Vernon is the largest thing in its county. So it’s really an issue of suburbs and exurbs voting against the city, as opposed to the rural population around then which must be quite small with few voters.

      1. I have never in my life heard Cheney compared to Central Bellingham, nor Medical Lake compared to Mt Vernon. Trust me, neither comparison is apt. For a supposed college town there really isn’t squat in Cheney, and Medical Lake barely has a business district (if you can call it that…).

        Generally speaking, Spokane County is much more rural than Pierce. In general terms Pierce Co has twice the population and twice the density as does Spokane Co. And that isn’t accounting for things like the fact that Pierce Co has undevelopable land like Mt Rainier NP, etc.

        Spokane (city) and Tacoma are actually very close in size, but once you get outside the city of Spokane there really isn’t much at all (the exception being Spokane Valley of course, but even that doesn’t change things much…)

        Now if you want to talk really rural, you need to talk about counties like Garfield County. They really need to undo the mistake of 1881 (1880? 82?) and fold that county back into Asotin and Columbia Co’s from which it was carved. There is no reason for a county that is smaller than my old high school to have a representative in the State Legislature….

      2. I think Cheney’s bus ridership is so strong precisely because it’s so unlike a decent small town like Bellingham. It’s out there by itself with few attractions or services besides EWU, so tons of people take the bus in from Spokane every day, a distance roughly equivalent to Seattle to Lynnwood. The current frequency bears this out too…15 minutes during working hours, promptly dropping off a cliff to hourly after 6pm.

      3. You may be right, Mike. Though at current pace of malignant suburbanization, ten years is plenty of time for one form of blight to replace another. In which poverty better by the balance sheet than what replaces it, but of shabbier appearance.

        It wasn’t the rural poor who took out so many loans they couldn’t repay, or lent them money on bogus figures that crashed the economy in 2008. If poverty was determined by how far somebody is in debt…in 1929, a lot of people involuntarily left homes they suddenly couldn’t afford to the shelter of bridges they could.

        Until the early-thirties equivalent of Mayor Murray chased them out in the middle of the winter. Like Star Wars, sequel to Grapes of Wrath will probably stink worse than the unfolding one.

        Mark

      4. lazarus, whether or not someone from Garfield County sits in the state legislature has nothing to do with its status as a county. The 16th LD includes much more than just Garfield.

      5. @Eric,

        You are correct, my bad. I was reacting to the legislator from Pomeroy’s recent comments to high school students.

        But I stand by my opinion that having a county of ~2600 total residents is inefficient and pointless. Garfield Co is one of the worst (the worst?) welfare county in the state. They receive almost $3 in spending for every dollar in taxes they raise. It’s hard to make a legitimate case for the existence of such a small and inefficient county.

  3. Correction: the vote was held and lost in the spring of 2015, not in the general election in November of 2015.

  4. Given this, why doesn’t Pierce Transit go forward with a Tacoma-only transit vote to improve transit service within Tacoma? If it were to do that, there would be a high certainty of passage. Also, Tacoma city proper is a very large portion of its service area (compared to the major city of most agencies), meaning Tacoma-only improvements would be very significant in comparison to the county-wide improvements that would have been implemented if the measure would have passed. If PT did this, it could create a more frequent grid of transit within Tacoma, and give Tacoma routes a respectable span of service (service span being PT’s #1 problem, in my opinion).

    A Route 1 express would even be on the table, which would sensibly start at Parkland TC, but the issue here is that Tacoma limits only goes to S 99th St. I know in Metro’s case, the rule was that 80% of the stops had to be within Seattle, so under that scenario, the 1X should be fine with a pair of stops at Parkland TC and Pac and S 112th (For connection to route 4).

    I don’t get why PT won’t just do this. Are they just holding out for a better political climate for another county-wide measure?

    1. It’s more a case of Tacoma doing this, and PT just agreeing to provide the service. Its board looks similar to Sound Transit;, consisting of officials of representative cities and the counties. It probably can’t lead a fundraiser for just part of the district; that would be unequal representation of the district’s members. But it could probably accept funds raised by someone else for service on their behalf, namely Tacoma.

      I don’t know what the Tacoma mayor and council are thinking, but in this era of economic recovery and possible Sound Transit streetcars and light rail, and Tacoma’s stated priority of attracting employers, and the precedent of Prop 1 in Seattle making a difference, it would probably behoove Tacoma to do something similar. If ST3 passes and adds regional transit in Tacoma, what will run between it and to it and reach the rest of the city? Not 30-minute “frequent” lines and hourly everything else; that’s no way to increase ridership beyond elderly/children/disabled.

      “I don’t get why PT [Tacoma] won’t just do this.”

      It’s probably not lagging, but just that it takes a year or two to coalesce around an idea. The recovery was definite in King County only last year; the year before the council canceled the Metro cuts based on a partial leap of taith that the recovery would solidify. Pierce County’s recovery is slower and smaller than King’s, so it may now be like King County was a year ago. King County had a series of Metro supplemental measures, some succeeding and some failing. In 2012 it propped up Metro’s funding for two years; Seattle’s Prop 1 was essentially a continuation of that. PT didn’t have a pro-up so there’s nothing to continue; it has to start from the beginning. Finally, even if some Tacoma politicians decided lart year to do it, it may take a year or two to gather enough support from the rest council and polls to make a ballot measure seem viable.

      But it is ten months to November in a Presidential election year. If anyone in Tacoma wants to start a movement for this, they have about six months to get it together and get the council to support it or draft an initiative.

      1. As a resident of Pierce County, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of either another PT district-wide vote or Tacoma going alone too provide additional service. However, this year we will have ST3 on the ballot, and two transit measures on the same ballot could harden opposition to both. Do any of you think that is a real concern, or are there few if any voters who would vote for a single transit measure but vote no if two appeared on the same ballot?

    2. I agree that Tacoma is ripe for this kind of measure.

      Pierce Transit could also learn a lot from Spokane’s approach to their failed ballot measure. They really need to look at the geometry of their system and let people know what kind of service would be possible with new funding. Just adding more service hours to the existing system that seems to focus on connecting transit center nodes, often located a few blocks off the major street grid, with meandering infrequent routes is not going to win a lot of new supporters. If their new long term plan shows how they could use new funding to fundamentally change the way the system works, that would set them up well for a “Tacoma only” measure to come in.

      On a side note, I think one reason a “Tacoma only” measure has not gotten traction yet is the focus for years has been on finally finding a way to fund basic maintenance of the City’s streets. The condition of Tacoma’s infrastructure is atrocious. You might not know it if you only see the first few blocks of Downtown when you visit, but travel anywhere else in the city and it is impossible t miss. Potholes and pavement was a necessary focus. The propositions of the last election addressed maintenance issues, so Transit service now seems like the obvious next step.

      1. As an employee at a company located in Tacoma, I would certainly support a Tacoma-only measure. Heck, if it was sales-tax based, I’d probably be paying for it even though I don’t live there, given that our only good dining options as well as most of the good shopping is in Tacoma, in addition to purchases on my lunch break. I’d welcome the higher tax rate as a great investment in the community. This would also make the real estate in Tacoma more attractive as a potential home buyer.

  5. Dear Spokane – Love all your tax revenue, hate all your spending priorities.

    Love,
    Rest of Spokane County

    PS – Learn to live within your means… like we do.
    PPS – Find a list of projects that benefit us that we can’t afford without your revenue attached.

  6. Sounds like the problem is abundant and cheap, or free, parking in the city. I wonder if city owned garages can be sold to fund additional city-only service. Then, the suburban districts might be interested.

    Of course if any parking was eliminated the city would hear not only from city residents but also from those like the above commenter, who despite paying no tax in Spokane, would blather without a trace of irony that something is being taken away from them.

    1. nullbull’s comment? Pretty sure that comment was chock full o’ snark.

      Read the comments on that Spokesman-Review article–although they have a more polite tone than the mouthbreathers who often comment on Seattle Times articles, there is certainly no lack of crazy there. I normally don’t read comments on newspaper articles because they make me feel that civilization’s high point has long since come and gone, but these did me the service of informing me that Rep. Matt Shea is a loon who would worry people even in the old Confederacy (I’ve lived in Trey Gowdy’s district; I know), and the article tells me that Spokane Valley is a place to avoid spending a single one of my hard-earned dollars. I note that the esteemed councilmembers wish to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on road improvements, most of which will likely come from the city of Spokane and other parts of the state, such as the hated Seattle area, that subsidize them to the hilt anyway.

      I am fond of Spokane itself; my great-grandparents were married there, my grandmother was born there and I think it’s quite a pleasant place that I’d be happy to live in. Last year I had cause to use Spokane Transit on a visit and found it easy enough to get around on and seemingly well run. I wish them the best. I also hope that places that hate paying for anything get their wish; they can pay low, low taxes as long as they take nothing from the rest of us (of course Shea and his ilk are the same people that want to live off our largess whilst denying us the right to tax ourselves–not them–for our own transportation needs).

      1. ” I normally don’t read comments on newspaper articles because they make
        me feel that civilization’s high point has long since come and gone”

        I LOL’d

      2. Spokane was one of my favorite places on earth when I first visited in the early 80s as part of joint high-school club conferences between Bellevue schools and Spokane schools, and then through the late 80s. Riverfront Park is nice to walk in and right next to downtown; most of the businesses were local instead of chains, the north side residential area has an intact street grid (the south side not so much), the city was friendly-sized and you could bike all the way across it or walk halfway, and us high-schoolers enjoyed going to Dick’s burgers (unrelated to Seattle Dick’s) and Shari’s all-night diner. By 2000 it had gotten less interesting with all the chains moving in, the sprawl in the valley, and the Hamilton bypass which the north-south freeway proposal reminds me of. But still it’s a place I might move to later in life if I get priced out of Putetopolis or want to live in a smaller city.

        I’ve been glad that the bus service has improved so immensely. When I took it in high school, the north Division bus was half-hourly daytime and ended at 7pm, and the bus stops didn’t even have schedules but just a phone number. That didn’t help when you had to find to a phone booth and pay a quarter for each call. Now I understand there’s a frequent network and regular service goes until midnight.

  7. I wonder if reducing capacity on a number of Tacoma’s roads is an effective way to reduce the cost of maintenance. Make bigger sidewalks or something. Seems like there are just a ton of wider-than-they-need-to-be roads.

    1. At this point, no. Many of the worst roads in Tacoma are those that receive minimal traffic and have had maintenance deferred since about 1970 (if not earlier). We are talking about cobblestone streets that are crumbling and asphalt streets that were last sealed several decades ago, all of which have crumbled and are potholed. While we would all love to pretend that transit can get us everywhere (and in some very large and dense cities, it actually can), the roads we’re talking about are the small neighborhood streets that connect to the larger collector and arterial streets and are lined with houses and driveways, which residents rely upon to get between home, work, and the grocery store. There are literally entire neighborhoods that I refuse to drive through – very beautiful neighborhoods, actually – because the streets are so damaged (picture potholed cobblestone) that I am afraid of the damage I will incur to my car.

      I really do like your way of thinking. I’d say for any improvement project, repave only the minimal amount of pavement necessary and remove pavement if possible, but keep costs to a minimum. For now, the City needs to focus on doing very basic maintenance: pothole repairs, large scale patches, re-pavement of crumbling roads, seal coats, and overlays. A priority should be put on bus routes (obviously), but, honestly, most of the bus routes are in much better shape than the neighborhood streets.

      1. Read somewhere of some brave county highway commissioner in Iowa (?) who said that there were some ancient roads that just were not going to get maintained anymore, because they weren’t needed.

        Having lived in a manufacturing city that lost many of its reasons for wide roads, and many of its residents, it seemed to me that trying to maintain an outsized road system is a difficult cost to be borne by property tax payers – and the results there were similar to how you describe Tacoma.

        I think Tacoma’s transit could be great with just a focus on extending service hours and frequent high ridership corridors. I like the streetcar extension, counterintuitive as it seems, and I’m encouraged to hear proposals for BRT on PT 1. There is of course just a ton of parking downtown, which is a problem.

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