As Spokane County emerges from the national recession, more people are utilizing public transportation on the road to recovery.
In 2008, the Spokane Transit Authority reported an 18-percent increase in patronage, compared to a 6-percent hike nationally. In the two previous years, the percentage of residents utilizing bus service increased nearly 22 percent, earning STA recognition from prestigious groups like the Federal Transportation Administration.
|This transfer station at University and Sprague is one of several busy hubs in the area for the Spokane Transit Authority. While routes in the Spokane Valley area have doubled since 2005, STA is now faced with a budget shortfall after a steady decline in sales tax revenue.
Photo by: Craig Howard
While ridership leveled out last year, up less than 1 percent, STA spokeswoman Molly Myers said the shift in commuter practices represents a “change in behavior patterns.”
“Even when gas prices went back down, people were still riding the bus,” she said.
In Spokane Valley, blue and white STA buses have been more visible since 2005 when local routes shifted from every hour to each half-hour. Former Spokane Valley City Council Members Richard Munson and Dick Denenny lobbied for the upgrades while serving on the STA board of directors.
On the financial side, STA has enjoyed success at the ballot, passing a funding initiative in 2004 that increased the county’s sales tax by .3 percent – or about 3 cents on a $10 purchase. In May 2008, voters passed a continuation of the tax by a margin of 65 percent.
Support from citizens helped offset some of the shortfall that came about in 2000 when STA lost over 40 percent of its funding with the elimination of the statewide motor vehicle excise tax. These days, a decline in local sales tax revenue – a resource that accounts for nearly 70 percent of the agency’s costs – has led to STA proposing a 2 percent reduction in service beginning this September.
The announcement comes on the heels of a 25-cent rate increase at the start of 2010. Each bus commute now runs $1.25. Fares comprise between between 11 to 13 percent of STA’s annual budget.
Molly Myers, a spokeswoman for STA, said any grumbling about the tax passage in 2008 should include some historical perspective.
“Some people think they gave us more money – but that wasn’t what happened,” Myers said. “It was just a reaffirmation of what they approved in 2004.”
While there has been no official word from the STA administrative office about another ballot measure, the agency could gather up to nine-tenths of 1 percent from sales tax, an approach already utilized by similar organizations in King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties. STA currently collects six-tenths of 1 percent.
The organization continues to utilize grant opportunities to improve its fleet – and the environment. In 2006, a total of 19 fuel-efficient buses were added thanks to a federal grant of $4.3 million and a local match of nearly $2 million. In 2007, STA purchased three hybrid buses that run on a combination of diesel and electric power, running cleaner and using less fuel.
Dozens of buses have been retrofitted with equipment that is expected to reduce emissions by as much as 90 percent.
Meanwhile, STA is waiting on the results of conversations between the city of Spokane Valley and Spokane Country regarding the direction of the old Milwaukee railroad line that has been discussed as a future site of a light rail project, electric rapid transit or dedicated bus line. The two sides had preliminary talks about the topic at a combined meeting last week.
STA CEO Susan Meyer said the latest rendition of the Spokane Valley City Council has shown encouraging signs that it might invest in a purchase at some point.
“This is an absolutely critical corridor that connects communities,” Meyer said.
The STA board has undergone some changes since the beginning of the year, including the departure of Munson, who lost his re-election bid to Bob McCaslin last November, and Denenny who stepped down after seven years on the City Council.
Recently elected Council Member Dean Grafos and council veteran Gary Schimmels now represent Spokane Valley on the STA board. At a City Council meeting last month, Grafos said his introduction to the board included a conversation about “common issues that affect the community.”