Spokane Transit

Dear Group,

Last Friday the front page of the Spokesman blared “COST OF CENTRAL CITY LINE GROWS” (the online article was titled “Price tag for STA’s Central City Line bus project inflates to $92.2 million“). There was large photo of a bus on the front page and a smaller map detailing the route. Damn! We’re spending more money!

What is the Spokane Transit Authority, who runs it, and how is it paid for? The STA is a “municipal corporation” founded in 1980 and serving the Spokane County Public Transportation Benefit Area (PTBA), i.e. all the cities and unincorporated areas of Spokane County. (A useful overview of the STA is found in wikipedia.) STA has a governing board of ten members, consisting of 3 of the 5 City of Spokane council members, 2 of the 7 City of Spokane Valley council members, 2 of the 3 county commissioners, and 3 members who rotate among five smaller cities in Spokane County (Cheney, Liberty Lake, Airway Heights, Medical Lake, and the Town of Millwotd).

Combing the Spokesman article, one finds familiar names, Kate Burke, Candace Mumm, and Lori Kinnear (Spokane City Council), Al French and Josh Kerns (Spokane County Commissioners), and mayors and council people from the Cities of Spokane Valley, Millwood, Cheney, and Airway Heights. (French, Kerns, and Sam Wood [Spokane Valley] are identified in the article as “Republicans,” while Kinnear and Mumm are identified as “liberals.” How odd. All five of these board members were elected in “non-partisan” elections. Why does Mr. Deshais write “liberals” instead of Democrats or progressives? Words matter.)

According to the article, all three Board members identified as Republicans plus the two identified as liberals all voted in favor of approving the increase in cost. Apparently, the Central City Line, running from Browne’s Addition west of Downtown to Spokane Community College in northeast Spokane, is seen as having community value even by Republicans French and Kerns, but buried near the end of the article the partisan difference crops up [the bold is mine]:

At the start of the meeting, 11 people lined up to speak in support of the agency’s effort to research the creation of a local transit pass for low-income people.

That effort has been ongoing for months. At the board’s previous meeting, French had attempted to derail research into the plan but was rebuffed by outspoken Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke and a tie vote on the board. [Why is Kate Burke labelled “outspoken,” a term with pejorative connotations?]

Click to read the last part of the article with the sub-headingLow-income transit pass draws crowd.” (I’ll bet most readers gave up in the preceding haze of large dollar numbers.)

The key point in that part of the article was expressed by Heather Schleigh, director of the House of Charity:

“What is the purpose of having public transportation? Is it so that fancy people can respect the environment and commute or save some money so that they don’t have to pay for parking when they go to events downtown or work? Or is it for people who have no other access to transportation?” she said. “Hopefully, it’s for both.”

It seems to me inexpensive transit is essential to establishing useable low income housing outside the Downtown core. If you work a minimum wage job downtown or need to access services available only in the core, inexpensive public transport is essential. 

Who pays for our public transport system? Not the wealthy–and not the folks paying fares. Of a total Operating Budget of 84.5 million, only 10.7 million (13%) comes from “fares and other transit revenue.” A full 63.6 million dollars of that operating budget, 75 percent of it, comes from sales tax, a tax that falls disproportionately on those with the lowest incomes. The bankers, accountants, and lawyers working downtown benefit from the labor of cleaning staff, for example, some of whom can’t afford to own a car, much less park their car downtown, but who disproportionately pay for public transport through sales tax. 

The Takeaway: The Spokane Transit Authority is a sort of regional governmental corporation, overseen by by a Board of ten, consisting of the same people we elect to our city and county government. That Board manages a budget of about a tenth of a billion dollars (Spokane Pulbic Schools budget is five times that, just for reference). 75% of STA’s budget comes from our regressive sales tax. Both “Republicans” and “liberals” on the STA Board see the value of some public transport, but the “Republicans,” at least County Commissioner Al French, want to make sure that even the least advantaged among us pay full fare, even if most of the cost of system already comes from a regressive tax.

Keep to the high ground,


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