Spokane Transit Authority Ballot Measure Not Supported by the Spokane Home Builders Association

For Immediate Release

Spokane Transit Authority Ballot Measure Not Supported

by the Spokane Home Builders Association

(Spokane, Wash.) – Following multiple presentations and discussions regarding the April 28th Spokane Transit Authority ballot measure, the Spokane Home Builders Association (SHBA) Board of Directors has determined that too many concerns exist for our Association and, as a result, we are not willing to endorse or support the Proposition.

“Our Association believes in the benefits of effective mobility and we fully support a multitude of transportation options when done in a responsible and cost effective manner, we just don’t feel the ballot measure as presented to voters meets that criteria,” said Michael Cathcart, Government Affairs Director for the SHBA. “The measure does contain some positive elements such as the West Plains and Upriver Transit Centers, some route efficiency improvements throughout Spokane, increased night and weekend service, and the added bus shelters. However, the significant increase in the tax rate, the Central City Line as it is presented, and the growing scope of STA to include service beyond its current boundaries are major concerns for us.”

Continue below to read our entire statement on the STA ballot measure…

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The Spokane Home Builders Association (SHBA) supports a robust transportation network throughout the Spokane region. We recognize the significant benefits effective mobility has not only for each individual, but for our entire community. However, the upcoming Spokane Transit Authority Proposition is not a measure we are able to endorse.

First, it’s important to share that in the last six months, the SHBA has taken the uncharacteristic position of supporting and promoting several tax measures – including the Spokane Street Levy, Spokane Park Bond, the Central Valley Schools Bond, and the Spokane Schools Bond and Levy.

Turning down most of these measures would have resulted in a decreased rate of taxation, so the question many ask is, why would a traditionally tax averse organization endorse these measures?

Quite simply, we ask government to work smarter, be inventive, responsible, and thoughtful where tax dollars are concerned and that, to a large degree, is what these packages accomplished. Our Association found common cause in the careful and diligent approach the school districts and the City of Spokane took in crafting the proposals to fill the needs of the community, while keeping tax rates flat. In our view this actually protected taxpayers. In addition, by leveraging local dollars into these significant infrastructure investments, we promote economic growth and revitalization to the benefit of the entire community.

The voters clearly agreed.

Now, looking ahead at the forthcoming Spokane Transit Authority Proposition, our Association used the same lens to analyze the proposal as we did those previous measures. We concluded that the proposal has some positive aspects to it and we can understand why certain organizations and elected officials have chosen to endorse the plan, however, our concerns are too significant and too numerous for us to do the same.

Let’s first address the positive aspects of STA’s proposal.

The West Plains Transit Center – The ballot measure would build a West Plains Transit Center making bus travel far more customer friendly and efficient out on the West Plains. Currently, STA users out on the West Plains have no ability to travel from say Medical Lake to Cheney without going all the way downtown to make the connection. This would correct that inefficiency.

Route Improvements – The ballot measure creates several route improvements which allow riders in the West Central, Logan, and Lincoln Heights neighborhoods to travel much more efficiently without the need for making connections at the STA Plaza downtown.

Upriver Transit Center – Locating a larger transit center on or near the Spokane Community College (SCC) campus would enhance student and employee access to campus, while also serving nearby residents with expanded options for making connections to other routes – presumably without a need to travel downtown to the Plaza. We will touch on this a little more later on.

Night and Weekend Service – Many people have different work schedules, family commitments, or entertainment opportunities and often these don’t work perfectly with the typical daytime bus service. As long as additional night and weekend service is carefully implemented to ensure busses are running as efficiently as possible, this accommodation is a very good thing.

Adding Bus Shelters – The people utilizing bus service shouldn’t be forced to stand out in the elements. In fact, increasing the number of shelters might also help increase ridership. So, it makes a lot of sense to add shelters where feasible. Should the ballot measure pass, STA needs to work diligently to ensure the shelters integrate well with the neighborhoods, while also taking great care to be very cost conscious.

Unfortunately, much like cable service doesn’t let us pick the individual channels we want to pay for, we don’t get to pick and choose which elements of STA’s plan to support either.

So let’s dig into our concerns.

The center piece of the STA proposal – the Central City Line – The proposal calls for a six mile system – long referred to as a trolley, but more recently identified by STA as a form of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – at a cost of $72 million assuming no overruns. It’s important to point out that we don’t necessarily oppose the concept. A bus-rapid-transit system has its merits; however in this instance, we do question the cost per mile, the funding source, and the identified route and the lack of real-world testing to ensure the rider demand is really there to make it successful.

                The Cost: It appears Spokane will be paying a premium, a significant premium, in order to have a system operated by “zero emission” vehicles. There’s really no other good explanation for why we will pay $72 million for six miles when nearby places like Everett, WA and Eugene, OR have built similar projects in recent years at much lower cost. The Swift BRT in Everett runs over 16 miles and features 15 hybrid-electric vehicles, real-time tracking so passengers know exactly when the next vehicle will arrive, and off board ticket purchasing to keep the system moving. All of this at a cost of about $30 million. The similar Emerald Express in Eugene has two routes combining for about 12 miles in length and costing in the neighborhood of $63 million.

The proposed Central City Line would feature an inductive charging system. Each of the all-electric vehicles would be required to connect to a built-in inductive charging pad intermittently throughout the day to stay powered. The cost of a current hybrid-electric bus in Spokane is a little over $500,000, but it isn’t clear what Spokane would be charged for these alternative all-electric vehicles and their charging stations. For comparison sake it appears based on the 2015 Business Plan for the Antelope Valley Transit Authority in California, they will spend about $760,000 dollars for one charging station and about $863,000 for a single electric bus.

                Who Pays: A big question in our mind is, should the entire transportation district pay for a system that is so downtown and U-District centric or would it be more appropriate for this to be paid for through an alternative means that focuses on businesses, residents, and the colleges along the route – essentially those who stand most to benefit?

                The Route: The proposed route would begin around Brownes Addition, travel through downtown to the U-District and end at Spokane Community College. This serves a relatively small percentage of the population. While Downtown and the U-District are certainly important and make vital contributions to our local economy, we have to ask the question, what percentage of the population will actually get good use out of the proposed system? Most of the City would need to travel downtown to even get access to the Central City Line. The cost of extending the route all the way to SCC is also questionable in our view, especially when the Upriver Transit Center would theoretically make bus travel to the school far more efficient and limit the need for many riders to travel to the Plaza where they would get access to the Central City Line.

If you’re going to do a BRT system, we think it would make much more sense to give access to a far greater percentage of the population. A route that travels North/South through neighborhoods on the Northside or South Hill or even East/West picking up some of the Valley and East Sprague areas would provide better commuting opportunities to downtown and/or the U-District.

At this point the route is set and voters will decide next month if they agree, however, voters should also take caution as STA has never actually performed any real world tests on this project. One argument officials make for the Central City Line is that it would be a “cool” looking system. We think before going to voters, STA could have painted some busses in a cool or unique way, added some neat amenities, even built out a few test stations in order to gauge if the demand and interest actually exists to warrant the significant capital investment of the full system. This has never taken place making the success of the project largely unpredictable.

Based on the recent STA election mail piece, we suspect the feedback STA has received on the Central City Line isn’t too far off from our criticisms above. The glossy (publicly funded) mailer contains only one very vague reference to the project, which in early materials was paraded as the central focal point.

Sales Tax Increase – We understand that a growing public operation requires increasing revenues in order to pay for it, but it’s disappointing that STA doesn’t offer any sort of out-of-the-box solutions for alleviating the transit subsidy carried by tax payers; in fact the proposal only increases it. Raising the sales tax rate from 8.7% to 9.0% may not sound significant, but it adds up – to the tune of $300 million over a 10 year period. In terms of sustainability, the proposal leaves no room for error. STA is only permitted to ask voters for up to 0.9% of the sales tax and with this 0.3% increase they will be at that ceiling. If the costs continue increasing overtime and additional sales tax dollars are required, STA will be left with few options.

This tax increase will certainly have an effect on the cost and affordability of new construction as well, which is a large concern for us. We estimate that a $250,000 home will see an increase of about $475. That’s enough to price out of the market well over 100 families. The value of home ownership is huge. It’s a great investment for families, it enhances the local economy, and it makes a big difference on the quality of local schools.

Increasing taxes has many unintended consequences and we believe everyone deserves to be aware of this.

We think STA should spend more time and energy focusing on how to either increase the share of operating costs contributed by riders, which is currently only a meager 16%, or it should look for alternative opportunities to generate non-fare, non-taxpayer subsidized revenue. One area to consider is creating better partnerships with the private sector to generate sponsorship/advertising dollars.

In addition, nothing indicates plans are in motion to lower administrative costs, which have been steadily increasing and are up 96% since 2006 – including increases seen during the recession.

There are also questions concerning the level of cash STA keeps on hand year-after-year. The designated reserves fund for STA has ranged from about $13 million to $20 million over the past few years, however (according to STA’s online posted budgets) they have never maintained less than about $40 million cash on hand going back to 2008 – the average is closer to $48 million. Why so much more cash than what’s required? In theory, the excess revenue is meant to support capital projects, but year-after-year the cash on hand really doesn’t vary too significantly. Certainly we want public entities to be quite diligent in how they budget, but maintaining millions of dollars in excess of their designated reserves may indicate they are asking for unnecessarily excessive revenues/taxes.

One thing we really appreciate about Central Valley School District was how hard they worked to find ways to preserve tax payer dollars before they went back to the ballot, such as saving considerable money by rehabbing an old box store for use as a school. We can also look to the inventive approach taken by the City of Spokane where they found ways to combine utilities and street improvements in order to provide a much better value for taxpayers. We wish STA would have followed their lead as they developed this package.

If a tax increase for STA is absolutely necessary, it should only come after every alternative has been considered and we really don’t believe we are there yet.

STA Bus Service to Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene – Perhaps there is an opportunity to make this connection, however this type of service should not be subsidized by local tax payers. This is a much more specialized service that makes more sense being paid for at the fare box. We would rather see STA work on more efficiencies and enhancements here at home before looking at expanding the scope of their service outside of our boundaries.

Again, we see value in a robust regional transportation network and we support cost effective transit opportunities. On this ballot measure, however, we will leave it to the voters to weigh the pros and cons and make their decision, but our name will not be listed as an endorser.