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Proposed transit cuts make Spokane riders nervous

Liz Kishmoto
The Spokesman-Review

"Kiss doctor appointments goodbye, kiss jobs goodbye, kiss social life goodbye,'' rider Dan Thomas says of the proposed STA cuts. STA has been Thomas' sole means of transportation since 1994.

The Spokane Transit Authority is preparing to cut its service by almost half.

In the meantime, many Spokane County residents wonder how STA landed in this situation, what the proposed cuts will mean to people who rely on the buses and paratransit service and whether there are any alternatives.

Why can't STA raise fares and keep service the same? Would selling its downtown Plaza make a difference? And who is going to lose in the proposed scenario?

Two public hearings on STA's plans are scheduled this week. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about the proposed cuts.

Q: When would the proposed cuts take place?
A: July. For the past year, STA has been spending about $1 million of its savings each month to maintain service. In July, STA will deplete its reserve funds.

Q: How big are the proposed cuts?
A: The plan is to cut more than 45 percent of fixed route bus service and 17 percent of paratransit service.

Q: What hours would STA operate after the cuts?
A: Buses and paratransit would operate only on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Q: What areas would no longer be served and how were they chosen?
A: Some of the places currently being served that wouldn't be under the proposed plan are Fairchild Air Force Base, Medical Lake, Millwood, the Spokane Industrial Park, the South Hill beyond 29th Avenue, Nine Mile and Indian Trail. In addition, Liberty Lake and Cheney each would have only one stop. They were eliminated based on factors such as lower ridership and higher cost compared with other routes.

Q: How would the cuts affect ridership?
A: STA is projecting that the number of passengers served will drop more than 45 percent by 2005.

Q: Why can't STA use smaller buses?
A: Smaller buses don't save STA any money. Both labor and fuel costs -- 80 percent of STA's operating costs -- are the same for small buses as they are for large buses.

Q: Can't STA save money by having the buses come less frequently?
A: STA will already be reducing bus frequency on some routes. The Division and Sprague routes will run every 15 minutes, but other other routes will run every half-hour. STA is studying reducing frequency more, but experience shows that ridership drops dramatically if the time between buses is too great.

Q: How did STA get to this point?
A: In 1999 Washington voters passed Initiative 695, reducing car tab payments to $30. Although the initiative was later ruled unconstitutional, the state Legislature passed the $30 tabs. Without that money, STA is about $17 million shy of what it needs to maintain service levels.

Q: What is this ballot issue I'm hearing about?
A: Voters turned down a three-tenths of one percent local option sales tax for transit in 2002, but the STA board could try again for anywhere from one- to three-tenths of a percent. Each tenth of a percent would raise about $6 million.
So far the board hasn't decided to place the issue on the ballot this year.

Q: When the last sales tax issue failed, STA didn't make the cuts it said it would. How do I know that these cuts are really needed?
A: In 2002 STA still had a sizable reserve account to subsidize service. That account will be depleted by July. Without that money or some other revenue, STA will have to cut service.

Q: How else can STA increase its revenues?
STA could raise fares or apply for more grant money. Late last year the agency secured $5 million in preventative maintenance funds from the federal government.

Q: Why doesn't STA raise its fares?
A: The STA board is considering increasing some fares, but it's virtually impossible for them to cover the total cost of operating STA. Fare revenues cover only about 15 percent of STA's operating expenses, and the actual cost to operate some routes is $5 per passenger per trip.
Paratransit costs are even higher -- about $18 per trip -- but by federal and state law, paratransit riders can't be charged more than other riders.

Q: Is STA going to sell the Plaza?
A: The STA Board is studying this issue, but hasn't made a decision yet. Operating the Plaza costs STA about $1 million a year, but selling it wouldn't necessarily save the agency that much annually because another hub might be necessary.

It will remain unclear how much STA could earn by selling the Plaza until a formal appraisal is completed.

Q: What steps has STA taken to reduce costs?
A: STA has cut staff, put off buying new equipment, increased employees' contributions to their medical plans, eliminated its contract for a Plaza police officer and stopped funding street improvements.