There has been a large community push to implement zero-fare transit for the greater Spokane area through the Spokane Transit Authority (STA). They are in the early phases of creating a functional, fiscally responsible program in the Public Transportation Benefit Area (TBA) (map) for the STA, which acts as its own government and taxation entity. A large portion of the TBA is in the Spokane city limits.
Annual revenue from fares makes up 11 percent of the total STA budget, or about $12 million in revenue. Spokane Councilmember Kate Burke, who is also a board member of the STA, is pushing to make transit zero fare for everyone by achieving savings or reallocations to offset the revenue from fares.
There are many paths to getting $12 million in the STA budget. The most obvious way would be for the STA board to raise taxes. The board is authorized to raise taxes by up to 3/10 of a percent. However, they have historically been very reluctant to raise taxes. They most recently raised the tax by 1/10 of a percent in 2015 with a public vote. This increase is funding a large portion of the STA budget. Other revenue for the budget consists of federal grants, state grants, farebox recovery, and miscellaneous revenue.
Given the resistance to raising taxes. Councilmember Burke is exploring other ways to achieve zero fare transit by beginning to demonstrate the many ways that zero-fare transit can positively affect communities. The ultimate goal is to get to zero-fare transit, and the steps to get there will begin chipping away at the existing infrastructure which is not working for the people who use STA’s services.
- Get the STA board to understand how a zero-fare model will help the community keep more money in their pockets, and how inevitably that money will be spent at local establishments instead of on transportation costs. The goal is to get a business district to opt into a pilot project where the businesses would pay for a bus, operating year round, that would go from downtown to their business district area. Most business districts overlay with Spokane’s neighborhoods, including low income communities. These areas would receive priority for business supported transit, as part of a longer term effort to increase overall familiarity and support of zero-fare transit. STA would chart the rides and ridership numbers, and survey the riders to understand where they spend their money now. They would also look into the tax revenue created in these pilot areas. This will give the board an understanding of how zero-fare transit will help the economy and, inevitably, our transit system.
- Make the STA’s fixed routes zero fare for folks with disabilities. People with disabilities currently have access to ride the paratransit system set up. Right now, a lot of people with disabilities don’t ride fixed routes because it is expensive and their discount doesn’t apply to these routes. The paratransit system costs STA 20% of the budget (about $17 million). If more people with disabilities are comfortable riding fixed routes, it would save the TBA money, instead of having to use up a large portion of the budget on paratransit.
- Advertise on the busses. STA does not currently have any advertising that is done on the outside or inside of their busses. This is a missed opportunity for revenue that could go toward lowering fare rates.
- Find an organization or private entity to fund a large amount of bus passes. Looking into private/public partnerships is a way to bring in more revenue and help people get zero-fare bus services. There is a push, for example, to get a donor to fund a veteran pass program. This would allow all vets to receive a zero-fare bus pass funded by a donor organization.
- Get other municipalities and government agencies to understand the value of zero-fare transit for their community members. Councilmember Burke is working on a partnership with the City of Spokane and the Spokane School District to help fund a youth bus pass. This pilot program was run in the summer of 2109. It was incredible to see the amount of trips taken by the youth in the greater Spokane area. Not only did this allow more funding from the federal government (they allocate money based on ridership), but it also showed the community that youth want to travel and explore the city! As of now, STA’s age for zero fare is six years and under. Councilmember Burke is working to advocate for a new age limit of 13 years for zero-fare passes. There is also work being done to build a partnership between the City and the school district to fund one year of zero-fare passes for 14–18 year olds. Making transit available for young people is part of the solution to our city’s emissions problems, and will help to instill good habits among our city’s youth.
Councilmember Kate Burke began by requesting information from STA staff on an income-based bus pass. This was used to start a community-wide conversation about equity, and how low-income residents pay more than they can afford on public transit. This conversation did not go anywhere due to opposition from other board members.
As the budget was rolled out in November 2019, Councilmember Burke partnered with service providers in the area to launch a letter-writing/email campaign directed at theSTA. Some of the groups included SNAP, Eastern Washington University, Volunteers of America (Spokane), Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, Refugee Connections Spokane, 350 Spokane Catholic Charities, and many more. The service agencies around the area are already paying for low-income individuals to be able to access transportation in Spokane, so they argued it would be beneficial for their budgets and the community to request half-price bus passes. The campaign asked STA to add a line item in the STA budget that would specifically allow the non-profit agencies to purchase these discounted bus passes, enabling them to fund transportation for twice as many people in need. There were more than 55 emails sent to the STA, and a number of agencies also testified at STA meetings. Eventually STA decided to start a pilot program to test this concept. Councilmember Burke, along with the 26+ participating agencies, is working to make this a permanent program.
Councilmember Burke and partners are now working on implementing a “Zero Fare Zone,” a pilot project designed for the lowest income, highest trafficked bus stop areas. There would be one or two stops in each designated area for which no fares would be taken from users. The goal is to see what happens if more riders use the bus, if it is easier for the driver to pick individuals up at those stops, and if there are any increases in the number of people abusing the system.
Community service providers have been a huge help in advocating for these improved outcomes and new ideas. Their support is essential in making the case to other city officials that these changes are improving the quality of life for residents, particularly the most vulnerable, and ensuring they can more easily access community services.
Efforts to reduce or eliminate transit fees help ensure that public transportation is accessible for all residents, especially those who need it to access jobs, goods, and services. Many low-income individuals are BIPOC who depend on transit access because they can’t afford a car, car insurance, or fare for public transportation. A major hurdle for low-income and/or unhoused individuals is getting to work, to job interviews, to their service providers, and to healthcare providers. Zero-fare transportation removes this financial burden, giving people the opportunity to move around town quickly and efficiently.
The zero-fare program gives residents more opportunities to explore amenities such as parks and museums, which are typically in more affluent neighborhoods. It also provides folks in outer neighborhoods access to the downtown area that has many restaurants, bars, and shopping options. Councilmember Burke wants to see younger people get used to riding busses and stick to it as they become old enough to drive. She hopes that they will be more interested in riding bus transit for a longer period of time if it is easier to access. Supporting public transit-oriented residents helps increase equity among young people, and has a positive effect on environmental quality.
Councilmember Burke believes that if the city is neglecting people in the community who could ride the bus, then they are failing at their job. That job is to provide equitable, affordable, accessible transportation for all: “When we are not doing that, then our community fails.”
“Another point that we are making sure to bring up consistently is that the more riders we have, the more funding we get from the federal government. If our goal really is to have more riders, we should be making it easier for them to get onto a bus.” —Councilmember Kate Burke
- Washington State is not a highly pre-emptive state and permits municipalities to tax and spend on transit funding. Some municipalities may have regional entities that collect and fund transportation systems that could hinder flexibility around revenue collection methods and spending.
- Members of the Spokane City Council span the spectrum of governance ideologies. Local Progress Member Councilmember Kate Burke is on the progressive wing of the Council.
- This policy focuses on reducing barriers to transit access. The funding considerations involve reallocating funding in a creative manner that makes sure that mass transit is affordable and accessible to young people, those with disabilities and those who have low wages. The program could intentionally include other populations such as veterans or seniors.
Other policy examples
- Kansas City
- There is one free fixed route and fares are free for students and veterans. The city faces an 8 million dollar annual price-tag to ensure the entire system is free. The city dedicated $4.8 million in the 2020 budget and is securing an additional $4 million from private investment and other partnerships.
- Los Angeles
- The city is exploring a Fareless System Initiative for the Metro. A recently formed task force will determine the impact on ridership, operations and homelessness.
This case study was last updated: January 19, 2021.