POST-MORTEM: Who killed Proposition 1?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail? (PHOTO: Yes for Buses)

Proposition 1 was a reasonable, balanced transit package that funded system improvements across the STA network. It eschewed big projects in favor of smaller-scaled, bus-centric investments, and it sunset after ten years in order to give voters a sense of accountability over the small 0.1% sales tax hike. So why did it fail? Several theories have been floated in the past few weeks, and I think that I might have a few answers.

THEORY #1: The “Yes” campaign did not sell the package strongly enough to people who don’t regularly use transit.

A former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, famously remarked that “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

It’s clear that the “yes” campaign did not do a strong enough job of selling the measure to those who do not regularly use transit in the Spokane area. Instead, a large emphasis was placed on the “elderly, low-income, and disabled” riders who currently avail themselves of STA services. That’s great, and transit is certainly important for those groups. But what about everyone else? Certainly there would be benefits for everyone else?

Consider that perhaps advertising for the “yes” campaign should have emphasized that Proposition 1 would make transit available for more people, including the middle-class and wealthy, giving even those groups the ability to use transit. Perhaps ads should have focused on the traffic reductions that strong transit service can bring. Many drivers in Indian Trail, Five Mile, and the Moran Prairie have noticed wildly increased commute times, especially during the mornings, as new residential and commercial developments have been approved. Numerous WSDOT and federal studies have found that traffic congestion in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metropolitan area is set to double by 2030 as the population grows and streets and freeways struggle to pick up the slack. Sell transit to traffic-minded drivers! Transit means reduced traffic congestion. Moreover, by connecting transit to the ongoing talks about urban expansion in the Spokane area, a better conversation would have been started about the issues that lead to traffic in the first place. All of these issues are connected, and it felt at times like the “Yes for Buses” campaign neglected to drive this narrative home with voters.

THEORY #2: The package was too timid, meaning that voters could not distinguish the difference between current STA service and promised future service under Proposition 1.

This certainly applies to some individuals who see the benefits of transit but did not see real improvements in the STA system. And this could be either a fault of the STA Moving Forward plan or a fault of the advertising in the Yes for Buses campaign. By the end of 2014, the original proposal for the Central City Line, a streetcar, had been scaled back to a battery electric bus, for example. Well, what’s the improvement in terms of comfort or service of a battery electric bus? Not much. Certainly the streetcar proposal would have had a greater “distinction” factor that would have clearly offered a contrast with existing service. Some have even called for a resurrection of the South Valley Corridor light rail plan. And overwhelming 2014 passage of the Riverfront Park Bond proves that area voters are willing to spend money on flagship projects.

On the other hand, perhaps voters simply didn’t see how the package would benefit them. What would the sales tax increase mean functionally for me as a young person, for example? Easy. New weekend bus service would allow a Gonzaga University student to catch a bus back to campus as late as 1am or 2am. That’s far cheaper than shelling out cash for a Lyft or Uber ride. And that’s just one example. We could also talk about a high-performance line on from South Regal to North Monroe or the West Plains Transit Center. Either one would have produced material benefits to riders, but they weren’t the focus of the “yes” campaign’s advertising.

THEORY #3: Uncertainty and misinformation from elected officials (especially David Condon and the Board of County Commissioners) and local media (especially the Spokesman-Review and local TV stations) contributed to lack of public understanding of the measure.

Finally, outside of the Spokane City Council, most area elected officials were lukewarm at best on the proposal. Al French of the Board of County Commissioners was famously in favor, but his compatriots were less sympathetic. Spokane Valley officials decried the proposal. And David Condon was absent from the debate altogether, which certainly should become a campaign issue this fall as he looks toward re-election.

In the media, the proposal faced sharply negative billing. The Cowles-owned Spokesman released a negative editorial, and KHQ started trashing/editorializing on the Central City Line almost a year before the package hit the ballot. Other news outlets were slightly less critical, but failed to properly print facts, often conflating the Central City Line with the larger Proposition 1 package, despite its relatively small $17 million appropriation as part of the measure. Sometimes the modern electric trolleybus or streetcar study renderings were used as part of reports, despite the fact that they had been eschewed in favor of the battery electric bus. One breathless KHQ report even called the Central City Line a “light rail” system. Of course, this attracted the ire of conservatives and confused even more independent-minded voters.

CONCLUSION

It is clear that Proposition 1 failed largely as a result of ineffective campaign tactics on the part of Yes for Buses, but also due to its confusing lack of distinction from existing service and an absence of support from more conservative elected officials and editorial boards. Hopefully the proposal can be resurrected in the future, perhaps as a Spokane-only package a la Seattle’s similar arrangement to essentially “purchase” bus service from King County Metro within its city limits. In the meantime, we await an appropriate solution.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think caused Proposition 1 to fail at the polls in the Special Election? Are voters tax-weary? Was the package improperly or incorrectly sold to the public? Did lack of public official support create a vacuum for conservatives to pounce? We love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to share your ideas, thoughts, and concerns below in our comments section, on Twitter, on Facebook, or in person. We love to hear from you.

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