People Movers

Riding along with the Spokane Transit Authority, a forward-looking agency that’s rich with Eagle talent.

People Movers

Riding along with the Spokane Transit Authority, a forward-looking agency that’s rich with Eagle talent.

By Melodie Little


Beginning winter quarter 1970, a new transportation option debuted at EWU, one that, even at the moment of its inception, was widely acknowledged as a game-changer for thousands of Eastern students.

“Bus Service Begins,” read the headline in the Jan. 13, 1970 issue of The Easterner. “Winter quarter has traditionally been a miserable quarter, especially for commuters who must fight not only the traffic but the snow to make it to their early morning classes,” the story read. “Beginning today, however, this will no longer be necessary. Instead of grumbling to himself about the miserable weather and the folly of even trying to get to the campus on time, the commuter now may leisurely drive into a parking lot in Spokane, board a bus and let someone else fight the weather for him. And he can save money in the process.”


These days, after more than half a century of moving commuters to Cheney and back, the EWU route — soon dubbed the “Magic Bus” by grateful students (with a nod to The Who’s 1968 hit) — remains a fixture of Eagle life.

Today’s commuting students, in fact, typically talk about the bus in terms that echo The Easterner’s long-ago enthusiasm.

Aimee Brooks, a creative writing graduate student from Lubbock, Texas, is one of them. “I’m a huge fan of the park and ride,” she says. “It saves so much time, and the routes are usually on time and consistent, with mostly student passengers.”

“Taking public transportation,” Brooks adds, “is one of the best things an individual can do for the environment. I started to feel like it was silly to drive everywhere when the Eagle Card [includes] a free bus pass. Now I’ve realized how much money I’ve saved and it’s amazing. Cheney is 14 miles away from my house, and cutting down those trips has cut my monthly gas cost in half.”

Just in the previous year, according to data provided by STA, commuters like Brooks have logged close to two million passenger miles on EWU-specific routes, with another 3.2 million miles traveled on the EWU-friendly Cheney route. Eastern’s new Eagle Station, meanwhile, a custom shelter that can accommodate 1,000 daily riders, also came on line last year. The station, decked out with Eagle red and boasting covered, heated waiting areas, was, not coincidentally, dedicated for service on April 22, 2022 — Earth Day.

Susan Meyer
Susan Meyer leads a host of Eagle alumni at the Spokane Transit Authority.

On that sunny morning an Eagle alumna, Susan Meyer ’80, ’89, was among the dignitaries on hand to cut a ceremonial ribbon. Meyer, who holds a bachelor degree in psychology and a master’s in business administration from EWU, wasn’t just a casual supporter. Since 2005, she has served as chief executive officer of the Spokane Transit Authority, helping — along with a host of other Eagle alumni at the authority — to build a transit system that’s become a national model for performance and affordability.

“It’s a beautiful day to celebrate our region’s collaboration on this amazing facility,” Meyer told the crowd. “It is an iconic, functional and beautiful station to bring to the students, the faculty and the staff at Eastern Washington University, and to the City of Cheney.”


The birth of public transit in Spokane roughly tracks with Eastern’s own founding. It began in the 1880s with a slew of companies selling rides in horse-drawn street cars. After a rough-and-tumble era of intensely competitive electric-streetcar and interurban-rail operations, the rise of automobiles and motorized coaches (precursors to today’s buses) led to a period of retrenchment and consolidation. A taxpayer-supported, city-administered Spokane Transit System was born in 1968. It became the regional Spokane Transit Authority 13 years later.

These days, in addition to those serving Cheney and Eastern, STA offers 50-plus routes covering some 248 square miles. In 2022, according to its annual performance report, the transit authority as a whole carried more than 6.5 million passengers, a 25 percent increase over 2021, as ridership continues to bounce back from Covid-related declines. Much of the agency’s recent success can be attributed to Meyer and her team, say local observers, among them Meyer’s fellow Eastern alum Gordon Budke ’63, a prominent accountant, community leader and EWU benefactor.

Budke says that back when Meyer took on STA’s top job, the road forward was anything but clear. Beset by fiscal uncertainties, a bruising fight over the downtown commuter hub at the Plaza and a general lack of vision for the future, the authority was desperate for positive leadership. Meyer stepped in and provided it.

“She and her team – and she has a great team – took a look at this whole map of greater Spokane and said, ‘How do we best serve our patrons and customers?’” says Budke. “She was able to, from my view, see the end game. The end game was to provide public transportation at a reasonable price and not at the additional cost to the taxpayer of borrowed money.”

STA’s Leading Eagles
STA’s Leading Eagles, from left: Karl Otterstrom ’02, Brandon Rapez-Betty ’09, Susan Meyer ’80, ’89, and Carly Cortright ’09.

Perhaps no project better illustrates Meyer’s view of the “end game” than one of her more recent triumphs, construction of Spokane’s new City Line. The all-electric route features sleek, street-car-like buses that glide along a dedicated, 6-mile-long corridor connecting downtown to Brown’s Addition and Spokane Community College. It was 15 years in the making.

“Some people wanted a light rail or streetcar — but that was unaffordable. We built something right sized for Spokane,” says Meyer, who credits fellow Eagle Karl Otterstrom ’02, STA’s chief planning and development officer, for doing the heavy lifting that made the City Line a reality.

“He ran the City Line project from beginning to launch,” Meyer says, “The planning, the design and the $92.2 million budget was largely in his authority.”

Over the course of the project, STA officials say state and federal funding was crucial, beginning with an initial $3.5 million for planning and engineering services. Later, with Meyer, Otterstrom and their local allies pushing hard, the Legislature approved $15 million for construction costs. Four years after that, in April 2019, the Federal Transit Administration announced the largest single commitment to the project, a grant of $53.4 million.


Otterstrom began his work with STA in 2009. At the time, he says, transit authority leaders were just beginning to put such transformational projects on the table.

“There was talk of doing an electric trolley bus at the time, something to really step it up — the evolution of that is today’s City Line,” he says. “It was an interesting time, because in 2009 it was clear by mid-year that not only were we in a recession, we were in a deep recession. Even though we were still planning for a bigger vision, we also needed to dial in and cut costs near-term.”

STA didn’t have a comprehensive plan in place at the time, he recalls. Meyer, nevertheless, was intensely focused on keeping projects such as the City Line alive while dealing with the reality of budget constraints: “How do we frame up the future service, but to do it in a way that we are also building in the future?” she asked.

“It was a big challenge,” Otterstrom says. “A lot of long days and sleepless nights — and a lot of engagement.”

This last part, the engagement piece, meant connecting with stakeholders in commerce, government, transportation planning, economic engagement, environmental advocacy and, of course, everyday bus riders. In the end, it all paid off as the City Line inched closer to reality. The icing on the cake, Otterstrom says, was learning of the success of the $53 million grant on his 41st birthday.  “There’s not one person who owns all this vision,” he says. “It’s all sorts of people working together inside and outside of STA that bring their part of the vision together.”

The July 18 ribbon-cutting for City Line was front-page news. It featured entertainment provided by a band made up of STA employees, free swag and inaugural bus rides. Community leaders, local and state lawmakers, and neighbors turned out for the celebration.


The July 18 ribbon-cutting for City Line was front-page news. It featured entertainment provided by a band made up of STA employees, free swag and inaugural bus rides. Community leaders, local and state lawmakers, and neighbors turned out for the celebration.


For her part, Meyer remembers being pretty psyched. “That was the happiest day,” she says. “Probably my happiest day — other than my daughter’s birth.”

Federal transit officials, in town for the ceremony, were happy too. The City Line delivered as promised and, in spite of pandemic-fueled supply issues and a year-long delay, came in some $14 million under budget. “They said there isn’t another project like this that has come in under budget,” Meyer says. Local savings from the City Line, meanwhile, are going toward a $200 million Division Street rapid bus route project, which recently received a $50 million state grant. “So, we’re off to the races again. It’s very exciting,” Meyer says.


Over the years, STA has grown from 500 to more than 700 employees. Meyer, at age 66, says that as she begins to consider retirement she finds herself thinking more and more about training, mentoring and positioning members of this growing STA team for success. “Whenever I leave, whether it’s because I won the lottery or I retire, I want to be sure the organization is ready,” she says.

Three of Meyer’s top administrators are EWU alumni. In addition to Otterstrom, Brandon Rapez-Betty ’09, who serves as chief operating officer, and Carly Cortright ’09, chief communication and customer service officer, also graduated from Eastern. Budke says he isn’t surprised. “She’s seen what Eastern has been able to accomplish by educating people, and I’m sure she’s picked the cream-of-the-crop of Eastern alums to be part of her team,” he says.

Meyer’s rise to prominence is its own Eastern story, one that illustrates a deep connection to EWU’s long history of empowering local and regional talent. The daughter of entrepreneurial parents — her folks owned and operated the Beehive restaurant downtown, and also ran Eastern’s Student Union — Meyer spent her early childhood immersed in Cheney. “My parents had a long connection with what is now EWU. I got to work there, I got two degrees there. It was a wonderful experience,” she says.

After her parents divorced, Meyer moved to Davenport, Washington, where her mom owned and operated three upscale clothing shops. Years later, Meyer would return to Cheney, this time as an EWU student. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she began work on an MBA and soon earned a fellowship with Phillip Beukema, former dean of the School of Business. Together they worked to develop new methods of fundraising for various university-support programs. That work eventually turned into a full-time job for Meyer, who first served as an assistant director, then director, of external relations for the university.

Eager for new challenges, Meyer left EWU to use her growing professional skill-set to help a number of prominent community players on a variety of fund-raising projects. She next took on a leadership role at Pacific Gas and Electric, then worked as a consultant for Telect, a telecommunications equipment manufacturer. Her success there led her up the corporate ladder, and she soon found herself in Telect’s C-Suite as vice president of human resources and corporate communications. “They built an executive team and the company just went gangbusters — until the telecommunications market tanked,” Meyer recalls. Within months, Telect downsized a quarter of its employees. Meyer was forced to lay off staff. Then her own job was eliminated.

A professional connection who served on the STA Board of Directors reached out to Meyer, encouraging her to apply for STA’s chief executive officer position.

At the time, the transit organization had garnered intense criticism for building a pricey bus hub in the heart of downtown Spokane: The Plaza project, initially projected to cost $12 million, had ballooned to $20 million, according to a Jan. 29, 1995 story in The Spokesman-Review. The article pointedly referred to it as a “money pit.”


A decade later, the reputational damage lingered, and Meyer accepted STA’s CEO position knowing it needed to turn a corner. She got the ball rolling by asking Budke to deploy his accounting expertise in an informal audit of STA’s books. In spite of the criticism around overspending on the plaza, Budke found STA had actually done an impressive job of managing its finances. The agency had zero debt and operated in an above-board transparent manner, he found. His chief recommendation? Set aside reserves.

Having assessed STA’s financial status, Meyer then requested a peer review from the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group. The association sent APTA staff and executives from transit agencies in Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis to spend a couple days riding buses and inspecting stations. Their report, while mostly positive, found STA needed to take better care of its buses, hire more drivers and mechanics and improve the aesthetics of Park-and-Ride stations. The report convinced Meyer she needed someone with a deep understanding of transit planning to help. Otterstrom, with his bachelor’s degree in urban and regional planning from EWU — and recent experience with King County Metro — seemed perfect. “I said, ‘You are going to be the decision-maker on our transit projects. You are going to lead the development of our vision and our future,’ ” Meyer says.


Though he knows Meyer is planning for an STA with new leadership, Otterstrom says he’s certain that Meyer has plenty more to give. She is, he says, as driven as ever: “She loves to be in the mix with transit. For her, transformation is not just a vision, it’s also momentum and velocity.”


And that’s pretty much how things went. After a rough ride during the Great Recession, including a failed ballot measure aimed at expanding services and facilities, Meyer, Otterstrom and their team pitched — and prevailed in — a 2016 ballot initiative to fund its Moving Forward campaign. After the successful ballot measure, Meyer says, “we started expanding service, building new Park-and-Ride lots and started the conversion to zero-emission buses.”

Though he knows Meyer is planning for an STA with new leadership, Otterstrom says he’s certain that Meyer has plenty more to give. She is, he says, as driven as ever: “She loves to be in the mix with transit. For her, transformation is not just a vision, it’s also momentum and velocity.”

And how might that vision play out for Eastern? STA officials say the most visible form of “momentum and velocity” will be a flock of new Eagle coaches that will put the “magic” back in the EWU buses. Beginning in 2025, seven new, three-axle double-decker buses will begin plying the oft-trod path between Cheney and Spokane. According to their American manufacturer, AC Transit, these Enviro-500 coaches, marvels of efficiency, will accommodate close to 80 seated Eagles with a new level of comfort. “We’re pretty excited about it,” Otterstrom says.