Spokane-area transportation planners say it’s time to bring out the calculator and start discussing the scary L word.
As in light rail.
During two upcoming public workshops, citizens will be asked to discuss ways of handling the increasing traffic on Interstate 90 between downtown and Liberty Lake.
A light rail system is one fix being considered by the Spokane Regional Transportation Council and other groups.
Other options include adding more traffic lanes, creating van-pool or car-pool lanes, and creation of an express bus lane.
But the light rail solution is the one that generally ignites the loudest debates, partly because of its high cost.
In addition to hefty construction costs, operating a light rail system would cost millions per year.
“There’s no way (to build a light rail system) here unless you sell people on paying for it,” said Jerry Lenzi, regional administrator for the Washington Department of Transportation.
Lenzi is one of nine members on the transportation council - a government agency addressing the long-term needs of commuters, transit riders and traffic planners.
The high costs to construct and operate light rail systems scare voters and taxpayers, who end up paying a large share of any major transportation improvement, Lenzi said.
While King County approved light rail in recent years, voters in Pierce and Snohomish counties recently defeated tax measures for similar systems.
In a series of focus groups run by researcher Bill Robinson, 50 residents from the Valley voted on their preferred I-90 solutions.
The favorite solution was to add more lanes to the freeway. Light rail came in second, followed by an express bus path.
The bus lane and light rail options would share two features. Both would run on no-cars-allowed, 48-foot-wide paths to be built on the former Milwaukee Road right-of-way, roughly parallel to I-90 through the Valley.
Both would involve high-volume, rapid transit from downtown to Liberty Lake, stopping at three stations along the way: the Thor-Freya neighborhood, University City Mall and the Sullivan Road interchange.
The state wants to decongest I-90, especially between the Sprague exit and Liberty Lake.
That stretch is considered one of Spokane’s busiest - since the freeway changes from six lanes to four at Sprague Avenue, continuing all the way east to Idaho.
“But that widening is a long-range goal,” Lenzi noted. “We don’t have any of the money for that yet.”
The two workshops are part of a series required to prepare a “major investment survey” - a detailed cost-benefit analysis of the options.
More workshops are expected to be held this fall, said Terry Zeimantz, council spokeswoman.
Typically, the federal and state governments and local sources each pay a third of the cost of such projects, said Glenn Miles, the council’s transportation manager.
Following the workshops, the council board will hold public hearings to get specific comments on the plans that attract the most support.
The council would then vote to support one or more options, or to do nothing at all.
“That’s the flip side of the question,” said Miles. “Is there the willingness among residents here to do nothing and accept those consequences?”
The first workshop next week looks at issues primarily affecting the downtown area if a light rail or bus lane system is developed.
The July workshop will look at the light rail option in more detail.
The last study of light rail’s viability in Spokane occurred in the 1980s. State transportation planners concluded the Valley did not have enough people to justify building it.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT The Spokane Regional Transportation Council will seek citizen input Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Crescent Court Ballroom, and on July 17 at a location to be announced.