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Public may get say on light rail

Mon., July 17, 2006

Voters may get a chance this fall to keep a local light rail project on track for two more years.

This step would cost about $20.5 million over two years – $5 million for preliminary design and planning and $15.5 million in right-of-way purchases along the proposed route between downtown Spokane and Liberty Lake – said Spokane Transit Authority’s light rail project manager, K.C. Traver.

The STA Board is scheduled to decide Thursday whether to put the proposal to a public vote this fall.

The ballot measure would keep light rail work moving along, but not commit STA and voters to the project’s full cost of up to $300 million.

Most of the project right of way is already publicly owned, but about 25 percent of it belongs to railroads and 5 percent to private citizens, Traver said.

“We really are at a crossroads in the project,” he said, adding that STA could pay for the preliminary work with existing resources.

STA already has $2 million set aside for right-of-way purchases.

Other potential funding sources include as much as $12.5 million in funds earmarked for cooperative road projects with local jurisdictions and STA’s undesignated cash account, said STA Finance Director Jim Plaster.

Plaster projected that reserve will be about $5.2 million by the end of the year.

The STA Board could also choose to tap $7.5 million in a special operating reserve account that was created to provide some stability should voters not renew a .3 percent sales tax when it expires in 2008.

No bus service would be cut to pay for light rail planning and right of way said STA CEO Susan Meyer.

Though the plan wouldn’t require new tax money, STA promised it wouldn’t spend any more money on light rail without first asking voters, said board member and Liberty Lake City Councilman Brian Sayrs about the prospect of a fall ballot issue.

“I think it’s appropriate to ask the public whether it’s time to continue on with the project or end it,” Sayrs said.

The STA Board must decide Thursday whether to put the question of continuing light rail planning and beginning right-of way purchasing to voters. The board doesn’t meet in August and by September it would be too late to meet the primary or general election ballot deadlines, he explained.

But STA Board member and Spokane Valley City Councilman Richard Munson said voting to continue planning before the public fully understands the cost of the entire project and how much they would be required to pay in taxes to fund it is “putting the cart before the horse.”

He also said the community must decide which project is its top priority for federal funding – light rail, the North Spokane Corridor or the “Bridging the Valley” project to eliminate at-grade railroad crossings.


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