October 6, 2008 in City

Fuel worries renew interest in light rail here, survey finds

Mike Prager
Christopher Anderson photo

Traffic heads into Spokane from the east Friday. Tens of thousands of vehicles run through the center of Spokane on I-90 every day.
(Full-size photo)

On the Web: Hear excerpts of an interview with Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, at s-r.com

A scientific survey conducted for the Northwest Climate Change Center in Spokane shows that 73 percent of Spokane residents favor construction of an electric light rail system in the urban area.

In addition, 75 percent of those responding said they would be willing to pay a small tax increase to finance such a system.

The results show that as fuel prices and concerns over climate change rise, the public seems more receptive to an idea sidetracked in a 2006 advisory vote. Voters back then narrowly rejected twin questions asking whether Spokane Transit Authority should write a funding plan to pay for a project and whether funds should be used to begin engineering work.

Ridership on STA buses has taken off – up 18 percent this year and up 40 percent in less than three years.

STA officials said they haven’t given up on light rail. They hope to preserve rights of way along a route that largely traces a historic rail line through Spokane Valley and are in negotiations over one segment of land at Liberty Lake. They’ve also discussed with the city of Spokane about making land available adjacent to a proposed extension of Riverside Avenue east of Division Street.

Also, STA officials are working with local governments on agreements that would preserve the possibility of light rail through their jurisdictions from downtown Spokane to Liberty Lake.

An extension of the line to Spokane International Airport also has been discussed.

Members of the climate change center said light rail could be part of a “green” economy to help the Spokane region maintain its economic vitality. Light rail systems in other cities have led to the growth of small urban centers around main stops, including commercial, office and residential development. “This is an economic growth engine for this community,” said Mike Peterson, a co-founder of the climate change center and executive director of the Lands Council in Spokane.

One study found that a light rail system between downtown Spokane and Liberty Lake could increase property values along its length by as much as $780 million, and spur the creation of more than 16,000 jobs in 20 years.

Ron Reed, founder and chief executive officer of PacifiCAD and a co-founder of the center, said that Spokane is ideally suited to light rail because of its flat topography.

The survey was conducted by Washington State University’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center. Researchers interviewed 406 people on the question of whether they supported a light rail system, giving an accuracy rating of 95 percent.

In another question, 67 percent of the respondents said they would prefer to develop a system within five years versus 27 percent supporting a 10-year time frame.

A tax increase of $5 a month was supported by 81 percent of those interviewed.

A quarter of respondents said they would be very likely to ride a system while 30 percent said they would be somewhat likely to ride it. Only 7 percent said they would ride it daily. But if gas goes to $5 a gallon, the number of people who said they would ride it daily jumped to 20 percent.

Voters in 2006 considered a $263 million project that would have established a route, but that plan would have used diesel units and would have used a single track. A two-way electric track system was estimated at $600 million in 2005. Since then, construction and materials costs have risen.

An organization known as the Inland Empire Rail Transit Association (on the Web at Inlandrail.org) has been pushing STA to resume planning, and its members appeared last month at an STA board meeting.

For more information on the Web, go to northwestclimate changecenter.com.

Road closures

•Hatch Road from 43rd to 54th avenues remains closed for reconstruction as part of Spokane’s 10-year street bond plan.

•Broadway Avenue remains closed from Havana to Freya streets under a $2.1 million project to realign Broadway in advance of another project to build a bridge on Freya north of Broadway.

•Another $2.1 million project has closed Driscoll Boulevard between Alberta and Assembly streets.

•Argonne Road from Wellesley Avenue to Bigelow Gulch Road is being repaved, with flaggers and delays expected.

•Widening of state Highway 270 from Pullman to the Idaho state line is nearly completed, with only final touches needed.

•The Geiger spur rail realignment is continuing with flaggers and lane changes in effect at the crossing on state Highway 902 west of Craig Road. In addition, Thorpe Road west of Craig near the rail crossing is closed.

Mike Prager can be reached at (509) 459-5454 or by e-mail at mikep@spokesman.com

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