In 2000, the boards of directors for Spokane Transit and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council established a light rail steering committee specifically to examine high-capacity transit between Spokane and Liberty Lake. For the next six years, the committee studied light rail and bus rapid transit options in the South Valley corridor. Finally, it concluded that a low-cost light rail system was the best option for the Spokane region, based on its consistency with growth management, environmental sustainability and long-term applicability.
The committee’s detailed analysis indicated a 15.5-mile, 14-station light rail system operating on single track with 15-minute frequency could be built for $263 million, an average cost of about $17 million per mile. Even more important, the committee felt the system would serve as a powerful economic engine for the region.
In July 2005, analysis by two reputable economic consulting firms, Marketek from Portland and Applied Economics out of Phoenix, concluded the system’s financial influence would be in the billions of dollars to the region. In 2006, the board of directors for the transit agency relied on “the conventional wisdom” for high-capacity transit, that being that the primary purpose of light rail systems is traffic congestion relief and so would not be needed in Spokane County for a decade or more.
The Light Rail Steering Committee was subsequently disbanded in December 2006 despite conceiving the lowest- cost-per-mile light rail system in the United States. The low cost was possible because it was based on a modest system that met the region’s needs but which was planned for expansion as the population grows. This strategy should prove much cheaper than waiting as Seattle did, until the cost of their system, now under construction, is more than $180 million per mile. Moreover, construction costs are expected to grow much faster than the region’s population, so the relative cost per individual will increase over time.
The steering committee correctly focused on strategic transportation planning, and to that end light rail was considered the best choice. Additionally, economic development and growth management were seen as a major benefit from investing in light rail earlier than traditionally done in large, congested metropolitan areas. As a result, the committee came to believe that the typical model, based on conventional wisdom, is wrong. Instead, they concluded that light rail costs much more the longer you wait, and the positive influences on community development in response to growth are lost. They determined that waiting to justify high-capacity transit based on traffic congestion would be poor planning and reactionary rather than visionary.
There is a saying that “if you follow the same old model, you’ll end up in the same old place.” That is how Seattle became an icon for highway congestion, contrasted with Portland and Salt Lake City, who both invested in regional light rail systems much earlier in their growth and are now benefiting greatly.
Now STA is proposing a major investment in a cheaper version of transit that mimics light rail. It’s called bus rapid transit. In their report, Marketek and Applied Economics also concluded, “…while Bus Rapid Transit can be as effective in relieving congestion as light rail, there is little evidence that it supports or stimulates the same level of transit oriented development.”
So if we deferred light rail, which is an economic engine, because we don’t have a congestion problem, why would we invest in bus rapid transit, whose strength is congestion relief but isn’t an economic stimulus? The city of Spokane and the Downtown Spokane Partnership are now looking at electric streetcars versus trolley buses to stimulate growth in the central business district. Let’s hope they choose wisely.