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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal funds won’t help Spokane rail dream

Mike Prager

As Congress and the president hammer out an economic stimulus package, local leaders already are maneuvering to take advantage of the money, while some are lamenting what appears to be a lost opportunity for light rail.

At least $30 billion would be available for road and bridge construction nationwide under House and Senate versions of the stimulus package. Another $12 billion to $14 billion is proposed for mass transit, including light rail.

Under the House plan, Washington and Idaho would receive $887 million and $264 million respectively for roads and bridges, with a share of that money coming to the Inland Northwest. It’s too early to know how that would be spent in the Spokane region, but transportation officials have lists of projects that could qualify.

Spokane apparently is going to miss out on large sums of grant money for light rail. Voters in 2006 narrowly rejected a pair of advisory ballots on developing a line from Spokane to Liberty Lake, a project that has been on the back burner ever since.

Jeff Selle, manager of government relations for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, said Spokane’s light rail system is nowhere near “shovel ready” – a priority for getting construction workers back on jobs in a short period of time.

Across the country, the House has identified 19 potential beneficiaries of a $2.5 billion pot of money for transit projects. The Senate has $5.5 billion for competitive transit grants in its proposal.

Ron Reed, a co-founder of the Northwest Climate Change Center, said Spokane is missing the train.

“That money is being put out for mass transit, and we should be all over that,” he said, adding that state lawmakers a few years ago had offered money for light rail here as well.

While the Spokane Transit Authority board has not given up on light rail, it has done little to advance the project beyond seeking to preserve a future right of way.

When Reed and his colleagues at the Climate Change Center submitted to the board a 2008 public opinion survey that showed strong support for light rail, they were greeted with skepticism from STA board members, even though STA buses have experienced dramatic increases in ridership since the 2006 vote.

“It’s just a fear of change,” Reed said.

New leadership in Washington, D.C., will be taking a more progressive approach in promoting mass transit and energy conservation, as seen in the details of the proposed stimulus, he said.

The proposals appear to emphasize energy, the environment and education over roads and bridges.

Matt McAlvanah, press secretary for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the senator was disappointed that roads and bridges were only getting about $30 billion to $33 billion out of the $819 billion package of spending and tax cuts proposed by the White House.

A list of road projects identified by Washington for stimulus funding includes replacing the ferry across Lake Roosevelt at Keller on state Highway 21 at $15.5 million; construction of additional lanes for a new north Spokane freeway between Farwell Road and Francis Avenue at $40 million; and widening of Interstate 90 to six lanes between Sullivan and Barker roads in Spokane Valley at $25 million.

Another possible project is an $11 million overpass and partial interchange at U.S. Highway 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road, where a Cheney teenager was killed last month. The project would reconfigure the intersection so that drivers don’t have to cross traffic to go northbound from Cheney-Spokane Road.

Repaving U.S. 395 from Ritzville 20 miles south to Lee Road also is on the list, at $13.7 million.

Locally, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council has developed its own list of projects to be funded with money it would administer as a federally approved metropolitan planning organization. In the House bill, the SRTC would have $7 million to allocate.

There is one transit proposal that might be able to qualify for some of the stimulus money: a downtown streetcar line running from the University District to Browne’s Addition with a leg northward through Riverfront Park.

Engineers are taking metal samples this week from Howard Street bridge girders in Riverfront Park to determine whether the structure could safely support streetcars.

House leaders noted that unemployment in the construction sector stood at 12.7 percent last November, nearly double what it was a year earlier.

Survey under way

The Idaho Transportation Department is in the middle of a statewide bicycle and pedestrian survey to determine what kinds of improvements are needed for non-motorized mobility. The agency has a survey available on its Web site at bike/2008PlanSurvey.html.

Also, residents who want to comment or are seeking more information may contact state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Mark McNeese at or call (208) 334-8272.

Mike Prager can be reached at (509) 459-5454 or by e-mail at