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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Council prefers electric trolley

Any new system would still need voters’ OK

If Spokane opts to pursue a new trolley system downtown, it likely won’t include track.

The Spokane City Council on Monday voted 6-1 to adopt recommendations to label an electric trolley system its “preferred alternative.”

The decision means that’s the system that will be pursued in the coming years, but it would still need voter approval for local taxes needed.

Spokane Transit Authority CEO Susan Meyer said officials won’t move forward with a ballot measure for a new sales tax until plans are more concrete and are fully integrated with its existing bus system.

The earliest an electric trolley system would appear on a ballot is 2013, she said.

The chosen system is essentially an electric bus similar to ones used in Seattle that use city streets but are attached to electric lines above. The difference would be that the vehicles would be designed to look like trains or light rail cars.

The decision marks a turning point in the long pursuit of a more advanced form of mass transit in Spokane. Some city leaders have advocated for light rail for years. But that was set back in 2006 when voters rejected advisory questions about light rail.

The recommendation was the result of state and federal grants won by the city to study a possible trolley system downtown. City, transit, business, neighborhood and other leaders studied possible routes and systems that should be pursued for a new fixed-route transit system that would have more frequent service, perhaps with trolleys stopping at stations every 10 to 15 minutes.

The first selected route is from Browne’s Addition to downtown to the University District and ending at Gonzaga University.

The cost to build the route would be about $36 million.

The other choices were:

• An enhanced bus system, using buses made to look like trolleys that likely would run on gas.

• An electric streetcar, with electric lines above and a track below, at a cost of more than $100 million. Meyer noted that an electric bus system could later be converted to electric rail.

City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she’s satisfied that the outcome was well-researched and is worth letting the voters decide when the time comes. “If you don’t plan ahead, you don’t have a future,” McLaughlin said.

City Councilman Bob Apple cast the lone vote against the recommendation. He voiced concerns that estimates of the number of riders haven’t been provided and said he prefers a rail system.

Meyer said estimates will be available soon and will be well studied before any plan is sent to voters.

Chris Cargill, Eastern Washington director of the Washington Policy Center, praised the public process that led to the decision but said he believes the enhanced bus system is a much better option. He said the economic development benefits of fixed-route mass transportation often are greatly exaggerated.

“We can’t find any research that would show that an electric trolley bus would provide three times as much benefit as an enhance bus system,” Cargill said, noting that the choice selected by the council is nearly three times as expensive.

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