The purpose of public transit is to move people from point A to point B as conveniently and efficiently as possible. For the most part, the Spokane Transit Authority achieves that goal; providing a vital service to the public. But its latest idea for an electric trolley in downtown Spokane could just as easily be called an electric folly.
STA officials want to build an electric trolley line from Spokane Community College, west through Gonzaga University and downtown Spokane to Browne’s Addition. The roughly 6-mile-long stretch would come with a hefty price tag for taxpayers — $72 million. The project would be paid for with federal tax dollars and a local sales tax increase. The yearly operating cost for the electric trolley would be more than $4.1 million.
Original plans called for a $36 million, 3-mile line from GU to Browne’s Addition, using overhead wires to power the trolley. But after targeted feedback, the overhead lines may be gone, but as the route was extended to SCC, its cost doubled.
STA officials are considering batteries and inductive charging technologies to power the system. They say the technologies are newer and less proven. One idea is to have charging pods built into the pavement, which would charge the fancy trolley buses at both ends of the route. Another is to place a claw-like arm atop each trolley bus that would periodically grab a power source.
While some of these ideas may be cool in the minds of STA officials, the entire plan is unrealistic for Spokane’s transit needs, especially considering there are much less expensive options.
STA officials optimistically say the electric trolley bus would serve 880,000 trips per year. Divided by the operational costs alone, that amounts to $4.73 per trip — more than 20 percent higher than current operational costs for a regular STA bus. A good portion of that 880,000 would be folks who already use bus service along that route. Taxpayers would simply be paying more to move the same people.
Supporters of this plan also believe it would be an economic development tool. Perhaps it could, but not on its own. In other areas that have built similar lines, cities have changed zoning rules or increased incentives for developers to locate along the route. The transit line alone wasn’t the reason.
If STA officials really believe the demand is such that a central city line is needed, they could look at a less-expensive bus rapid transit-type system already in place in cities across the country, including Everett and Eugene. New buses could be designed to look more like trains, rubber tires could be hidden, current street lanes could be dedicated and painted a lilac color to match the mode, and numerous stations could be built along the line with covered seating and ticket kiosks. All of this could be done at a fraction of the cost. And here’s an idea — call it the Lilac Line or Lilac Link.
If even that is too much, STA could simply add routes from SCC to Browne’s Addition.
Spokane taxpayers and STA riders are already very generous when it comes to funding local transit. In fact, the STA budget is larger than that of the Spokane Police Department, and nearly twice as large as the Spokane Fire Department.
There are numerous proven options out there to move more people from point A to point B. STA officials should be careful about asking taxpayers to fund an electric folly.
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