The best seats on Spokane Transit Authority’s new 60-foot buses are halfway back, right in front of the articulated, accordion elbow. Sit alone on a single seat, with a little bench for your bag or groceries.
But there’s a good chance you won’t be alone. The buses have capacity for more than 100 people, and run on the busiest routes, up North Division Street, and to Eastern Washington University and Liberty Lake.
The buses are just the first of STA’s longer, sleeker, high-tech fleet. Seven more new articulated buses join them next year, built by the Canadian manufacturer, New Flyer. The Xcelsior buses are streamlined and equipped with smart technology, from counters that alert dispatch every time someone gets on and off the bus and at what stop, to free Wi-Fi for passengers, to the computer system that connects all buses on one real-time scheduling map.
They look cool, too.
“It’s a sleeker look,” said Todd Griffith, the transit agency’s assistant manager of vehicle maintenance. With rounded fairing on the bus roof and windows flush with the body, the buses look about as aeronautical as a bus can get.
The buses figure in to STA’s Moving Forward plan by providing frequent and reliable transit on some its most popular routes. The buses are big, and when they get full, an on-board computer will automatically alert dispatch that a second bus, called a slipper, is needed. In November, voters authorized a tax increase to expand transit service and begin implementation of the Moving Forward plan.
The vote funded two of the busy, high performance transit lines: the Central City Line and the route to Cheney. It partially funded other busy routes, including those on East Sprague Avenue, Division, North Monroe and I-90.
“Sprague and Division have reliability problems,” said Brandon Rapez-Betty, a spokesman with STA. These new buses should help solve the problems on these routes, which see the most passengers. Last year, the Division route had more than a million rides, and Sprague saw 960,000 rides.
“Just having more buses gives us more flexibility,” Rapez-Betty said. “It helps us not leave people on the side of the road, which happens when those buses are at full capacity. They can depend on that route and know they have that ride.”
Later this summer, STA will begin the process of revamping its fare box system. Part of the update will allow passengers to pay their fare before they board the bus. When the seven new articulated buses are delivered next year, they’ll have three doors. Prepayment of fares will allow passengers to board from the front, center or rear.
The new buses aren’t directly linked to the planned Central City Line, which will connect Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College by way of downtown, the University District and Gonzaga University. But they will share some features with the vehicles on the bus rapid transit route, a new type of transit fast becoming popular around the country due to its cost-saving mimicry of streetcars.
The central line will feature pre-board ticketing, level boarding areas and real-time signage, like the busy routes served by the new articulated buses. The rapid transit vehicle will also present an even sleeker look than the “artics,” as transit officials shorthand the new buses.
“People want the train or streetcar body, but communities can’t necessarily invest in that,” Rapez-Betty said, referring to the high cost of rail construction needed for a traditional streetcar.
The new buses join a fleet of more than 130 buses, most of which are 40 feet long, and all drivers are trained on the various vehicles.
“They’re pretty much the same,” said Theo Propst, an STA driver of three years. “You just have to have an awareness of what’s going on behind you.”
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