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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

East Sprague business group wants to move fancy bus stops, but faces resistance

Riders catch a STA bus at the corner of Sprague and Helena on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in Spokane, Wash. The city of Spokane has asked the Spokane Transit Authority to remove to new, and expensive, bus stops on East Sprague Avenue, at Helena and Napa streets, following complaints of traffic congestion by business owners. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Eighteen months and $150,000 later, the shine has come off the fancy new bus stops on East Sprague Avenue for the city of Spokane.

The change in heart came after a local business group took its concerns about traffic jams to Mayor David Condon, and now the city has asked the Spokane Transit Authority to move the modern, and costly, bus stops on East Sprague.

The stops – a new type of raised-level platform designed for STA’s high-performance transit lines that cost $150,000 to install – were put in when the city rebuilt the historic stretch of East Sprague in 2017. The two pairs of bus stops at Napa and Helena streets the city is seeking to remove require buses to stop in the lane of traffic rather than pulling to the side.

According to Scott Simmons, the city’s public works director, the bus stops were an “experiment” that ultimately led to traffic congestion. He said STA should follow the advice of the East Spokane Business Association, which wants the stops moved to locations it believes are more convenient.

On Wednesday, members of STA’s planning and development committee were skeptical of the city’s request and said the data the city used is flawed. They voted unanimously to reject it in a recommendation to the agency’s full board of directors, which will hear the request April 18.

Though the city paid to install the stops, STA in contractually obligated to reimburse it and has the final word about their removal.

“I’m really challenged by the logic of this argument,” Al French, Spokane County commissioner and STA board member, said of the city’s reasoning behind the request. “To date, I haven’t heard anything that says we screwed up, that we have a fundamental flaw that we need to fix.”

French said blaming the buses for decreasing traffic counts was wrong, and he pointed out that buses travel on the street once every 15 minutes while traffic signals turn red more than once a minute.

“If you really want to improve the flow of traffic, get rid of the traffic lights. They are operating at much greater frequency than the bus is and create much more delay than the buses do,” he said, describing what he suggested was a fallacy in the business association’s reasoning. “By a factor of 15, you got more delays from the traffic lights than you do the bus.”

Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, chair of the full board, said the goal of reducing the number of lanes on East Sprague was to decrease the number of commuters using the road as a thoroughfare and increase the amount of “intentional traffic” seeking out the businesses there.

“That is exactly what the target was,” Mumm said about decreased traffic counts. “This was the goal. This was absolutely the goal.”

Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman, also on the board, said traffic counts were being linked to traffic delays, which he said was wrong.

“I don’t think that the data that is being offered – traffic counts – correlates to the question being asked, which is delay,” Freeman said. “I don’t think you can provide an answer from this data set.”

Simmons, however, didn’t back down when the committee pushed back. He suggested the “experiment” of having buses stop in the lane had failed and should be remedied by moving them. He did say, however, the city was open to moving the stops again if the change didn’t lead to an increased traffic volume.

“This isn’t an ask in permanency,” Simmons said. “We’re not asking for this to be permanent. … We’re asking for a different alternative.”

The committee members weren’t convinced and were wary to abandon the infrastructure, glass shelters and wiring for electronic ticket vending machines, not to mention the years of planning and design that had gone into STA’s high-performance transit network, for Simmons’ “experiment.”

“It seems like an expensive experiment,” Mumm said.

Years in the making, months undoing

The planning that led to the renovation of East Sprague began in earnest in 2013, when the city “re-striped” this section of East Sprague. The temporary configuration, years ahead of construction, was done to see if the road and motorists could handle a reduction in lanes and in-lane bus stops.

The roadwork was part of a broader effort by the city to reinvigorate the neighborhood after a half-century of stagnation, the first section of town where the city focused various programs and incentives as part of its targeted investment strategy.

Part of this work included a “door-to-door” survey of the neighborhood’s residents, property owners and business owners by the city and the transit agency, STA spokesman Brandon Rapez-Betty said. It found that 54 percent of respondents preferred the in-lane stops over losing upward of 30 on-street parking spots required for bus pullouts.

Four years later, the city embarked on the $4.3 million project to renovate the street, which closed it completely to traffic from April to September 2017 and made the lane reduction and in-lane stops permanent.

Similar work was done last year on North Monroe Street, including in-lane bus stops and a reduction in the number of lanes. STA said it has heard no complaints about traffic congestion on Monroe.

Fifteen months after Sprague reopened, and more than five years after the road had originally been restructured with fewer lanes and in-lane bus stops, the local business association protested.

In November 2018, Mayor Condon met with LaVerne Biel, president of the East Spokane Business Association, who ran unsuccessful campaigns for City Council in 2013 and 2015. She told Condon her concerns about the buses causing “congestion, reduced traffic counts and unsafe vehicle movement at intersections next to bus stop locations,” according to a letter Simmons wrote Biel in January summing up her conference with Condon.

Within two months of the meeting between Biel and Condon, on Jan. 24, Simmons wrote to E. Susan Meyer, STA’s CEO, and asked the transit agency to remove and relocate the bus stops “by Spring 2019.” Simmons also asked the transit agency to work with the local business association to identify where the stops should be moved.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Meyer said the business association is telling business owners that the stops will be moved and showing them where they will be moved to.

No one from the business association attended the meeting Wednesday, but a handful agitated to move the stops at last month’s meeting of the same committee, according to its March meeting minutes.

Janet Taylor, who opened Blue Cat Vintage after the road work had been done, said cars line up behind buses multiple times a day, honking and speeding through the intersection. Her store is in the historic Quality Garage building, which was purchased and developed by Steve Schmautz, a prominent Spokane developer who invested on East Sprague because he knew the city was funding street improvements.

Kim Crumpacker, who heads up the traffic calming committee for the East Central Neighborhood Council, said motorists avoid Sprague – and the buses – by driving on side streets, making the residential roads unsafe.

Doug Trudeau, who owns Trudeau’s Marina at Sprague and Spokane Street and is ESBA’s vice president, told the committee he is concerned he will face the same congestion issues when the city rebuilds the section of Sprague in front of his business this year.

Numbers align with expectations

The city’s official traffic counts show a 17 percent and 20 percent reduction in traffic – for two separate but consecutive sections of the road, respectively – from 2013 to 2018 on the renovated section of East Sprague. Farther west, a part of Sprague that saw no change to the roadway or its bus stops, the street saw a 21 percent decline in traffic counts. During that time, citywide traffic volume has increased between 10 and 25 percent.

Collisions on the street haven’t changed much since the renovation. In 2016, the year before the work, there were 15 collisions on the road, according to data provided by the city. In 2018, there were 11.

The amount of time buses “dwell” at the stops has greatly decreased, according to STA.

In 2016, the three stops on East Sprague upgraded during the street’s rehabilitation had an average dwell time of 34 seconds, meaning the bus doors were open that long at each stop. Since then, the average dwell time has plummeted to 13 seconds. Additionally, in 2018 the four stops saw an estimated 67,000 boardings and 51,000 “alightings.”

STA also said that “traffic queuing” is related more to the road reconfiguration and traffic light cycles than buses stopping. About 29 percent of the time, the bus did not stop at all at these stops.

These numbers align with what STA and the city expected. But as the city prepares to embark this year on the second phase of renovating Sprague, between Division and Scott streets and near the University District Gateway Bridge, it is struggling with how to design the road. Current plans have eliminated the in-lane bus stops at the urging of business owners like Trudeau; funding from the state is tied to the construction of bikeways, which the city has said will not be part of the road.

STA also has a lot riding on the road. It was the first example of what is planned to be a regional network of high-performance transit lines, all using stops similar to what is on Sprague. The Central City Line, which will connect Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College and travel through downtown Spokane, is included in that network.

Regardless, Cheney Mayor Chris Grover, who chaired Wednesday’s committee meeting, agreed with the business association that the situation on Sprague isn’t ideal. But he blamed motorists.

“It’s driver behavior that’s the issue,” he said. “It’s not the buses stopping in the lane. It’s the response from drivers who can’t wait a couple of seconds.”

French agreed, saying the frustration was the result of a lack of driver education.

“With new infrastructure, there’s always a re-education process you go through to learn how to use that new infrastructure. Traffic circles are a great example. We put traffic circles in and we expect everybody to figure it out. If you don’t, you end up in the middle of the circle,” he said.

“We’ve got an inconvenience and a learning process. So if there’s re-education we need to do, I’d be more in favor of investing time and energy in that than I would be going back to fix something when we don’t know it’s broken.”