Spokane is about to land on the leading edge of public transportation innovation. The Spokane Transit Authority has secured funding for a bus rapid transit line connecting Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College. This “Central City Line” will be a testament to the perseverance of local, state and federal elected officials, not to mention the folks at the STA who never gave up.
Think of the bus rapid transit system as a hybrid of buses and streetcars. The vehicles are zero-emission buses, but they run on a fixed route at high frequency. They will arrive at stations on the six-mile loop every seven-and-a-half minutes during weekday rush hours.
The stations will be more like what one sees on a light-rail or streetcar line. Elevated platforms will be level with vehicle doors to make boarding easy. Kiosks will let riders pay fares before boarding so that there’s no delay while people fumble for change or dig out their pass.
It’s a model popular among urban transportation planners and in Europe, but it’s still relatively new in the United States. In fact, that novelty is part of what attracted support for the project in Spokane. If it succeeds here, other cities could follow.
Historically, when cities have installed fixed-route rapid transit, they’ve leaned toward light rail. Seattle has the Link light rail line that connects SeaTac to the University of Washington. In Portland, Oregon, light rail lines crisscross the city, though that city sees value in other options. Portland is one of three other cities receiving federal funds to install a system like the one planned for Spokane.
This is no mere test case, though. This system will provide affordable, clean transportation through the heart of the city. Land close to the fixed loop will increase in value, attracting residential and commercial uses. Young adults who are less wedded to cars might especially be drawn to the opportunity to ride rapid transit between home, work and the store.
That this is finally happening demonstrates the power of people committed to improving their community. When advocates stick with something and are willing to update their goals, they can succeed.
It also doesn’t hurt to have local, state and federal elected officials who are willing to focus for a minute on something important to their community rather than divisive, partisan politics.
As Spokesman-Review reporter Nicholas Deshais recounted in a story last week, the project has been 20 years in the making. Back in 1999, the city developed the New Downtown plan that included a light rail and trolley system. It was a grand vision that officials wisely tempered over the years.
There were hiccups along the way, not least two advisory ballots on a $265 million light rail line from Spokane to Liberty Lake that voters rejected in 2006. But backers of the plan such as Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who also sits on the STA board of directors, continued to tweak and refine the project. In the past few years it finally took off.
In 2013 and again in 2015, a new version of the plan that featured electric buses secured state and federal funding. The local delegation to Olympia made sure Spokane wasn’t forgotten in a $16 billion statewide transportation plan.
Then, in 2016, voters approved a local sales tax to help fund STA’s 10-year “Moving Forward” plan, which includes the Central City Line.
Now the final piece of the funding puzzle is in place. The Federal Transit Administration has awarded the project a $53.4 million grant. Thanks goes out to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who all supported it.
Construction on the Central City Line will begin next year, with operation scheduled to commence in 2021. If all goes well, this could be just the start. For example, a dedicated street lane would benefit the transit line so that it can bypass congestion. Other routes might be added, too, to connect more of the community.
Spokane is growing, and now its transportation infrastructure is catching up thanks to the folks who were willing to incorporate public input but never gave up on the STA vision.
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