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Friday, February 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Confusion swirls around local transit projects with car tab measure stuck in court

City dump trucks unload dirt at a construction site for the North Spokane Corridor on Oct. 24, 2017. Observers say the ongoing court battle over Initiative 976 could further delay completion of the long-awaited, $1.5 billion freeway project. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
City dump trucks unload dirt at a construction site for the North Spokane Corridor on Oct. 24, 2017. Observers say the ongoing court battle over Initiative 976 could further delay completion of the long-awaited, $1.5 billion freeway project. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

As court battles continue over the future of Initiative 976 – the $30 car tab measure approved by voters last month – questions about how it will affect local projects persist.

The answers to those questions are scattershot.

Mike Gribner, eastern region administrator for the Washington state Department of Transportation, said it’s “too soon” to estimate a new completion date for the North Spokane Corridor, also known as the north-south freeway. Lawmakers had warned the ballot measure would imperil the $1.5 billion freeway project, and last week WSDOT deferred up to $50 million in work to construct the freeway between Sprague Avenue and the Spokane River, delaying a key segment of the freeway referred to as the Skyway.

Even the deferments aren’t promised to be permanent, Gribner said. By delaying up to $90 million in Spokane-area transportation funding following an order from Gov. Jay Inslee, WSDOT said it was giving “funding flexibility” to lawmakers as they go back to the drawing board and decide how to amend the recent two-year transportation budget.

Aside from delay of the north-south freeway, up to $11 million in work on Interstate 90 between Barker and Harvard roads was deferred. This segment of the interstate has been identified as particularly dangerous and in need of improvement, but Gribner said “without funding, the needs will likely go unmet.”

Brandon Rapez-Betty, spokesman for Spokane Transit Authority, said the cuts shouldn’t reach the Central City Line, a new bus line that will connect Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College on a 6-mile loop through downtown Spokane.

“We think the Central City Line funds are protected. It’s awarded. It’s under contract. We’re spending it,” said Rapez-Betty.

But other projects were under threat and the agency could see a loss of $13 million in state funding over the next six years.

In the current two-year budget, WSDOT delayed a $2.3 million grant to buy new buses and improve the Cheney high-performance transit corridor, but Rapez-Betty said the project will lose $6.3 million in state funding if things stand as they are now.

“The goal of the project is to increase safety, access and capacity issues between downtown Spokane and EWU,” Rapez-Betty said. “Part of the state’s funding was going to help purchase double-decker buses, which would address the capacity issues we are having now – 60-foot articulated buses are standing room only with some students left waiting for the next bus.”

Para-transit funding may also be cut, putting those living with disabilities at risk. WSDOT has said such funding is a priority, and Rapez-Betty said STA’s para-transit services should be protected “in the immediate term.”

Still, reduced funding for the service is expected in coming transportation budgets if I-976 makes it out of court in one piece. Federal disability law requires services like para-transit to operate within three-quarters of a mile of any fixed-route bus line, which could lead transit agencies to cut regular bus lines if they can’t afford the related para-transit services.

“STA has not evaluated this option as it is too early to know how the courts or the Legislature will respond to all things 976,” Rapez-Betty said.

WSDOT delayed a $360,000 grant to replace and purchase eight STA vanpool vehicles. The vanpool service is “nearly 100% paid for through user fees, minus the vehicle cost,” Rapez-Betty said.

No other cuts are expected, Rapez-Betty said.

“We know those are the only projects that will be affected,” he said. “Because those are the only projects that receive state funding.”

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