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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Central City Line plans closer to reality

This is the year of the Central City Line.

No, you won’t see the sleek electric buses running between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College through downtown Spokane until 2021. But this is the year Spokane Transit Authority plans to ask the federal government to pony up for most of the $72 million project.

If the federal government says yes, and officials at STA are “very optimistic” it will, the city and Eastern Washington will see its first bus rapid transit line, a streetcar-like, fixed-route, zero-emission bus with frequent service running directly through the city’s core.

“At this point in the process, there has not been a project as far along as we are that hasn’t been implemented,” said Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s spokesman.

His buoyancy on the topic was seconded by Karl Otterstrom, the agency’s director of planning and development.

“In terms of environmental or engineering risks, they’re very low,” Otterstrom said. “Any major capital project has a certain degree of political risk, but we’re not condemning blocks or buildings or taking away entire miles of curb space for bus lanes. The political risks are a lot lower than what other projects face.”

The federal money will amount to $53.4 million, or about three-quarters of the project’s total cost. The funds will come through a Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant, which is part of a larger program that allocates about $2.3 billion in funding every year for all kinds of transit projects including commuter rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit.

Spokane’s Central City Line is one of 70 projects in various stages of development listed on the FTA’s “current” projects page.

It’s a long time coming. The words “Central City Line” first appeared in The Spokesman-Review in 2011, when it was described by a Spokane city council member as a “foundational element” in STA’s long-term plan to accommodate the predicted population growth the area will see in coming years. Since 2008, the county has grown by nearly 50,000 people, a boom that isn’t expected to wane anytime soon.

In 2015, STA began project development for the line. A year later, voters approved an increase in local sales taxes to help fund the transit agency’s 10-year “Moving Forward” plan, which included the Central City Line.

That same year, 2016, President Donald Trump was elected, and immediately began threatening to cut the program that STA hoped to tap for its project. Even a year ago, Trump vowed to slash in half the funding for the Capital Investment Grants Program, the primary grant program of the FTA that funds the Small Starts grant program, as well as the more arduous New Starts and Core Capacity programs.

“The outlook from the administration was, ‘We don’t have plans to expand our investments in transit or extend these programs,’ ” Otterstrom said. “I think some transit agencies – even when Congress passed money – were very skeptical the administration would follow through with granting any of those dollars.”

STA, however, was always confident the money would come, Otterstrom said.

“We’ve had a good relationship with the FTA administrator, and our understanding was there was not an effort to close off the program,” he said.

More recently, Trump and California Gov. Gavin Newsom engaged in a battle over California’s high speed rail project. Approved by voters in 2008, the $77 billion rail project was supposed to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with trains going more than 200 mph. The newlyelected governor scaled back the project, saying it was over budget and behind schedule. Trump responded by demanding that California return the $3.5 billion in federal funds for the “green disaster” that “spent and wasted many billions of dollars.”

Otterstrom said the California conflict offers no lessons for Spokane’s project. Instead, he pointed to Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line, the OC Streetcar in California’s Orange County and the Downtown Rail Extension of CalTrain in San Francisco as better comparisons for troubles STA may face.

“Those are the experiences out there we’ve been tracking,” Otterstrom said.

Despite the threats to the Central City Line’s source of funding, the grant program received even better funding this year than ever before. Following the 35-day government shutdown, Trump and Congress agreed to put more than $500 million toward Small Starts projects.

With STA already in line for the federal money, following years of planning and checking the right boxes, with 60 percent of the project already designed and with solid local support for the project, things look good for the Central City Line.

But what will the Central City Line look like?

STA calls it “bus rapid transit,” and the FTA agrees with this definition. The project does contain most features that define BRT lines – features necessary for them to succeed.

Passengers will purchase fares at kiosks before boarding, doing away with the line of people slipping crinkled dollars into the fare box when they board, and shaving off valuable seconds and minutes at each stop. Stations will be level with the bus door, allowing for quick and easy boarding. The bus will have multiple doors for entering and exiting, again limiting any queuing passengers may do.

Perhaps most importantly, the bus will run every 15 minutes for most of the day, providing frequent service through the city core until 11:30 p.m.

“Reducing wait time is effectively increasing travel speeds,” Otterstrom said. “Our ability to have frequent, very frequent service is really key to that.”

But the line is missing one important element of bus rapid transit: a dedicated lane for the line where other vehicles can’t travel. Such a lane would keep the bus out of congestion and ensure the rapidity of the line – something integral to its identity, as the name suggests.

Another element – giving the bus priority at traffic signals – isn’t part of the line’s full route. Though Otterstrom pointed out that three of the five signals on the line outside of downtown may have that feature, which would have the signals turn green when the bus approaches.

The absence of such features shouldn’t distract from the “quantum leap” the project will bring to Spokane transit, Otterstrom said.

“Certainly if we could have a dedicated lane and signal pre-emption, yeah, that’d be awesome,” he said, suggesting that political constraints wouldn’t have allowed a dedicated lane. “What can we do to make transit successful within the operating conditions that are reasonable for Spokane at this time? The biggest benefit of a project like this is investment in frequent service. Especially in an urban corridor like this. Having something where people don’t have to think about a schedule, and it’s really simple to use.”

But how good is frequency if the bus is stuck in traffic? Otterstrom said he wasn’t overly concerned about congestion except for its leg on Mission Avenue. Even there, he said the existing bus Line 39, which runs on Mission, is “generally very on-time.”

Rapez-Betty said congestion is better fared on transit anyway.

“Typically when people are experiencing congestion, they’d rather be on the bus so they can be reading a book, sleeping, sending email, texting. I don’t think congestion drives more people to cars. I think congestion drives more people to transit,” he said.

Otterstrom said arguments that the line isn’t truly bus rapid transit without these key elements were misplaced, and risk of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“To me, it’s almost an intellectual exercise to debate a project that vastly improves service and yet doesn’t do 100 percent of what’s in the realm of engineering possibility,” he said. “It’s doing a whole heck of a lot of things.”

Those things include an “urban busway” on Cincinnati Street between Desmet and Springfield avenues on the Gonzaga University campus, where no cars except university service vehicles will be allowed. Further north, it will run on the Cincinnati Greenway, the city’s first street prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists over cars that is being constructed this year.

Also, the signal STA is installing at Mission and Cincinnati will definitely give priority to the bus. STA is still working with the city to give signal priority where Mission intersects with Napa Street and Perry Street.

Regardless of disagreements over the line’s features, Otterstrom said that the Central City Line will help drive conversation about what else is possible in Spokane.

“Right now many people don’t have context of what transit could be outside of their local experience. Oftentimes they’ll say, I can see it in this other city. I can see it when I travel to Europe or the East Coast. I don’t see how that applies to Spokane,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to bring the best of STA to Spokane, with the elements of bus rapid transit.”

What’s more, Otterstrom said the Central City Line provides transit for today while readying the city for the future.

“You build transit investments for where we are, and you continue making investments for the future,” he said. “Even if where we are today doesn’t get you where you can be in 50 years.”

Zipper merging 101

A bill is making its way through the Washington state Legislature that would require driver education to include instruction on the zipper merge.

At long last.

In May, this column extolled the virtues of the zipper merge, which is otherwise known as the late merge. In short, it encourages full use of all lanes before motorists start lining up their cars to merge. It helps reduce congestion, and it takes some patience and more of a communal approach to driving.

The bill, from state Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, defines the method as “drivers using both lanes of traffic until reaching the defined merge area, and then alternating in ‘zipper’ fashion into the single lane.”

The bill had a public hearing before the House Transportation Committee a couple of weeks ago, and it’s been moved to the rules committee. There’s still a ways to go, with votes in the House and Senate, but if the merge teaches us anything, it’s better late than early.

Pedestrian deaths spike

Pedestrian deaths were up 35 percent in 2018, reaching the highest fatality figure in nearly 30 years, according to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

After reaching a low in 2009, pedestrians fatalities jumped to 6,227 in the U.S., continuing a decade long increase. The deaths account for 16 percent of all traffic deaths in 2018. Five states – Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas – make up nearly half of those numbers.

The governors group suggested there were a number of factors at play:

An increase in driving due to the economic recovery.

Growth in population, where 10 of the fastest-growing states saw the number of pedestrian deaths rise faster than the rest of the nation altogether.

The increasing popularity and use of SUVs. According to Governing Magazine, the number of SUV-related pedestrian deaths increased by 50 percent between 2013 and 2017, compared with a 30 percent increase in pedestrian deaths involving passenger cars.

The growing use of smartphones by motorists, which contribute to distracted driving.

“The report is an urgent wake up call that pedestrian safety needs to be a top priority,” Jonathan Adkins, the group’s spokesman, said to Streetsblog. “Significant infrastructural improvements are needed as is focused-enforcement of traffic laws.”