Nearly five months after the Spokane Transit Authority rebuffed Spokane Mayor David Condon’s request to move bus stops on East Sprague Avenue, the Spokane City Council will consider using technology to prevent cars from getting stuck behind buses in intersections.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who sits on the STA board, is behind a resolution supporting “traffic signal prioritization” for buses on the city’s busiest routes. If the plan is implemented, some STA buses would have the ability to turn traffic signals green or red.
“Rather than asking the taxpayers to move the stops, let’s try technology first,” said Kinnear, who said the city would first use the technology on East Sprague to see how it works. “I don’t like anecdotal. I like information. I like data. That’s why we want to use East Sprague as a pilot. Then we have some measurements and data. Then we can say, ‘This works.’ We can use it elsewhere.”
Transit signal priority can be a “a powerful tool to improve both reliability and travel time, especially on corridor streets with long signal cycles and distances between signals,” according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, noting that travel times can be reduced by 10%, and delays by up to 50%, with the technology. The association said signal priority works best when buses have their own dedicated lane of travel.
In 2000, Los Angeles County instituted transit signal priority along two of its busiest corridors: Wilshire and Ventura boulevards. The $10 million project was deployed at 211 intersections, cut travel time by 25% on each corridor, reduced delays caused by traffic signals by 33% and increased overall travel speeds for the buses from 11 to 14 mph on Wilshire and 15 to 19 mph on Ventura, according to the Active Transportation Alliance.
STA declined to comment on Kinnear’s resolution. “We are aware of the resolution,” said Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s spokesman. “We are still in the process of reviewing it.”
Kinnear’s resolution is the latest step in addressing concerns of some business owners on East Sprague, who said the bus stops that were installed on the street in 2017 were causing traffic congestion and hurting their businesses.
The stops were part of a $4.3 million redesign of Sprague, a major revision of an arterial street that officials started planning in 2013.
In November, a year after Sprague reopened, 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 Scott Simmons, the city’s public works director, 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.
In April, the business group began a public campaign to pressure STA board members to move the stops. Three full-page ads in one edition of The Spokesman-Review told the board to “Please get your act together!” It also said the board shouldn’t “overrule Spokane Citizens’ request to have buses use pullouts on Sprague Ave.”
The ads had a photo of each member of the STA board and were paid for by Larry Stone, a local developer who produced the recently released online video “Curing Spokane,” which blamed public transit, in part, for criminality in downtown Spokane.
The pressure didn’t work, and the STA board rejected the request from Condon to move the stops when it voted to approve an idea from Spokane County Commissioner Al French, a board member, to allow bus operators to trigger a red traffic signal when making a stop, a compromise intended to decrease conflict between motorists and buses.
The Sprague bus stops are located just beyond the intersections, which have led to complaints that people get stuck behind a stopped bus in the middle of the intersection. With control of the signal, French said, motorists would instead get stopped at the red light. It also would avoid the recommendation to have buses pull out of traffic, which would lead to them having to “fight” to get back into the lane of travel, French said.
French’s recommendation, which did not explicitly address the city’s request to move the stops, was approved 7-2, with Condon and County Commissioner Josh Kearns voting no.
Kinnear’s resolution would move French’s idea closer to reality. A resolution, which is a nonbinding declaration of the City Council’s values or position on an issue, does not carry the weight of an ordinance, which is legislation that affects the laws and policies of the city and is codified in the Spokane Municipal Code.
Regardless, Kinnear’s resolution seeks to have traffic signal priority as part of STA’s high-performance transit lines at critical intersections in the city’s business districts. These lines are STA’s most popular routes, and the agency is beginning to offer more frequent service on them. The Monroe-Regal High Performance Transit Corridor will begin service this month, connecting the North Side’s Five Mile Park and Ride to the Moran Station Park and Ride on the South Hill.
Other high performance lines include the Division, Cheney and Sprague corridors, and the Central City Line, a 6-mile bus rapid transit loop between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College that will begin before 2022.
But before that, East Sprague would be used as the guinea pig under Kinnear’s resolution.
Kinnear, for one, believes the technology will work, and suggested motorists were delayed more by red lights than buses loading or alighting passengers. She said she has intentionally got into her car and followed buses up and down Sprague to experience the delays she’d heard about.
“And I timed how much I’d sit behind a bus. The longest time was 18 seconds,” she said. “I understand their frustration. I get it. You don’t like to be stuck behind a bus. But 18 seconds isn’t a long time. Unless you have some extraordinary circumstance, it really isn’t going to inconvenience you that much.”
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