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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: With City Line coming, STA plans expanded service elsewhere; plus, double-decker buses to Cheney?

Feb. 3, 2020 Updated Tue., Feb. 4, 2020 at 6:14 p.m.

Spokane Transit Authority has begun work on Sprague Avenue to prepare the STA Plaza for the City Line, as shown in this 2019 photo. STA expects construction of that 6-mile route to start in May. When it’s complete in 2022, the line will form what STA Director of Planning and Development Karl Otterstrom calls a new “urban spine” for the system and “push opportunities” to other lines. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Transit Authority has begun work on Sprague Avenue to prepare the STA Plaza for the City Line, as shown in this 2019 photo. STA expects construction of that 6-mile route to start in May. When it’s complete in 2022, the line will form what STA Director of Planning and Development Karl Otterstrom calls a new “urban spine” for the system and “push opportunities” to other lines. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

What do Cheney and London have in common?

That’s not a set-up for a joke. It’s a question that could be a lot easier to answer in 2022, when a Spokane Transit Authority proposal would put double-decker buses on the busy route between Spokane and the home of Eastern Washington University.

While that’s perhaps the most fun fact about STA’s potential changes to routes and schedules over the next few years, it’s likely not the most important one for the thousands who ride the bus in Spokane Valley, Airway Heights, the West Plains, Cheney, north Spokane, the University District and elsewhere.

Over the next two years, STA riders can expect to see a number of alterations to how the system operates.

And those same riders have a chance to help decide what exactly those changes will look like, both at in-person meetings and through online surveys.

The biggest, shiniest and most expensive single component of the coming flux is the recently renamed but long-awaited bus rapid transit City Line. STA expects construction of that 6-mile route to start in May.

When it’s complete in 2022, the City Line’s 60-foot articulated electric buses will roll from Coeur d’Alene Park in Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College on the city’s far east side, forming what STA Director of Planning and Development Karl Otterstrom calls a new “urban spine” for the system.

While Otterstrom notes that “not everything in the system is reliant on that spine,” he said the City Line will enable STA to utilize downtown “at large” instead of at a “single point” – namely, the Plaza.

In other words, as the new bus rapid transit moves through downtown, the University District and the Logan and Chief Garry Park neighborhoods on its way to its two termini, it will provide points for new connections to other routes and “push opportunities” to other lines, Otterstrom said.

STA is hoping to harness those opportunities to meet some of the outstanding aims of the agency’s 10-year, voter-approved Moving Forward plan, including increasing service to Airway Heights and Hillyard and adding direct service between Logan and Lincoln Heights.

The transit agency already has rejiggered some of its South Hill service, most notably by adding the 11-mile crosstown Route 4, which stretches from the under-construction Moran Station Park and Ride on 57th Avenue to the 5 Mile Park and Ride on Francis Avenue.

The 4 is now the busiest route in the system with a daily ridership of about 3,500 and has been a “huge success,” according to Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA communications and customer service director.

“Both the data and feedback from the public has been very positive,” Rapez-Betty said.

Now the agency is turning its attention to other parts of the system and hoping for similar success.

While the proposals currently under consideration don’t include anything quite like the high-frequency crosstown 4, they would alter and add a number of important routes to create “more and better bus service,” Otterstrom said.

Take, for example, STA’s connection to the airport. Under proposals being considered, routes 60 and 61 would be able to skip serving Browne’s Addition, which would have frequent City Line rides, and shave six or seven minutes off the trip to Airway Heights. Those saved minutes could allow for more frequent service to the airport on the 60. And if the 61 were rerouted to join the 60 in stopping at the airport on its way further west, STA would be able to offer rides every 15 minutes to and from the airport during parts of the day.

This is just one element of what Otterstrom calls the “big math problem” he and others are trying to solve, with public input, as they seek to boost bus service. More of that math is being done on the North Side, where STA is considering multiple concepts to make service more expansive and efficient.

One planned new bus, the 47, would start at the South Hill Park and Ride, pass through Lincoln Heights and South Perry, travel up Crestline Street and eventually reach the North Spokane YMCA.

But other potential changes would focus on adding more east-west bus lines to create what Otterstrom calls a “grid of frequent routes.”

Such a grid could include a new route, 2, that would run frequently in a backward “C” that would start at the 5 Mile Park and Ride, head east on Francis Avenue, go south on Market Street, go west on Empire to Monroe and then turn around.

Currently, north Spokane’s only true east-west bus is the 33. By adding more crosstown service, riders would be able to connect to more north-south buses and to get where they’re going without necessarily having to head downtown and then back out.

All in all, Rapez-Betty said, the aim is to add “a lot of service to north Spokane” and for that service to let riders “go east-west and north-south, where previously you basically had to go to the Plaza.”

The changes to north Spokane, Airway Heights and Spokane Valley service still are in the planning stages, with nothing yet decided about what exactly service will be over the next couple of years – and, again, with opportunity for rider input.

As for the Cheney routes, plans for implementing high-performance transit between downtown Spokane and EWU via Interstate 90 and Highway 904 have been in the works for years.

Otterstrom said those plans should begin to become a reality in September, when much of the service currently offered on the 66 and 64 buses is combined on the new, high-frequency Route 6. While the 64 will go away, the 66 will continue as a means of “augmenting the frequency of the 6 during peak periods,” Otterstrom said.

During those peak periods, which occur of course when EWU is in session, up to 500 people an hour use STA to travel between Spokane and Cheney. That means “standing loads are very common” and that riders sometimes have to wait for the next articulated bus, Otterstrom said.

That’s where the idea for double-decker buses comes in. Otterstrom said double-deckers have about 30% more seating than articulated buses – about 80 instead of about 60. They also handle better in snow and at high speeds, like those reached on the route’s long highway stretches.

But those new, high-capacity buses won’t join STA’s system until 2022, if ever, Otterstrom said. They are among a number of elements of the revamped Cheney Line, including the creation of new stations in Four Lakes and at EWU, that STA aims to phase in over time.

While the Cheney Line work is independent of the impending City Line project, the two eventually could tie together. Otterstrom said STA is “exploring options” that would allow the new Route 6 to serve the same stop as the City Line’s coming stop at the University District Gateway Bridge.

Slam on transportation

Want a reason to slam on transportation? Organizers of a Friday night Transportation and Climate Change Slam have one: The transportation sector is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and in Washington.

While this slam is open to poets, it will also have an element not typically seen at such events: short presentations about transportation issues and their connection to climate change. Slated to deliver those presentations: Spokane City Councilmember Kate Burke, EWU urban planning professor Kerry Brooks, human rights activist John Lemus, active transportation advocate Jessica Engleman and Spokane Bike Club officer Sally Phillips.

And you, too, can offer your take, in the form of “short statements, readings, poems, songs, rants, rhymes, ditties or whatever,” according to organizers, during an open mic session.

The workshop starts at 6 p.m. in lobby of the Community Building, 35 W. Main Ave., and will run to about 8.

Saranac Public House will provide a bar. Free food and non-alcoholic drinks will also be on hand.

Women in transit

The Spokane-Coeur d’Alene chapter of WTS International handed out awards on Thursday to people, organizations and projects “that support the group’s mission of advancing women in the transportation industry,” according to a news release.

Karie Gullickson, an engineer with Horrocks Engineers, was named member of the year. Lisa L. Corcoran, a project manager with Spokane International Airport, received the Woman of the Year award. The STA was agency of the year, and the Rural Resources Community Action Transportation Program was named project of the year. Shawna Conery, of the University of Idaho, received the Sharon D. Banks Memorial Scholarship.

Work to watch for

Ruby Street will have curbside lane closures between Boone and Sharp and between Sinto and Mission Monday for CenturyLink work.

The west 30% portion of Napa Street between Main and Trent will be closed through Wednesday for Avista work.

Both curbside lanes of Washington Street between Main and Sprague will be closed until Thursday for Quanta work.

The northbound lane of Lidgerwood Street between Sanson and Rowan is closed and traffic will be flagged through Thursday for Avista work.

Alberta Street will see a lane shift between Hoffman and Heroy until Friday for Avista work.

Both curbside lanes of Havana Street between Trent and Boone will be closed at separate times until Monday, Feb. 10, for Sefnco work.

The northbound curb lane of Lincoln Street between Broadway and Mallon is closed until Tuesday, Feb. 11, for Avista work.

The north curbside lane of Third Avenue between Pine and Cowley will be closed until Thursday, Feb. 13, for CenturyLink work.

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