By Robert Woodworth
A light rail system is a great way to reduce traffic congestion, improve walkability, and revitalize neighborhoods around stations, not to mention the massive environmental benefit of trains versus cars.
They are often expensive to build in America because land is prohibitively expensive to obtain. This is not the case in Spokane, a city that was built around a rail line. We have a unique opportunity to use existing infrastructure and owned by BNSF and WADOT to construct a light rail system for a fraction of the cost of other cities.
The main advantage is the downtown BNSF line. There is room to add a rail line to the elevated railway crossing through, or even share one of the existing lines. In addition to ample space, the downtown elevated rail line also has a number of buildings already attached. One of these disused rail docks could be purchased and renovated into a rail platform, delivering travelers straight from the airport to a short walk to their hotels.
This low-cost, 10-mile line could run from the Spokane International Airport, starting near the car rentals and looping north around the runways, to Havana Street, delivering passengers to the fairgrounds, alleviating the traffic jams we experience when an event lets out. The Havana platform could also have a Park and Ride lot to give Spokane Valley residents a convenient way to the airport.
Several options for downtown stops include some vacant BNSF land near Browne’s Addition, (which could be supplemented by a pedestrian bridge over the freeway to give access to the lower South Hill), the roof of Europa Restaurant, and near the new Gateway pedestrian bridge at WSU’s Spokane Campus.
The second available corridor is the wide center median of Interstate 90 leading to the airport, which is being used to attract litter. This is the most direct route, and wouldn’t require the expensive land purchases that scuttled the 2006 light rail plans. Freeway median rail lines are a proven concept, and gaining popularity around the country. The 5% grade of Sunset Hill is not an issue; Boston’s Green Line climbs a 6.5% grade, and Sacramento, California’s Light Rail climbs a 7% grade.
This entire line would require two major projects, a flyover bridge from the Rosamond I-90 overpass connecting to the Highbridge rail bridge, and a flyover bridge exiting the I-90 median at the airport. Looking at similar rail projects, each bridge is estimated to cost $30 million, plus $5 million to build rail platforms, plus $8 million to build 4 miles of new track from the Rosamond overpass to Spokane International Airport, plus $10 million for the trains themselves.
This $83 million price tag is a paltry sum compared to the $879 million price tag for the North Spokane Corridor. With the low maintenance cost of rail compared to roadways, this investment will pay off for many years. At $8.3 million per mile, this would be the cheapest light rail project in the U.S. by a wide margin, setting the example for other projects nationwide. This even has the potential to be cheaper than the new City Line electric bus rapid transit system being built, and the two lines would complement each other in functionality.
With The American Jobs Plan being rolled out by the Biden Administration, providing infrastructure dollars, now would be a good time to look at funding.
Robert Woodworth was born in Spokane and has worked in transportation for 10 years.
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