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Getting There: STA’s electrification plans are a blast from the past – and toward the future

STA City Line vehicle in the Boone NW garage.  (Courtesy of STA)

Cameron Booth is the kind of person who has a favorite year for streetcars in Spokane.

Booth runs Transit Maps, a blog devoted to his “reviews of transit maps from all around the world: be they real or imaginary, from the past, present or future.”

He also makes his own maps, and on Thursday he posted one showing, with compelling clarity, the Lilac City’s electric rail service in 1912, which he called “the absolute apogee of electric rail transit in that city.”

With 25 lines sprawling out from downtown and extending like tentacles to the then-corners of the city, the map depicts a system of public transportation that’s easy to romanticize, with visions of hopping on a clanging streetcar for just a nickel and watching the bygone world go by.

Karl Otterstrom agrees that it’s easy to look back on the supposedly “halcyon days of 1912.” But the Spokane Transit Authority’s director of planning and development also cautions that the streetcar system wasn’t all comfort and convenience.

“Those things traveled at 5 mph and didn’t have heating,” noted Otterstrom, who provided Booth with some information for the map.

But there are some key elements of the 1912 system that Otterstrom and other STA officials would like to bring back. Namely, its electric power and its more frequent pace of service.

And, in a serendipitous coincidence, Thursday was also the day STA unveiled a literal vehicle that could help the transit agency get there: the first of 10 battery electric buses that will comprise the bus rapid transit City Line when it opens early next year.

Despite the interesting historical echoes, the 60-foot, five-door articulated (and heated) coaches with 320 kilowatt-hour energy storage systems and 120-mile ranges will be very different than the streetcars of a century ago, of course.

They will also be different than the buses that currently make up STA’s fleet.

The move toward electric buses, Otterstrom said, is largely about sustainability, both in terms of the system’s environmental impact and in terms of its financial future.

Not that it’s cheap.

The 10 City Line buses will cost a total of $13.7 million, while the charging infrastructure for the garage where they will be charged was another $7 million, according to Monique Liard, STA’s chief financial officer.

A charging station at the Moran Station Park and Ride cost another $2 million. It will support electrification of the Monroe-Regal bus line, with the first four 40-foot electric buses for that route expected to cost another $800,000 each, according to Liard.

So far, though, the funds for STA’s burgeoning electric infrastructure “are coming through grants” and not at the cost of other initiatives, such as expanded service, according to Otterstrom.

“This is not coming at the expense of providing service to the community,” he said.

And as STA seeks to electrify its entire system by 2040, the agency intends to do so within its means.

“The overall kind of concept we have is we’re not a science project,” Otterstrom said. “We’re delivering service every day to folks. We want to be just behind the cutting edge a little bit in order to learn from other peoples’ experiences and also be positioned to buy things at the right price.”

Beyond such issues of sustainability, Otterstrom said he views electrification as an opportunity for riders, and potential riders, to “rethink transit.”

“When people view it as something new and different, it allows people to suspend their paradigm and try it again,” he said.

That’s particularly important with the much-maligned bus as a mode of transportation.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times last week, “In America, nobody loves the bus. Lots of people ride the bus – we took about 4.6 billion trips by bus in 2019, more than by any other mode of public transportation. But at least 4.5 billion of them must have begun with a deep, dejected sigh of resignation.”

Manjoo was making an argument that much-derided buses could become the key to a “next-generation transportation service” at a relatively low cost.

“All we’ve got to do is buy more buses, hire more bus drivers and, in some places, give buses special privileges on the road,” he wrote.

And it seems STA is primed to do all those things.

It’s hiring to staff the City Line. It’s planning to expand service by about 10% next year. It’s urgently pursuing a new bus rapid transit line along Division Street that will include dedicated bus lanes. It’s planning other new service along Interstate 90 and elsewhere. It’s expecting to launch a more rider-friendly fare system next year that will allow riders to maintain their accounts online and to swipe their cellphones when they board.

STA is also anticipating a possible infusion of new funds with some $35 million coming from the recently passed American Rescue Plan and talk of more public-transit funding coming from both the state and federal level.

As all of that comes together, Otterstrom envisions an STA system in which electric “high-performance transit may be the trunk lines of a much more diverse network” of transit.

“And whether buses at some point turn into something more in some corridors, that may happen maybe post-2040, if ever,” he said. “But the key is not the mode. It’s the frequency.”

“Frequency,” Otterstrom added, “is freedom.”

Division Street bus rapid transit alternative selected

Speaking of frequency, Otterstrom presented a draft recommendation to the STA Board of Directors this week for how the proposed bus rapid transit Division Line would be configured.

After floating four proposals, STA seems to have settled on a plan that would place business access and transit lanes along the existing sidewalks of Division and Ruby streets while also adding on-street parking on Division Street and a two-way, protected cycle-track on Ruby Street.

Otterstrom said the proposed alternative, known officially as the “side-running C” option, was selected after STA conducted a round of public feedback, including from area business owners and Gonzaga University.

“But it’s also not an end point, because there’s a lot of design and development ahead,” he said.

Work to watch for

Crews will begin a grind-and-overlay project at the southwest corner of Nevada Street and Jay Avenue on Monday. The $2 million project will repave Indian Trail Road from Francis to Kathleen Avenue; Nevada Street from Francis to Sharpsburg Avenue; and Nevada Street from Holland Avenue to Magnesium Road.

The west curb lane of Browne Street between Spokane Falls Boulevard and Riverside Avenue and the westbound curb lane of Riverside Avenue between Division and Bernard Street will be closed Monday for construction.

The northbound curb lane of Havana Street between Broadway and Mission avenues will be closed through March 31 for utility work.

The eastbound curb lane of Riverside Avenue between Division and Bernard streets will be closed Monday through April 20 for Palouse Power work.

Work is expected to continue this week on the Harvard Road interchange improvement project, leading to closures on Interstate 90:

  • Through Friday, eastbound I-90 will see single-lane closures from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Eastbound lanes will also see a full closure and detour on Wednesday from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Through Friday, westbound I-90 will have single-lane closures from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Westbound lanes will also experience full closure with a detour on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • The westbound loop ramp will also be closed from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.

This story was changed on Monday, March 22, 2021 to correct pronouns for Cameron Booth.

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