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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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State Democrats announce transportation package that includes funding for new bus ‘rapid transit line’ on Division

A new bus stop is planned somewhere along the stretch of Wall Street between Riverside Avenue and Main Avenue.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A new bus stop is planned somewhere along the stretch of Wall Street between Riverside Avenue and Main Avenue. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – Democratic lawmakers have reached a deal on a 16-year transportation package, and it could mean a new electric bus route with dedicated lanes on Division Street.

The $16 billion package announced Tuesday will invest in the state’s infrastructure, focusing on maintenance of existing roads, funding new transit projects across the state and fulfilling the state’s obligation to replace existing fish passages.

In Spokane, the package provides significant funding for what is called the bus rapid transit line on Division Street and allocates $4 million in design money for a land bridge over Interstate 90 near Liberty Park. It also funds bicycle and pedestrian improvements on the Cook Street and Pacific Avenue greenways.

The new bus service coincides with the completion of the North Spokane Corridor. The plan adds stations every half-mile along the street, with buses stopping every seven-and-a-half minutes. The package would allocate $50 million toward the project.

“This would be a huge impetus in moving that project forward,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane.

The Division bus route is currently in the planning phase with engineering and environmental scoping planning starting this year, according to a timeline for the project. It’s estimated to cost between $120 million and $150 million. About $75 million of that will come from federal grants. The $50 million from the state will help match that, Riccelli said.

State lawmakers have indicated for years the state needs a package to pay for dire transportation needs, but they could not reach an agreement in time last session on that package.

The package announced Tuesday does not use a gas tax or any new bonding to fund it. Bond bills, which are often used to fund transportation costs, require a two-thirds vote to pass. Without one, Democrats do not need Republicans on board to pass the package.

Republican leaders on Monday criticized Democrats for keeping them out of the process. Senate Minority Leader John Braun said this process is “not the way we’ve seen transportation done in our state for decades.” House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox called it “a bizarre process.”

Democrats, on the other hand, said they have been in talks with Republican transportation leaders. Senate Transportation Chair Marko Liias said he’s been in “constant contact” with the ranking Republican on his committee, Sen. Curtis King.

Because much of the package is funded with dollars from the cap-and-trade program, which passed on party lines, Liias said Democrats and Republicans weren’t starting at the same place. With a short session, their focus became reaching agreement among the Democratic caucuses.

“The door is never closed to bipartisan partnership on this,” Liias said.

Instead, the package uses new funds from the cap-and-trade program passed last session, general fund dollars and federal infrastructure funds.

More than $5 billion of the funding comes from the cap-and-trade plan, which puts a cap on emissions for the largest polluters in the state. Those companies have to clean up their work to meet the cap by 2023 or they will be required to purchase allowances from the state. The state keeps the revenue from those allowances, and under the law passed last year, it is required to use those to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This package reflects what we’ve heard and our focus in meeting every community’s needs,” House Transportation Chair Rep. Jake Fey told reporters.

The transportation plan announced Tuesday would use the cap-and-trade revenue to fund bicycle and pedestrian programs, some transit projects, ferry electrification and high-speed rail.

Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and Washington Environmental Council, said the pandemic showed the state more than ever that transit areas were suffering.

He said the environmental community wants to see “real investments” and progress in electrification of transportation systems.

Any plan passed this session should focus on preserving the projects the state already has, Traisman said, as opposed to expanding new projects.

Riccelli said this proposal has “significant” investments in maintenance to ensure the state is putting dollars into preserving what it already has.

Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, said the proposal is “exactly the shift in approach that we have needed for a very, very long time.”

“Compared to the status quo, this historical and transformative package will more than triple the amount we invest in transit and active transportation, and for the first time ever makes multimodal investment a bigger spending category than new highway capacity,” Hudson said in a statement.

The plan also funds new hybrid electric ferries, a program that would allow those 18 and younger to ride transit for free, bicycle and walking infrastructure, and ultra high-speed rail. It would spend about $3 billion on highway preservation and maintenance. Most new projects funded in the plan are on the West Side, including funding the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.

The plan does not include any additional funding to speed up the North Spokane Corridor, which is fully funded by the state and currently set to finish in 2029. Riccelli said speeding up the North Spokane Corridor could be funded in the state’s supplemental transportation budget, which will likely pass toward the end of the session.

Riccelli said there’s a lot of enthusiasm around this transportation proposal, and many people want to see the state protecting its current infrastructure and investing in new transit opportunities.

“This is not a full bite of the apple,” Riccelli said, “but it is a significant bite of the apple.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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