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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: Spokane’s city buses can sing, but STA doesn’t want them to

July 11, 2022 Updated Mon., July 11, 2022 at 2:01 p.m.

A Spokane Transit Authority bus arrives at the STA Plaza in August 2020. Sometimes, a control box malfunction causes STA buses to make a high-pitched sound.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
A Spokane Transit Authority bus arrives at the STA Plaza in August 2020. Sometimes, a control box malfunction causes STA buses to make a high-pitched sound. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Downtown Spokane is loud.

Sirens. Rumbling freight trains. Hospital helicopters. Obnoxious, modified car mufflers. Dump trucks rattling dumpsters at dawn.

It’s a discordant symphony, and for the last few weeks or months, another instrument’s been part of it.

Some Spokane Transit Authority buses can sing.

They can make a sort of flutelike, high-pitched whistle that crescendos when the bus accelerates and decrescendos when it slows. To some ears, the musical notes are a relatively pleasant sound amid the urban din.

But not everyone’s a fan.

“We did get a complaint,” STA Chief Operations Officer Brandon Rapez-Betty said, explaining that one customer called STA recently and described the whistle as “an atomic torture for his pets.”

Gillig transit buses always whistle or hum a little, but Rapez-Betty said the recent loud noises aren’t normal or wanted.

The culprit? Malfunctioning control boxes.

STA buses have fans that help keep their engines cool. When the bus gets hotter, the fans blow harder.

Control boxes dictate the fans’ effort levels. When the control boxes stop working, the fans err on the side of caution and spin as fast as possible.

“When it’s at that max setting and the bus is picking up speed, it creates that whistling effect,” Rapez-Betty said. “The change in pitch is the change in speed. As the bus goes faster, the pitch goes higher because there’s more air passing through the fan.”

When the control boxes work and the fans blow the right amount of air at the right time, people don’t usually pick up the whistle, Rapez-Betty said.

Normally, STA would buy replacement parts and fix the whistling on the four affected buses quickly. But supply chain slowdowns have gotten in the way. The new control boxes won’t arrive for another week or two.

Until then, STA has a temporary solution. Rapez-Betty said mechanics on Thursday put air conditioning filters over the buses’ rear vents.

“It’s kind of like putting your finger over your lips when you’re whistling,” Rapez-Betty said.

The buses are musical no more.

In the future, people can call STA when they notice a loud, high-pitched whistling. It’s not always easy for bus drivers or riders to catch it.

“We don’t want the public to be hearing it, because we understand to some it’s not a pleasant sound,” Rapez-Betty said. “If they hear the sound, please call 509-328-RIDE.”

Work to watch for

Third Avenue has been reduced to one lane from the Altamont Street eastbound Interstate 90 offramp to Lee Street as part of the ongoing rebuild of the Thor/Freya couplet.

Spokane Falls Boulevard between Lincoln and Monroe streets will be closed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday as part of the reopening celebration of the Central Library downtown.

H Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues near the Indian Canyon Golf Course will close Monday through July 22 for extension of a water line.

The east curb lane of Browne Street will be closed between Main and Sprague avenues in downtown Spokane beginning Wednesday through July 21.

Work continues on the City Line rapid bus transit system. The north lane of First Avenue between Cedar and Adams streets is closed on the west end of downtown. The north lane of First Avenue between Madison and Monroe streets is also closed, as is the south lane of Sprague Avenue between Monroe and Madison. The south lane of Mission Avenue between Cook and Smith streets in the Chief Garry Park neighborhood is also closed.

A 12-block stretch of Ray Street between 17th and 29th avenues on the South Hill will be closed Wednesday for a water department project.

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