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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bus rapid transit, possible acceleration of North Spokane Corridor funded in legislative transportation package

A passenger boards a Spokane Transit Authority bus in August 2020 at the STA Plaza in downtown Spokane.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – Legislative Democrats revealed their final proposal for a 16-year, $17 billion transportation package that would fund transit, maintenance, a number of new projects in Spokane and possibly speed up completion of the North Spokane Corridor.

The proposal faced criticism in recent weeks after neighboring states opposed a proposed 6-cent tax on fuel produced in Washington and exported to other states. That tax has since been removed from the proposal and replaced with other state funds.

The proposal must pass the Legislature by Thursday, the end of the session.

In Spokane County, the package means $50 million to start work on a bus rapid transit line on Division Street, $4 million for the design of a land bridge over Interstate 90 connecting to Liberty Park, and funding for a number of bicycle and pedestrian projects in Spokane.

With these new projects, Spokane Democrat Rep. Marcus Riccelli said it’s time for Spokane to embrace transit and all of its benefits.

“Spokane is the second largest city in the state,” Riccelli said. “We need to have a transit system that works for our community.”

The bus rapid transit line on Division Street will add stations every half-mile, with buses stopping every seven-and-a-half minutes. The route is currently in the planning phase, with engineering and environmental 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.

The project will coincide with the completion of the North Spokane Corridor, Riccelli said. As traffic leaves Division Street, more room can be made available for transit.

The proposal also includes enough funding to accelerate the construction of the North Spokane Corridor by 18 months. The corridor is currently set to be completed in 2029.

While the funding is there to accelerate it, Riccelli said how quickly construction ends will depend on the workforce and if there are enough people who can work to finish it in time.

“It won’t be for a lack of dollars,” said House transportation chair Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma.

The package also has $1.5 million to help fund a railroad freight loading facility at the Spokane International Airport.

The package does not use a gas tax to fund it, something Democrats said they wanted to avoid as the state continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it uses more than $5 billion from the cap-and-trade plan, which puts a cap on emissions for the largest polluters in the state. Under the plan, the state keeps the revenue from allowances purchased by polluters that cannot clean up their work to meet the cap. It’s also funded with infrastructure funds and general fund money.

To make up for the $2 billion lost from the export fuel tax, the package will take additional money from the state operating budget, as well as the Public Works Account.

The package also uses increases in fees. For example, the stolen vehicle check fee that applicants pay when registering a car in Washington from another state will be increased by $15 to $50 beginning July 1 and to $75 to July 1, 2026. The enhanced driver’s license fee will also increase by $24 to $42 for a six-year license and to $56 for an eight-year license, beginning Oct. 1.

Republicans criticized those increases. Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he couldn’t support the fee increases. With so much additional revenue coming into the state general fund, King and other Republicans have called for transfers of one-time funds from the operating budget to pay for these proposals instead.

About $3 billion of the funding will go to preserving and maintaining existing roads. Another $2.5 billion will go to replacing culverts across the state. More than $1 billion will go to the state ferry system, and another $1 billion will go to the Interstate 5 Columbia River bridge between Washington and Oregon. About $3 billion will go to new transit programs and projects.

Because so much of the funding is tied to the cap-and-trade program, Fey said it was important that the revenue went toward transit as opposed to building new roads. This package funds fewer new projects than previous transportation packages.

It’s also difficult to know yet how the demands for transportation will change as more people choose to work from home, Fey said. It’s hard to add new lanes and interchanges when they don’t know how many people will use them.

Republicans criticized the package, saying they did not have any input. The final package does not include any bonding, which would require a two-thirds vote. Because of that, the Democratic-led Legislature does not need Republican votes to pass the package.

“There was absolutely no input from my side of the aisle,” King said. ”That in my opinion shortchanges the citizens of the state of Washington.”

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.