After 10 years, Spokane looks toward major downtown plan update in 2018

Under the cover of Fast Forward Spokane was a relatively forward-thinking, future-focused plan document highlighting policies related to environmental sustainability, housing, land use, and various other areas. The plan is being revised in 2018. (PHOTO: Fast Forward Spokane Plan)

The Fast Forward Spokane plan was released at possibly the worst possible time. In November 2008, the housing market had already burst. Big banks were already well on their way to a major bailout. People were losing their jobs in record numbers. But even at the height of the Great Recession, Spokane was finalizing a significant and visionary update to its Downtown Plan.

That plan turns 10 years old next year.

To mark the occasion, city officials will be working with residents, businesses, community groups, and other stakeholders to revise the document with an eye toward the next 10 years of development. Naturally, there will be many opportunities for community and stakeholder engagement. To that end, until early January, we intend to take a deep dive each week into our hopes and policy desires for the 2018 update. And we want your feedback! Continue reading “After 10 years, Spokane looks toward major downtown plan update in 2018”

POST-MORTEM: Who killed Proposition 1?

Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail?
Proposition 1 would have provided millions of dollars in additional transit funding, including over 200,000 additional yearly hours of bus service. It seemed like a no-brainer. So why did it fail? (PHOTO: Yes for Buses)

Proposition 1 was a reasonable, balanced transit package that funded system improvements across the STA network. It eschewed big projects in favor of smaller-scaled, bus-centric investments, and it sunset after ten years in order to give voters a sense of accountability over the small 0.1% sales tax hike. So why did it fail? Several theories have been floated in the past few weeks, and I think that I might have a few answers.

THEORY #1: The “Yes” campaign did not sell the package strongly enough to people who don’t regularly use transit.

A former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa, famously remarked that “a developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

It’s clear that the “yes” campaign did not do a strong enough job of selling the measure to those who do not regularly use transit in the Spokane area. Instead, a large emphasis was placed on the “elderly, low-income, and disabled” riders who currently avail themselves of STA services. That’s great, and transit is certainly important for those groups. But what about everyone else? Certainly there would be benefits for everyone else?

Consider that perhaps advertising for the “yes” campaign should have emphasized that Proposition 1 would make transit available for more people, including the middle-class and wealthy, giving even those groups the ability to use transit. Perhaps ads should have focused on the traffic reductions that strong transit service can bring. Many drivers in Indian Trail, Five Mile, and the Moran Prairie have noticed wildly increased commute times, especially during the mornings, as new residential and commercial developments have been approved. Numerous WSDOT and federal studies have found that traffic congestion in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene metropolitan area is set to double by 2030 as the population grows and streets and freeways struggle to pick up the slack. Sell transit to traffic-minded drivers! Transit means reduced traffic congestion. Moreover, by connecting transit to the ongoing talks about urban expansion in the Spokane area, a better conversation would have been started about the issues that lead to traffic in the first place. All of these issues are connected, and it felt at times like the “Yes for Buses” campaign neglected to drive this narrative home with voters.

THEORY #2: The package was too timid, meaning that voters could not distinguish the difference between current STA service and promised future service under Proposition 1.

This certainly applies to some individuals who see the benefits of transit but did not see real improvements in the STA system. And this could be either a fault of the STA Moving Forward plan or a fault of the advertising in the Yes for Buses campaign. By the end of 2014, the original proposal for the Central City Line, a streetcar, had been scaled back to a battery electric bus, for example. Well, what’s the improvement in terms of comfort or service of a battery electric bus? Not much. Certainly the streetcar proposal would have had a greater “distinction” factor that would have clearly offered a contrast with existing service. Some have even called for a resurrection of the South Valley Corridor light rail plan. And overwhelming 2014 passage of the Riverfront Park Bond proves that area voters are willing to spend money on flagship projects.

On the other hand, perhaps voters simply didn’t see how the package would benefit them. What would the sales tax increase mean functionally for me as a young person, for example? Easy. New weekend bus service would allow a Gonzaga University student to catch a bus back to campus as late as 1am or 2am. That’s far cheaper than shelling out cash for a Lyft or Uber ride. And that’s just one example. We could also talk about a high-performance line on from South Regal to North Monroe or the West Plains Transit Center. Either one would have produced material benefits to riders, but they weren’t the focus of the “yes” campaign’s advertising.

THEORY #3: Uncertainty and misinformation from elected officials (especially David Condon and the Board of County Commissioners) and local media (especially the Spokesman-Review and local TV stations) contributed to lack of public understanding of the measure.

Finally, outside of the Spokane City Council, most area elected officials were lukewarm at best on the proposal. Al French of the Board of County Commissioners was famously in favor, but his compatriots were less sympathetic. Spokane Valley officials decried the proposal. And David Condon was absent from the debate altogether, which certainly should become a campaign issue this fall as he looks toward re-election.

In the media, the proposal faced sharply negative billing. The Cowles-owned Spokesman released a negative editorial, and KHQ started trashing/editorializing on the Central City Line almost a year before the package hit the ballot. Other news outlets were slightly less critical, but failed to properly print facts, often conflating the Central City Line with the larger Proposition 1 package, despite its relatively small $17 million appropriation as part of the measure. Sometimes the modern electric trolleybus or streetcar study renderings were used as part of reports, despite the fact that they had been eschewed in favor of the battery electric bus. One breathless KHQ report even called the Central City Line a “light rail” system. Of course, this attracted the ire of conservatives and confused even more independent-minded voters.

CONCLUSION

It is clear that Proposition 1 failed largely as a result of ineffective campaign tactics on the part of Yes for Buses, but also due to its confusing lack of distinction from existing service and an absence of support from more conservative elected officials and editorial boards. Hopefully the proposal can be resurrected in the future, perhaps as a Spokane-only package a la Seattle’s similar arrangement to essentially “purchase” bus service from King County Metro within its city limits. In the meantime, we await an appropriate solution.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What do you think caused Proposition 1 to fail at the polls in the Special Election? Are voters tax-weary? Was the package improperly or incorrectly sold to the public? Did lack of public official support create a vacuum for conservatives to pounce? We love to hear your thoughts. Be sure to share your ideas, thoughts, and concerns below in our comments section, on Twitter, on Facebook, or in person. We love to hear from you.

Stop Hyping/Trashing the Central City Line

In 2006, a study looked into the feasibility of a streetcar along a "center city" circulator route in downtown Spokane. Notably, the idea was found to be largely feasible. (PHOTO: nc3d.com)
In 2006, a study looked into the feasibility of a streetcar along a “center city” circulator route in downtown Spokane. Notably, the idea was found to be largely feasible. Unfortunately, Proposition 1 does not include this proposal. (PHOTO: nc3d.com)

There’s been a lot of controversy over the past week or so surrounding Proposition 1 and the Central City Line. The Spokesman-Review just yesterday wrote a frankly somewhat schizophrenic editorial urging voters to reject the funding package but support improvements in bus services. (This despite the fact that rejection of the package would result in massive service cuts.) While we don’t take positions on ballot measures, we can’t help but feel that most of the coverage surrounding the Central City Line has neglected or mischaracterized key details. Our primary point? The Central City Line is an improvement over existing service, but deserves neither hype nor criticism. While the CCL will certainly improve circulation, increase frequency, and solve criticisms of the STA Plaza, it is at its core a flawed, relatively timid proposal which will not generate a significant economic impact.

While conversations surrounding rail transit have been ongoing for years, what became the Central City Line began with the Spokane Streetcar Feasibility Study (PDF link). Published in 2006, the document was the result of a conversation between the City of Spokane, the Downtown Spokane Partnership, and the Spokane Transit Authority. While the proposal did find the possibility of a streetcar largely feasible and a possible incubator of $350 million in economic benefit, the Great Recession scuttled implementation plans for the $108 million (2005 dollars) system. Instead, the organizations commissioned a Central City Transit Alternatives Analysis. This study looked at three alternatives: the streetcar proposal, an electric trolleybus, and an enhanced bus. The Locally-Preferred Alternative (in other words, the idea which best balanced tradeoffs such as cost, routing, economic development impacts, etc.) was determined to be the modern electric trolleybus. See below for a photo and more…

Continue reading “Stop Hyping/Trashing the Central City Line”

Why not Streetcars?

Spokane’s streetcar grid was as extensive as any on the West Coast, and more extensive than some. It operated for years and years, but now is reduced to a mere memory…if that. (PDF: MetroSpokane)

Did you know that Spokane once hosted one of the most extensive streetcar systems west of the Mississippi? This graphic from MetroSpokane shows us just how extensive it was, extending all the way to 37th in the south and Francis in the north. And this was fifty, sixty, seventy years ago!

Imagine the possibilities of a revitalized streetcar line, even on just a few of these routes. Spokane Transit Authority is working on developing its high-performance transit network plan, but lamentably, the proposal will eschew streetcars in favor of electric trolleybuses in the Central City Line. Electric trolleybuses operate using overhead wires for electricity, but travel via wheels on pavement. On the other hand, streetcars require significant investment in rail placement in order to be effective. And that’s in addition to the wires, which are still required.

Complicating the matter further, the modern electric trolleybuses are not manufactured in the United States, which conflicts with federal “Buy American” standards. It could be years before European manufacturers ramp up a stateside production line, and by then we will have lost out on millions to billions of dollars in potential economic growth and investment related to these transit projects. Meanwhile, United Streetcar is manufacturing modern streetcars right here in the Northwest, in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, Oregon, and vehicular and transit use along the proposed Central City Line in Spokane continues to increase.

Perhaps it’s time we re-thought waiting. Who needs a modern electric trolleybus, anyway? They’re more unsightly (Seattle is thinking about removing theirs), they’re less exciting, and they don’t attract the same levels of transportation-oriented development investment. Let’s go big. Let’s be visionary. Let’s build a streetcar.

Shame on you, KHQ

A recognizable voice takes on a hostile inflection. Provocative questions are raised as questions appear on-screen. “More state funding is needed…but at what cost? And why does Spokane need this when STA routes are already in place?”

Barring the fallacious nature of that question (Who or what gives KHQ the authority to say that STA has sufficient route coverage? Isn’t that for STA and urban planners to decide?), it is clear the KHQ has overstepped its bounds with the promotion of this story. The role of the news media is to inform the public; not inform the public opinion. By taking a clearly anti-trolleybus stance in the run-up to Thursday, the station has chosen to pass judgment and deliberately influence the opinions of citizens. But their role as a news agency is not to tell viewers what is right or wrong. It is to tell viewers, clearly and precisely, the news. And only the news. Their job is to report, not to reflect.

Now, even if their main story finds that the trolleybus proposal is a good one that should be funded, a majority of their viewers, who do not watch KHQ Local News but do turn in for NBC primetime, will be under the impression that the plan is a bad one that should be tossed out. Simply because the promotional said as much.

We decry this shoddy communications tactic, and urge KHQ to make a full apology, post-haste. If you respect responsible journalism and envision a greater transportation future for Spokane than simply road improvements, we urge you to visit KHQ’s Facebook Page and leave a note in support of transit alternatives and opposing their ridiculous ad. And don’t forget to watch the story on Thursday and tell them what you think. The local media should not take sides in these critical debates about our city’s future. They should report the news. Only the news.

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