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…
You can see where we’re going here. The modern electric trolleybus was a significant downgrade compared to the streetcar proposal. Though the MET would require overhead wires, it would not have needed in-street rails. Thus, permanence would have been decreased, which would have limited the ability of the proposal to drive new economic development. But perhaps most tellingly, the preferred mode didn’t have a U.S. manufacturer. Due to protectionist “Buy American” clauses in federal transportation funding packages, that’s a big problem. E. Susan Meyer, the CEO of Spokane Transit, reportedly met with the leaders of transit infrastructure companies such as Van Hool, urging them to open American production lines.
Which leads us to today. In 2014, the local transit agency had just finished its major planning effort, STA Moving Forward, and it included the Central City Line. But still no manufacturer had opened a U.S. production line for a modern electric trolleybus. In addition, changes in the transit plan meant that Spokane Community College would be receiving a new, enhanced park-and-ride: the Upriver Transit Center (It’s included in Proposition 1). As such, the plan for the Central City Line was extended to the to-be-built center. But the extension was not included in the original studies of the corridor. And there still wasn’t a manufacturer.
All indications (see previous links) are that the modern electric trolleybus is dead. Instead, STA will pursue an enhanced electric bus with in-pavement inductive charging on the Central City Line. While the agency intends to run the system as a high-capacity line with high-frequency service, off-board ticketing, enhanced stations, and all-door boarding, it no longer has the distinction factor of a streetcar or even a modern electric trolleybus. It’s an improvement over existing service. But it’s not a distinctive new service. And it’s not even a large part of the STA Moving Forward plan anymore. Where previously STA anticipated asking voters for nearly $100 million for a streetcar, the $200 million, 10-year Proposition 1 includes only $17 million for the Central City Line. The remainder of the total cost of roughly $70 million will come from a Federal Transit Administration “Small Starts” grant.
The CCL is not a game-changer for Spokane. So stop talking like it is. It’s an improvement over existing service, to be sure; it will be great to have higher-frequency service, off-board ticketing, super-nice stations, and boarding at both doors. But it’s not a streetcar. It’s not a modern electric trolleybus. It’s not a bold vision for the future of our region. It’s more of a gradual evolution of the standard bus, a sort of beta test for a relatively unproven new technology. And it’s a cheap one at that. At only $17 million, the CCL is a steal. It hardly deserves criticism for cost, such as that advanced by the conservative Washington Policy Center.
Perhaps all of our buses will one day be electric. And perhaps one day our leaders will develop the chutzpah to send to voters a true, bold, and visionary transportation package featuring a real streetcar and light rail.
What do you think? Are you in favor of Proposition 1? Why or why not? Do you lament the watering-down of the Central City Line? Previous plans included a streetcar proposal and a modern electric trolleybus proposal. Is the STA moving in the right direction, asking the right questions? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Facebook, Twitter, or in person. We love to hear from you.