As part of the Downtown Plan update due this year, the City of Spokane has contracted with Nelson\Nygaard to conduct a comprehensive study of parking options and usability in downtown Spokane and the University District, evaluating at a deep level how people travel downtown, the incentives they receive or don’t receive, and potential future improvements to the user experience. The survey is now live, and we encourage readers to take it.
If you live in the Spokane area, Proposition 1 is the most important measure on your ballot this year. By funding the STA Moving Forward plan, the measure will expand regional transit services by adding the first high-frequency bus rapid transit routes, several new transit centers, and late-night service on multiple lines. In addition, it will provide the necessary funding to maintain existing service levels. But lost in the noise has been an honest conversation about what exactly the measure will do. So let’s break it down.
It’s time for some cold, hard facts.
Spokane is growing. By 2040, the region will have added roughly 165,000 people. In other words, by 2040, the population of Spokane County will surpass 625,000. That’s not an insignificant number. In fact, that would put Spokane County at roughly the same size as the City of Portland. Consider the implications of such growth. More kids in schools. More homes and apartments in development (70,000 more units). More jobs and centers of employment (68,000 more jobs). And more cars on the road.
Already we’re seeing the start of this wave of increasing traffic. Consider South Regal on a weekday morning, where the prospect of three new big-box stores is already complicating rush-hour commutes. Consider Five Mile or Country Homes, where traffic has increased and neighborhoods have grown by orders of magnitude without any semblance of mitigation. Consider Hamilton on any weekday afternoon, where an increase in student population is driving record traffic. Area drivers are complaining of increased commute times and lost patience. This traffic costs us precious dollars. The increased load weighs heavily on our streets, which must be more frequently resurfaced. The increased pollution caused by idling in traffic harms our environment. Perhaps most importantly, the lost working hours cost us millions of dollars every year in lost productivity. And there’s no sign of relief.
Back in November, a Spokane Valley dentist and developer, proposed a $50 million, 35-story high-rise at the corner of Division and Spokane Falls Boulevard in downtown Spokane. Many believed the proposal to be unlikely to ever come to fruition. But now, the lot at 230 N Division has resurfaced in a new proposal.
Lanzce Douglass has submitted an application to Spokane Development and Planning Services for a Pre-Development Conference on the proposal, which would construct a 26-story building which he calls “The Falls Tower.” It is unknown whether Philip Rudy, the dentist, is still involved. The new mixed-use high-rise would include 15,978 square feet of retail on the first floor, followed by about two dozen floors of apartments. That’s around 200 units (studios, one-bedrooms, and two-bedrooms). A six-story parking garage would also be constructed. In total, 26 floors would be constructed. Note the slightly more varied architectural style from Spokane’s most recent project, the Davenport Grand Hotel. Still, windows seem to follow a relatively generic form and minimal balconies or interesting architectural treatments are included.
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.
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.
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…
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.