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”
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.
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.
Lausanne, Switzerland, coupled with its environs, has a population of around 300,000. The city itself sits at 125,000. The Spokane metro area has a population of around 535,000. And about 210,000 reside in the city itself.
Lausanne in 2008 became the world’s smallest city with a full-fledged rapid transit system. It has two lines, 28 stations, and provides 41 million annual rides. In 2018, construction will conclude on the third line on the system.
Lausanne and Spokane are two cities separated by language, culture, urban form, and an ocean. But is there not something to be learned from our ambitious Swiss friend? No matter the doubts, we are not too small for great, world-class transit. Our revolution may not come in the form of a true metro, but it’s encouraging to see that at the very least, it’s possible. (Subway under the river, anyone?)
From 2000-2006, the Spokane area was deep in a planning process for future light rail transit (LRT) in the South Valley corridor from downtown to Liberty Lake along Riverside and Sprague, with future extensions possible to Spokane International Airport and Coeur d’Alene. STA commissioned study after independent study, all indicating that at $17 million per mile–the projected cost of the developed project–light rail would more than pay for itself, generating billions in economic development. And significantly, because the cost of such a proposal is likely to skyrocket in coming years as the region grows, it was discovered that the annual operating cost of the light rail system would be less than the annual growth in construction costs, were the project to be built at some point in the future, instead of now.
But then, in 2006, the project was ditched after a hastily-written advisory vote was placed on Spokane’s November ballot. Though the totals were close (52-48), STA and local leaders considered it a mandate against light rail.
Now, light rail as a proposal is back from the grave. The Inland Empire Rail Transit Association, or InlandRail, has shown its first concrete signs of life since 2011. The organization recently engaged in a billboard campaign, and a recent Spokesman-Review article noted the possibilities that LRT presents. There’s a renewed sense that light rail could be one solution in an overall package of transportation projects designed to plan for future growth in the area. Even STA has suggested light rail for the South Valley corridor. It’s clear that a new sense of optimism has developed surrounding transit projects in the area.
After the break, view more videos of the original light rail proposal.