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…

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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.