The $15 million state portion of funding for the planned $72 million Central City Line is looking secure again, says Susan Meyer, CEO of the Spokane Transit Authority.
The recently enacted $16 billion state transportation bill that would provide local funding also contains language that would strip funding from certain public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle projects, should Gov. Jay Inslee enact new fuel and emissions standards through executive action—which he had said he was contemplating.
The Central City Line would be among projects that would lose a total of at least $700 million in funding through such action.
Meyer says she was encouraged by Inslee’s comments during a 14-party conference call Tuesday morning.
“The governor said it shouldn’t be an either/or question,” she says. “He shared with us that he has a plan to improve air quality and preserve funding for multimodal purposes and do it in a way that won’t trigger the poison pill provision in the transportation package.”
The Central City Line would be a six-mile, high-use route between Browne’s Addition on the west end and Spokane Community College on the east end, with downtown, Gonzaga University, and University District connections in between.
A nearly mile-long section between Post and Pine streets has yet to be finalized, but the eastbound portion of that part of the route likely will be on Main Avenue, and the westbound portion likely will be on Spokane Falls Boulevard, Meyer says.
“Riverside is probably off the table,” she says. Also to be determined is the north-south connection to the First and Sprague avenues portion of the route, perhaps at Wall or Howard streets, she says.
“There will be lots of outreach about it,” Meyer says.
Another $3.6 million of mostly state funds had been committed earlier to the project, which currently is in the design phase.
STA expects to apply for $53.4 million in Federal Transit Administration grant funding about a year from now, says Karl Otterstrom, STA planning director.
The FTA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, helps fund local transportation projects through direct funding and grants.
The project isn’t at a point yet where STA can begin to tap the $15 million earmarked in the state transportation package.
“We won’t see draws from the state until 2017, with construction starting sometime in 2018 and completion in 2020,” Otterstrom says.
Meyer says the state budget commitment would cover the local match and make the project more competitive in its application for federal grants to complete the funding package.
“The plan from the beginning was to seek the lion’s share from the FTA,” she says.
The FTA placed the Central City Line on its project-development list in late June, and the agency will be expecting the grant application, Meyer says.
“Project development is a higher level of relationship,” she says. “It’s a big milestone that says it’s officially in the pipeline and our name is on the list.”
The core of the route originally was conceived by stakeholders who supported the concept of an electric trolley-type street car route.
Upon further study, some of the infrastructure that would be required for a fully dedicated street-car line, such as rails and overhead catenary wires, would be cost prohibitive, Meyer says.
The current concept includes all-electric, articulated vehicles that would look more like electric trains than buses.
“It will have a street-car appearance but no rails,” she says. “It would include some attributes of a street car, such as off-board ticketing and level boarding.”
Those features would enhance speed in loading and offloading riders, resulting in shorter stops, Meyer says. “It cuts out quite a few minutes of travel.”
To qualify for federal grants, though, the vehicles would have to be made in the U.S.
Meyer says no American company currently makes such vehicles.
“The bus-manufacturing sector shrunk during the recession,” she says. “For the last three years, we’ve been working with the bus-manufacturing industry to determine whether there is a market for these vehicles.”
Meyer says STA envisions purchasing nine modern electric transit vehicles, called METs, at a projected cost of $1.2 million to $1.5 million each. A diesel bus, by comparison, costs $675,000.
While the 40- to 60-seat METs would cost more to purchase, they would cost less to operate than conventional buses, Meyer asserts.
The STA board also is investigating battery-charging technologies and looking at electric buses, she says.
The Spokane Regional Transportation Council projects nearly 900,000 riders would use the Central City Line annually, and STA estimates the annual operational cost for the Central City Line would be $4.1 million.
The SRTC is a federally designated metropolitan planning organization.
Otterstrom says an ideal project serves a ridership with as many interests as possible.
“People staying at hotels and going to basketball games don’t preclude Browne’s Addition residents going to Spokane Community College on the same route. The idea is to connect a population density with places people want to go.”
Meyer asserts the operational cost per rider would be in line with the median cost for all of STA’s 34 routes.
“We probably have as many routes that cost more than the Central City Line, than we have that cost the same or less,” she says.
She says STA will look at adjusting the frequency and operating hours for the route to reduce costs while staying within service requirements that would make the project eligible for the majority federal funding.
Lisa Brown, chancellor at Washington State University Spokane, says the Central City Line would provide easy and quick access to campus from surrounding neighborhoods.
“We’re very excited for our campus, because we’re not building dormitories on campus,” Brown says. “Students, staff, and faculty live in the community. Many live in close-in urban neighborhoods.”
WSU Spokane anticipates a total enrollment of 3,500 students this fall.
“That’s only going to grow when the medical school is up and running in August 2017,” Brown says.
The local-funding component for the Central City Line had been included in a larger STA ballot measure that voters rejected in April by a margin of less than 600 votes.
Meyer says she expects STA will put another ballot measure before the voters, although the STA board will go back to the drawing board to determine the scope and timing of the measure.
“We need to replace the bus fleet,” she says. “To pay for that over 10 years’ time requires additional sales tax.”
About 70 percent of STA’s operating funds comes through local sales tax of o.6 percent.
STA had sought to increase that to 0.9 percent on the April ballot measure.
Funding committed so far for a West Plains Transit Center that STA wants to develop wasn’t in jeopardy because it wasn’t subject to the poison pill in the transportation package, Meyer says.
That $13 million project currently is in the design phase.
The Washington state Department of Transportation had earlier awarded a mobility grant for the project that’s to be issued in two phases, with a $1.7 million first phase to be funded under the 2015-17 biennium and a $6.9 million under the 2017-2019 biennium.
The facility, which will be located southwest of the Medical Lake interchange on Interstate 90, will have a park-and-ride area. It will have a bus lane with a flyer stop in the median of the freeway, which riders will access via a pedestrian bridge.
Construction is expected to start in 2017.
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