Spokane Journal of Business

Light rail spending to jump

’99 outlays may climb a lot; Liberty Lake-downtown line could be running by 2005

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The long-proposedand oft-dismissedidea of developing a light-rail system here is gathering momentum.

The amount to be spent next year on design, engineering, and right of way for the Spokane areas envisioned system is likely to jump to $5 million from $2 million earmarked already.

Also, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, the Spokane areas key transportation-planning agency, has set an aggressive schedule for seeking state appropriations to build the $300 million line. If the Spokane area is successful in obtaining those appropriationsand if Spokane County voters approve funding to pay for the local share of the projectlight rail could move forward quickly, says Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin.

If we got passage (by the voters), we could be riding it as early as 2006, perhaps sooner, McCaslin says. She says Spokane County residents could be asked to vote on such a measure as soon as next fall. Officials dont have formal plans for a ballot proposal yet, she says.

The project could pick up support from the business community because it would stimulate a lot more private-sector investment, McCaslin says. It would be very big dollarsand in a corridor that should be developed between Liberty Lake and downtown, she says.

SRTC Director Glenn Miles says a 1997 study projected that within 20 years after a new light-rail line opened between those two points, the private sector would invest $1 billion in new housing developments, businesses, and other facilities within a half-mile radius of three key rail stations along the route. That development would include a transit village and regional sports center near the Spokane County Fairgrounds, a University City town center, and another such center that would spring up at Liberty Lake.

Around the University City town center, the study forecasts that 2,300 residential units would be built if the light-rail project goes in, along with 231,000 square feet of new office space and 115,000 square feet of retail space.

Says McCaslin, I think it would be just a great thing for the community. Bus lines come and go, but light rail is permanent. The private sector is willing to make big investments where light rail goes.

In the Portland area, the private sector has invested more than $2 billion along the MAX light-rail system, McCaslin says. Those arent government figures; those figures are from U.S. Bancorp, she says.

The MAX was controversial, but its successful. Its packed, especially at rush hour. Light rail, she adds, is something that people will ride. People in this county are not going to ride the bus, but they will ride the train. Thats been shown elsewhere, too.

Though there have been questions about whether the Spokane area has enough population to warrant development of a light-rail line, Miles says two studies done for SRTC have concluded that ridership would be adequate to support such a line between downtown Spokane and Liberty Lake.

Oftentimes, people look at the metropolitan area and say, Its too small for light rail, Miles says. You have to look at the corridor it will serve. He says the confined, lateral development pattern of the Spokane Valley is the best kind of population dispersal for a light-rail system to serve.

Both Miles and McCaslin say a light-rail system wouldnt threaten major investments planned in roads and highways in Spokane County. We need to keep making investments in our roads, but when we do that, we dont take a single car off our roads, McCaslin says. Light rail is just a piece of the transportation puzzle, but it would take cars off our roads. We could build a new freeway out to Idaho, but in my opinion the day we cut the ribbon, it would be clogged.

The money for light rail comes from a different pot than funding for such projects as the north-south freeway, Valley couplet, and improvements to Interstate 90, Miles says.

The money (for light rail) cannot come from the gas tax, he says. It would most likely come from the motor vehicle tax, which is what funds mass transit in the state of Washington.

SRTC supports the north-south freeway, Valley couplet, and improvements to I-90, as well as light rail, Miles says. Successful metro areas have a multifaceted approach to solving transportation problems, he says. If we emphasize one form of transportation over another, we are selling ourselves short in terms of whats possible for our community.

Our board is very much in favor of six laning I-90 (by adding traffic lanes to each leg of the freeway) out through the Spokane Valley, Miles says. To add a fourth traffic lane to each side of the freeway, however, would be extremely costly, he says. Virtually every bridge on Interstate 90 would have to be reconstructed, because those bridges were built for a six-lane highway rather than an eight-lane one, Miles says. He adds, There is no silver bullet for I-90 congestion.

Initial evidence that light-rail funding was increasing came recently when the U.S. Congress appropriated $1 million for design and engineering expenses during 1999 on a Spokane-area light-rail system. The Spokane Transit Authority has set aside $1 million to buy right of way next year, and Miles says STA will put up an additional $1 million for design and engineering in 1999.

In January, SRTC will ask the Washington Legislature for an added $2 million for light-rail outlays. Miles expects SRTCs request to be approved because the money would come from the states high capacity transportation account, and the Spokane area is one of just three communities in the state that is eligible to receive funds from that account. The added state and STA outlays would bring 1999 spending on light-rail work to $5 millionup from just $400,000 this year.

SRTC, following up after reviews by Spokane County, the city of Spokane, smaller cities in the county, and business organizations, has just approved its new schedule of requests for state transportation appropriations. That schedule envisions annual state outlays of $20 million a year on light rail here from the year 2000 through 2004. Those state outlays would be matched by identical federal and local amountsbringing total spending for a light-rail system by the end of 2004 to $300 million, or enough money to build the line according to a 1997 estimate.

The county owns much of the right of way needed for such a line through its ownership of the old Milwaukee Road railroad corridor. That county-owned land has been dedicated for a major transportation corridor, making a light-rail project much more financially feasible than if right of way had to be acquired along the entire route, Miles says.

Obviously, the Spokane area still is a long way from having a light-rail project completely on track. For one thing, the project is expensive. Yet, Miles says that key federal transportation legislation passed by Congress earlier this year mentioned the Spokane light-rail project by name, increasing the chances that additional federal money will come.

Miles has said that the local share of the money could come from sales taxes that STA has been authorized by the Legislature to levy. STA can levy up to six-tenths of a cent in sales tax on each $1 in purchases here, he says. Its levying three-tenths of a cent now, but by adding two-tenths of a cent to its levy, it could raise over a 20-year period the $100 million needed to fund the local share of a light-rail system, Miles says. Such an increase requires voter approval.

I see (light rail) as an integral part of Spokanes future, Miles says. Spokane is where Seattle was from a congestion standpoint 15 years ago. Do we want to wait until we get there before we ask what to do?

  • Richard Ripley

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