Spokane Journal of Business

Sales-tax hike could fund light-rail line

Official says local portion of $300 million project is easier to find than it seems

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A modest boost in the local sales-tax rate could raise enough money to pay the local share of a $300 million light-rail system here, but Spokane-area voters would have to approve the tax hike, an official here says.

The U.S. House of Representatives included preliminary approval of some $100 million in funding for such a system in its version of a major transportation-funding bill recently. Spokane should know by Memorial Day whether the project will remain in the final version of the bill, which could lead to a federal appropriation for such a system.

The project, however, still would need around another $200 million, about half of which could be expected to come from the state and half from local sources.

Glenn Miles, transportation manager at the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, says the money might be easier to raise than it seems. One funding plan that involves the proposed sales-tax increase already has been considered.

The Spokane Transit Authority has statutory authority to collect a sales tax of up to 0.6 percent for public transportation needs, and it currently collects only half that amount, Miles says. An additional 0.2 percent, levied over 20 years, would be enough to pay for the local portion of the project, he adds.

Raising the sales tax that STA collects, however, would require a public vote of residents within the transit authoritys boundaries.

If the local and federal funding portions were secured for the project, Miles says, the state could be expected to fall in line and cough up money from its high-capacity transportation account to fund the rest of the project. He contends that the state has a vested interest in seeing such a system built here.

There is certainly a state interest in retaining the viability of Interstate 90, Miles says. Without the addition of some high-capacity transportation improvements in the Valley to relieve growing congestion on I-90, the freeway will reach capacity quickly, causing serious traffic snarls, he says.As soon as 2005If the funding for a light-rail system comes together as envisioned, sleek, modern trains could whisk passengers between the Spokane Valley and downtown as early as the year 2005, Miles says.

This is an opportunity to do something in advance of major traffic gridlock, he says.

The trains would run for 16 miles between downtown and Liberty Lake, following a route that would include Riverside, Union Pacific Railroad right of way, and old Milwaukee Road right of way. As envisioned, the rail line would include major stops at Liberty Lake, University City, the Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds, and downtown.

Because most of the property needed for the project already is owned by the public, right-of-way costs would total only about $20 million, which is small for a major transportation project by todays standards, Miles says.

Eventually, the light-rail system possibly could be extended all the way between Spokane International Airport and Coeur dAlene, he adds.

A light-rail system here could do much more than help with traffic congestion, Miles says. Such a system could lessen air-pollution problems and lead to business development along the route.

County Commissioner Kate McCaslin said recently that Portland-area officials have determined that $2 billion in private sector investment has occurred along the light-rail corridor there. In Spokane, such a system would really change the face of what is there now, she said.

Officials here are optimistic that approval for the project will remain in the final version of the federal transportation bill. However, the Senate version didnt include the Spokane project. Miles says, though, that the Senate version didnt tick off any specific projects for any other area of the country.

  • Marlene Mehlhaff

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