Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane Transit Authority projects set to begin soon

Consultants review the Central City Line

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
Spokane Transit Authority spokesman Brandon Rapez-Betty says STA plans to buy more buses that are similar to, but larger than, the NewFlyer electric bus parked behind him.

Spokane Transit Authority has big plans ahead, as it begins some of the first projects from its 10-year-long Moving Forward plan this spring.

In last November’s general election, voters approved STA’s Proposition 1 to fund 25 projects designed to maintain, improve, and expand public transit as the region grows. 

Prop. 1 creates a tenth-of-a-penny sales tax increase within the STA ridership area next month, and a second tenth of a penny increase starting in April 2019, with both taxes running through 2028. 

Revenues from the increase will go toward funding the projects included in the STA Moving Forward plan, with the first projects and services funded through the tax increase set to start in May and September.

STA spokesman Brandon Rapez-Betty says STA has several new services set to begin in May, including new service on east Indiana and east Broadway avenues in Spokane Valley, more frequent weekend service on Wellesley Avenue, more frequent weekend service in Airway Heights; and later night service on Saturdays. 

Additional services set to begin this September include the first phase of the High Performance Transit (HPT) “Lite” line along Interstate 90 between Spokane and Liberty Lake, the first phase of an HPT “Lite” line on north Division Street, and added Sunday service on north Nevada Street. The plan also calls for improved reliability for bus service on Division and Sprague Avenue.

Rapez-Betty says High Performance Transit “Lite” means that a route will be provided some enhancements that improve the overall transit experience, but further features night not be added until additional funding sources, such as grants, are secured.

 “Various high performance routes will see different improvements depending on their specific needs,” he says. “Some routes will see higher frequencies, some will see larger vehicles with more capacity, and some will see more passenger amenities like shelters or improved sidewalks for access.” 

Earlier this month, two consultants from Cardinal Infrastructure LLC visited STA to discuss its application for a Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant, which is expected to help fund one of the STA’s largest projects, the Central City Line. 

Cardinal Infrastructure is a Washington D.C.-based transportation consulting firm, created last year by former Federal Transit Administration acting administrator Sherry E. Little, former FTA chief counsel Severn E. S. Miller, and long-time transportation advocate Anja Graves. 

Little and Miller, who’ve been advising STA for several years now, visited STA officials to talk about how to make the Spokane transit system more efficient and to provide an independent review of its Small Starts grant application. 

“Although there are 25 planned projects in the Moving Forward plan, the Central City Line is perhaps the one we’ve been helping STA work on the longest,” says Little.

Central City Line is planned to be a six-mile bus route between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College, which would connect through downtown, the University District, and Gonzaga University. 

Vehicles along the route would be rubber-tired and battery-powered buses with zero emissions.

“The FTA has the largest discretionary funding outside the Department of Defense,” Little says. “Having the referendum pass last fall was a big thing. It shows the FTA that STA has learned from the previous referendum’s failure, made changes, and gained the community’s support for the project.”

STA data shows that Prop. 1 was approved by a majority of voters in each of seven cities within its public transportation benefit area, as well as in the unincorporated areas of Spokane County. A 2015 ballot measure failed to pass by less than 600 votes. 

To qualify for Small Start grant funding, Little says, the Central City Line project has to meet certain criteria, including providing mobility improvements, environmental benefits, traffic-congestion relief, economic development benefits, and land-use potential, and garnering local funding support.

Rapez-Betty says the Central City Line project will cost an estimated $72 million to complete. So far, STA has obtained $15 million in committed Connecting Washington Funds, and $3.57 million in committed state and federal funds toward the project.

Local funding from the tax increase would be used only to pay for the operating costs of the Central City Line, including plans for additional park-and-ride facilities, improved routes, longer bus hours, and greater weekend service. 

Rapez-Betty says STA plans to apply for the remaining 75 percent of the project’s needed funding, $53.4 million, through the FTA’s capital investment grant program. STA plans to apply for a Small Starts Grant through the program, which provides funding for projects in small to mid-sized cities.

STA CEO Susan Meyer says there was some concern that the capital investment grant program might face funding cuts, following President Trump’s announcement of his first proposed budget. 

While the President’s budget proposal for 2018 does call for increased defense spending, offset by cuts to nondefense areas, Meyer says STA is reasonably confident the capital investment grant program won’t be cut entirely.

“The program has never been entirely zeroed out by an administration,” she says. “The money has fluctuated, but always remained available in some amount for important transit infrastructure. The President has prioritized infrastructure, and we believe transit falls within that category.” 

So far, Meyer says, STA still plans to submit its Small Start’s grant application for rating in April, and expects to receive high enough ratings to meet funding requirements. 

STA will then submit its full application before the deadline in September, and if approved, the Central City Line project could begin construction as early as 2019, with the completed line opening for service by 2021.

“There is nothing we know now that makes us think we should change course, but STA will watch really closely as the budget process unfolds,” says Meyer.  

According to Little, STA’s grant application looks promising so far, with the project being scaled appropriately and designed well. 

“We didn’t see a whole lot of surprises on the application,” she says. “There are a lot of reasons to be encouraged, especially since STA is in very good financial condition, with no debt. The initial project idea was too ambitious, but with this plan STA has helped provide a product that will meet the city’s needs at a lower price, and that provides more flexibility than an in-the-ground rail system.”

She adds that STA has done additional research to ensure a good project, including an independent cost assessment, and two studies designed to help determine ways in which STA can help incentivize urban development along the city-line route.

Although the city line project had been initially conceived as a streetcar route, Meyer says the city wanted something quieter, and more environmentally friendly, at less cost. 

“The Central City Line is what’s called a bus rapid transit project,” she says. “It provides the same frequency, speed, and amenities of a streetcar at one third of the cost. Electric buses also are more affordable to maintain, with greater flexibility of movement, as they’re not connected to any sort of track.”

Meyer says regular, non-electric STA buses might be converted to electric over time because of lower operating costs, lower maintenance costs, and lower fuel prices.  

“The only barrier to that right now is the cost of new technology,” she says. “Eventually, battery technology will progress to the point that in-route charging stations won’t be necessary, and that will help lower capital costs.”

During their visit, the two consultants were able to take a ride on a 40-foot-long, NewFlyer electric bus, similar in appearance to the 60-foot-long models planned for the Central City Line.

Meyer says a total of 10 vehicles will be purchased as a part of the Central City Line project, eight of which will run during peak hours to provide 7 1/2-minute time periods between buses traveling on the same route. The other two vehicles will rotate in and out of service as maintenance and other circumstances dictate.

Meyer says new Central City Line stations will feature pre-board ticketing kiosks so riders can pay for their ticket prior to boarding. Riders then can enter through any of the bus’s three doors, and each bus interior has room to accommodate bikes or other mobility devices.  

She says those features, along with higher rider capacity, higher frequency, and signal prioritization at key intersections, are expected to combine to attract riders and mitigate traffic congestion.

 “This setup will minimize loading times, meaning faster connections and shorter travel times,” Meyer says. “Stations will also be transparent, so as not to hide surrounding businesses.” 

She adds that the Central City Line project isn’t expected to require much additional road work, although $7.8 million is expected to go toward road and sidewalk improvements along the city-line route. 

Overall, Little says she and her fellow consultants feel STA is ahead of other transit systems nationally, not only because of its financial stability, but also due to its efforts to keep current transit operations running effectively.

Recent updates made by the STA include replacing several older buses with new, more fuel-efficient models, providing extended weekend hours for certain routes, and adding real-time route information features via text, online, and reader boards at several park-and-ride locations. 

“Some of the trends we’re seeing in the transit industry include an increased emphasis on maintaining and repairing current transit systems, as well as higher demand for both new technology that provides real-time information, and additional transportation options,” says Little. 

She says the millennial generation in particular is more interested in saving on parking and insurance costs by choosing not to own a car. 

“That’s created a kind of positive pressure to provide multiple transport options, with reliable, tech-savvy, up-to-date route information,” she says.

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken is the most recent addition to the Journal's news team. A poet, cat lover and antique enthusiast, LeAnn is also an Eastern Washington University alum.

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