Spokane Journal of Business

STA trolley proposal doesn’t track

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For years, lovable TV host Mr. Rogers would invite children to jump on board the trolley and go into the ‘land of make believe.’ The low-tech studio prop wasn’t six miles long and it didn’t cost taxpayers $72 million, but it was a journey full of valuable lessons.

Many Spokane residents may have experienced childhood flashbacks to those “beautiful days in the neighborhood” when Spokane Transit Authority officials recently announced plans for their own electric trolley. But even kindly Mr. Rogers would have trouble selling this proposal.

In a special election on April 28, voters in the STA service area (most of the populous portions of Spokane County) will decide whether to raise the sales tax rate from 8.7 percent to 9 percent—one of the highest figures in the state. If approved, the STA portion of the sales tax would jump 50 percent.

STA leaders say the “centerpiece” of their roughly $300 million tax plan is a $72 million, six-mile long electric trolley line. It’s also their most controversial proposal, and for good reason.

Officials want the electric trolley to run from Spokane Community College, through the Gonzaga and Riverpoint campuses, west through downtown to Browne’s Addition.

STA officials optimistically predict they will attract 880,000 riders per year. In addition to the expensive startup costs, the annual operating costs would be at least $4.1 million. That means taxpayers would be paying roughly $4.70 per electric trolley trip. The average STA bus costs taxpayers 20 percent less to operate.

Many of the trolley passengers would be former bus riders, meaning taxpayers would simply be paying more to move the same people.

Originally, officials wanted an electric trolley with overhead wires. But after public complaints, transit officials now say they want to either put electric charging pods into the pavement or use a claw arms atop the trolley to periodically grab power sources along the route.

Neither inductive bus system is currently made in the United States, which would make the Spokane trolley project ineligible to receive the federal money STA officials have promised.

Supporters also cheerfully claim the $72 million streetcar would lead to economic development. But experience tells us that is not likely to happen. 

In other cities that have built similar systems, local elected officials have had to make zoning changes and give away billions of tax dollars in incentives to spur development. Supporters admit the giveaways would be needed in Spokane as well. 

If there is a real transit need, STA officials could add more buses along the proposed trolley route. Or they could build a less-expensive Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, in place in other Northwest cities such as Eugene and Everett. Those systems were built for roughly $25 million to $30 million each.

Spokane taxpayers are already generous in the amount of money they give to STA. The transit authority receives more public tax revenue than the Spokane police or fire departments.

So why spend $72 million for so little benefit? STA officials have said it’s because the system would have a “coolness factor.” 

The goal of public transit is to move people from point A to point B as efficiently and safely as possible. The proposed electric trolley would give Spokane a super-high sales tax and do nothing more than add to our transit costs with no improvement in service. 

All the rosy promises to the contrary are truly a journey into the “land of make believe.”

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director of the Washington Policy Center, an independent organization with offices in Spokane.

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