Unless we take action to improve transit now, 2040 in Spokane will be like 2015 in Seattle

In 2006, true light rail was on the agenda for the South Valley Corridor from Spokane Valley to Liberty Lake. It would have decreased travel times, lessoned traffic, and spurred development. It’s time to resurrect the idea, along with others. (PHOTO: David Evans and Associates)

It’s time for some cold, hard facts.

Spokane is growing. By 2040, the region will have added roughly 165,000 people. In other words, by 2040, the population of Spokane County will surpass 625,000. That’s not an insignificant number. In fact, that would put Spokane County at roughly the same size as the City of Portland. Consider the implications of such growth. More kids in schools. More homes and apartments in development (70,000 more units). More jobs and centers of employment (68,000 more jobs). And more cars on the road.

Already we’re seeing the start of this wave of increasing traffic. Consider South Regal on a weekday morning, where the prospect of three new big-box stores is already complicating rush-hour commutes. Consider Five Mile or Country Homes, where traffic has increased and neighborhoods have grown by orders of magnitude without any semblance of mitigation. Consider Hamilton on any weekday afternoon, where an increase in student population is driving record traffic. Area drivers are complaining of increased commute times and lost patience. This traffic costs us precious dollars. The increased load weighs heavily on our streets, which must be more frequently resurfaced. The increased pollution caused by idling in traffic harms our environment. Perhaps most importantly, the lost working hours cost us millions of dollars every year in lost productivity. And there’s no sign of relief.

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Spokane-area light rail lives?

From 2000-2006, the Spokane area was deep in a planning process for future light rail transit (LRT) in the South Valley corridor from downtown to Liberty Lake along Riverside and Sprague, with future extensions possible to Spokane International Airport and Coeur d’Alene. STA commissioned study after independent study, all indicating that at $17 million per mile–the projected cost of the developed project–light rail would more than pay for itself, generating billions in economic development. And significantly, because the cost of such a proposal is likely to skyrocket in coming years as the region grows, it was discovered that the annual operating cost of the light rail system would be less than the annual growth in construction costs, were the project to be built at some point in the future, instead of now.

But then, in 2006, the project was ditched after a hastily-written advisory vote was placed on Spokane’s November ballot. Though the totals were close (52-48), STA and local leaders considered it a mandate against light rail.

Now, light rail as a proposal is back from the grave. The Inland Empire Rail Transit Association, or InlandRail, has shown its first concrete signs of life since 2011. The organization recently engaged in a billboard campaign, and a recent Spokesman-Review article noted the possibilities that LRT presents. There’s a renewed sense that light rail could be one solution in an overall package of transportation projects designed to plan for future growth in the area. Even STA has suggested light rail for the South Valley corridor. It’s clear that a new sense of optimism has developed surrounding transit projects in the area.

After the break, view more videos of the original light rail proposal.

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