STA’s Latest Shenanigans

Full disclosure: I (Dick Raymond) am not a fan of STA. First, as the City of Spokane’s representative on the Technical Advisory Committee (to STA’s Light Rail Steering Committee) during the very exhaustive and comprehensive study that concluded light rail transit, along what was called the south valley corridor would be a desirable and feasible regional alternative providing not only long term transportation/transit benefits, but also very significant and positive near and long-term economic development impacts; Second, as a concerned citizen.

So, why the attitude? I am, to say the least, nonplused that after the change in STA leadership late into the study, emphasis at the highest level suddenly changed from “how might this vision be accomplished?” to “how can this whole thing be scuttled?” This ultimately culminated in a vote by the STA Board to set aside the project and disband the Light Rail Steering Committee, thus putting the kibosh on any further development.

This cancellation was after spending $8 million on the study. Eight million bucks down the drain! I wonder how those who worked so hard to obtain the federal grant in the first place feel after that, let alone the feds themselves? The sorry history of this entire ordeal is fully documented on the Inland Empire Rail Transit Association’s (InlandRail) website at http://www.inlandrail.org. You are encouraged to check it out, particularly the Editorial Page.

One of the things that came out of the original study was the reality of a phenomenon commonly referred to as rail bias, something that until very recently STA refused to acknowledge, but that even the Federal Transit Administration now recognizes as a considering factor when evaluating New/Small Start transit projects for funding assistance—it didn’t back when the original study was performed. In fact, rail bias significantly bolsters and sustains another phenomenon called transit oriented development (TOD). More commonly, TOD occurs around light rail transit nodes (stations), largely because developers are not unwilling to invest significant sums, comfortable in the knowledge that the permanence provided by the light rail transit infrastructure effectively inhibits future moves; bus routes can be modified at a moment’s notice—light rail trackage cannot.

Early on, STA would have us think that rail bias is a figment of everyone’s imagination, and that busses are really the way to go. After all, that’s what they do—busses. Notably, STA’s (at least, public) party line has evolved since shelving the original study and effort. Now, they acknowledge the reality of rail bias, even embracing it. Even Mark Richard, part of the “not now” movement used to try to kill light rail in the first place was quoted in a September 26, 2013 Inlander article entitled Streetcar Desired as saying “…there’s an argument to be made that a fixed route could provide ‘certainty to the private sector.’” In the same article, STA CEO E. Susan Meyer was also interviewed: “If the Central City Line was just another bus route configuration, STA CEO E. Susan Meyer says, it’s doubtful it would transform the city economically. ‘There is a sense that a transit route could be relocated,’ Meyer says, drawing from feedback from local businesses. But a fixed system, with clear infrastructure? She’s seen how other communities throughout the country have seen development spring up around trolley lines and light rail tracks.”

Laughably—or, pathetically depending on your mindset—the Inlander article continued with another Meyer quote: “What I heard from the business community in 2010 is that it [STA’s proposed trolley for the envisioned Central City Line] needs to look electric, because that’s the future. And it needs to not look like a bus. It’s time to look like a train.” The article continued, “Trains are cool. There are people who will take a train or a streetcar, she says, who would never set foot on an STA bus.”

Interestingly, the photo used in the Inlander article shows a trolley bus used in Van Hool’s EquiCity line, currently in use in Parma, Italy—that has special wheel skirts, presumably to hide the vehicle’s rubber tires. States the article: “She [Meyer] carries a picture of that modern electric trolley on her iPad wherever she goes, showing it to key industry figures. ‘I’m an evangelist now,’ Meyer says.”

Wheel skirts. Right.

STA’s current utterances sound oddly like the bold statements the Light Rail Steering Committee was making to STA nearly ten years ago, which statements were inelegantly disregarded and ultimately discarded as being nonsense. No kidding—it felt as though the Light Rail Steering Committee was considered by STA as blasphemous in espousing a non-rubber-tired transit mode for the Spokane region. Rails? Bah! Humbug!

As part of the aforementioned Central City Line/Modern trolley initiative, STA was proposing the use of overhead electrical catenaries as a way to instill a sense of permanence, as to promote TOD. The Inlander article noted, “The single-articulated vehicles would run on [rubber-tired] wheels with an electric line running overhead instead of traditional street-car rails. They would be able to swing to a different lane while connected to the trolley wire, or disconnect entirely [emphasis added].”

The ability to disconnect and travel independently from the overhead electric catenary by definition renders STA’s proposal non-permanent. Nonetheless, the InlandRail group embraced the initiative—albeit somewhat tepidly—as at least one way of introducing the public to (quasi) non-bus transit. Plus, overhead catenaries were at least a step in the right direction toward permanence.

Recently, STA has called for another public hearing “…concerning the proposal to extend the Central City Line Locally Preferred alignment to Spokane Community College and to further evaluate other electrification options.” The announcement continues:

The original cost estimates were useful for comparing between modes but in the case each of the three modes (enhanced bus, modern electric trolley, streetcar) the estimates were too low, not accounting for risk and not matching newer construction costs experienced elsewhere. As for the second finding, this meant that while building the Modern Electric Trolley was still significantly less than a streetcar, new cost estimates are about twice as much as the 2011 estimates. Besides under-accounting for risk, the electric trolley overhead systems have increased in cost by a large factor.

For this reason, STA, with support from major partners, is looking to address electrification and permanence of the project with a different approach. Battery and battery charging technology is advancing in such a way as to make the operation of a 60’ vehicle for up to 20 hours a day a feasible consideration by 2020 when the project is anticipated to go into service. Meanwhile, a portion of the savings from the omitting the overhead wires and distribution systems can be applied to improving the streetscape along major portions of the alignment, especially in the downtown core, providing permanence and enhancements to the built environment [emphasis added] that can be enjoyed by everyone.

It would now appear that permanence can be effected by providing streetscape enhancements. Really? It would be great to hear from real developers—people with skin in the game—regarding that one. Cost estimates too low? This seems eerily like STA’s downtown bus plaza episode. Not a great track record.

So, what to do? I’d be lying if I said I knew. I guess we can make ourselves heard—try to keep STA “honest”. After all, when combining the $3 million mentioned in the Inlander article with the original $8 million light rail transit study, STA’s total transit study efforts to date are somewhere north of $11 million.

I wonder how and when they’ll decide to scrap this effort, too.

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