by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & pokane Transit expects to decide by February whether its Plaza, the Taj Mahal of bus stops, as some have called it, will continue to serve bus riders or be sold.

The $20 million building has been called many things since it opened in 1995: too ornate, poorly planned, a bad neighbor, well-located, safe and convenient. Transit officials have added a new descriptor: too small, which has them considering whether to find a new downtown home.

"The Plaza doesn't have the capacity to meet the agency's current or future needs," said Paul Jewel from Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, a San Francisco firm that's preparing STA's new Transit 2020 study. The 10 bus bays next to the building aren't enough, he says. "Buses have to lay over in other locations" a block or two away from the Plaza to pick up passengers.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ast week Jewel outlined for the transit board five options he says would allow the agency to provide adequate service for the next 10 to 20 years. One calls for STA to remodel the Plaza to add two bus bays. A second would have STA sell the Plaza and move its central downtown location to a yet-to-be-built covered outdoor facility in the parking lot of the Intermodal Center, about six blocks to the southeast, the hub for Amtrak train and Greyhound bus service. A third option would have STA sell the Plaza, but keep two smaller edge-of-downtown hubs, perhaps one at the Intermodal Center and one at the County Courthouse. In the fourth option STA would adopt a new downtown "grid" system that would mean more frequent bus service, several "super stops" and no need for a downtown center. The final option would have the agency sell the Plaza and create a downtown transit mall, perhaps on Riverside Avenue.

"That's the reason why we built the Plaza in the first place," said STA board member Dick Denenny, a Spokane Valley councilman, "to keep buses from stopping all over the place."

The transit mall idea was immediately scrapped. So was the downtown "grid" system, which was deemed too expensive.

Ultimately the board chose to have the agency study the improved Plaza, the Intermodal Center and the dual hub system. Denenny and Rich Munson, a fellow Spokane Valley councilman, argued the hub system might allow people who want to bypass downtown to quickly transfer to the bus they need, reducing their chances of a layover. "I know a lot of people who don't ride because they don't want to go downtown," said Munson.

"The current system forces you to go downtown," added Denenny. "If we didn't require them to go through the Plaza, don't you think more people would use the system?"

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & J & lt;/span & ewel said reconfiguring the Plaza would be the least expensive ($1 million to $1.5 million) and fastest-to-accomplish (about a year) option, with no added operating costs. Bus service wouldn't change. In that proposal, STA would eliminate the smoking area on the east side of the building, along the Wall Street mall, and add two (or even three) bus bays. It would move its customer service desk from the second floor to street level, add bathrooms to the street level and reconfigure the first floor waiting areas. It would also put up more arrival-time display boards and cameras inside so that passengers could keep an eye on their bus stops without having to go outside.

The one negative of that proposal, said Jewel, is that it's a temporary solution. "We think it will only keep the Plaza viable for another five to seven years," he said.

Moving the Plaza's operations to the Intermodal Center would cost STA $3 million to $3.5 million for the capital costs of building a new covered facility, Jewel estimated. He also projected the agency would spend another $640,000 each year to realign its bus routes and to run a basic shuttle service to take passengers from the new edge-of-downtown center to stops in the center of the core. Jewel said STA would gain space for buses, but not a lot. He estimated it would take three to five years to prepare the new site.

The third option, running two smaller downtown hubs, Jewel said, would be the most expensive, about $4 million plus the cost of buying land for the new centers. And he said the agency would spend an extra $1.1 million a year to run the two sites. "Operationally it would be difficult to keep the two in sync," said Jewel.

But Rich Munson wanted to keep that option under consideration, at least for now. "I want to know the costs of a system that might allow us to avoid moving people through downtown," he said. And even though renovating the Plaza might make the most fiscal sense, Munson wasn't ready to embrace that option. "It doesn't give us a return on our investment," he said. Besides, he said, "the Plaza was overpriced and poorly planned."

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & ransit officials will study the three proposals this fall, handing their results to the transit board in December. The agency will put the options before the public in January and February and the board will choose one at its February meeting.

The Plaza decision is only one part of STA's systemwide Transit 2020 plan, which the board is due to adopt late next spring. Officials say they also plan to ask voters in May to re-authorize part of the sales tax that funds transit operations.

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