by Pia K. Hansen

Last week, Mayor John Powers donned a hardhat and went out to fix a couple of potholes. Campaigning on his behalf? Perhaps, but at the same time, a fitting image of how public officials, politicians and consultants have been tinkering with public transportation in this area over the past decades. A survey here, a survey there, a few bus routes changed, an unsuccessful ballot initiative -- and above all that, a light rail project that seems to not be going anywhere.

Well, here's the good news: the light rail project is neither derailed nor dead, as some have suggested lately.

And the bad news? Nobody knows when we'll see the first rails go in. It could be five years, 10 years or 15 years. Or, it could be never.

The biggest question, as always, is where the money for such a project is going to come from. So far, two projects have been on the table, one with a price tag of $608 million and another with projected costs of $377 million. Of those totals, the federal government is expected to pick up 60 percent and the state and local governments 20 percent each.

This is where the going gets really tough: The state is still dealing with a huge deficit, the local economy is not exactly booming and, on the federal level, the government has been real busy spending money overseas. And the latest news from Washington, D.C., is that light rail projects may end up getting only 50 percent federal funding, with the last half being split evenly between states and local governments. It's beginning to look as if rebuilding the infrastructure in Iraq is higher on the list of priorities than building any here in Spokane.

"The question of how the federal government prioritizes its money was very clear when we were back in Washington, D.C.," says Phyllis Holmes, former city councilwoman and chair of the Light Rail Steering Committee.

But the federal government has not pulled the rug from underneath Spokane's light rail project, as has been suggested by some.

"The federal government hasn't denied us any funding yet," says Al French, city councilman and chair of the Spokane Transit Authority Task Force. "Why is that so? Because we haven't submitted anything yet. Some have indicated that we already know that the project is never going to happen, but that is not correct."

The talk about derailment no doubt stems from a recent drop in projected ridership. Daily ridership in a future light rail line was estimated at around 15,000, but it has dropped to 5,000. How did Spokane suddenly lose 10,000 potential mass transit users?

French says that the drop was caused by the federal government, when it changed the rules for how it makes such estimates. Today, when trying to find out how many people would ride light rail, STA can only survey people who already use public transportation; it can't survey people who don't already use mass transit. With a single keystroke in a spreadsheet, federal transportation officials pushed dozens of light rail projects across the nation to the brink of elimination.

"I'm not saying it makes a lot of sense. Everyone knows there is a light rail preference. People who would never ride a bus will ride a train. Everyone knows that," says French. "But now the Federal Transportation Authority says that we can't take that preference into our calculations. Applying for federal funds is a dynamic process. What can I say? The rules have changed."

Money, Money, Money... -- Millions have already been spent on studying the light rail project, most of that amount funded by federal grants. And when it comes to finding the local funding for actually building the light rail, there are several options: an increase in sales tax, earmarked for the project, or funding by levies or bonds.

It helps the Spokane project that most of the right-of-way is secured, if the first line is built as proposed between downtown Spokane and Liberty Lake.

"We have it, but not in totality," says Holmes. "The part we need to buy could be funded by a sales tax of 9/10 of a percent -- that's our maximum. But if the local share exceeds your taxing authority, then you are too late -- it becomes too expensive."

There is no estimate as to how much it would cost to secure the rest of the right-of-way.

"No one really wants to put a number on that," says Holmes. "It's like a dance you do with developers and the people who own the land. Think of the added value of land use that would develop around a rail line. It's too early to put a number on that."

Even if local sources are faced with having to pay 25 percent of the entire cost of the project, it can be completed.

"What I'd say is there is no way it can be done without federal funding," says Richard Krochalis, the Federal Transit Administration's administrator for region 10, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. "Other projects have been done with 50-50 funding. There is a recent one in Portland, a new commuter rail line that will hook into the light rail system, for instance."

He says the idea of 50-50 funding is part of the Bush administration's budget proposal, but it hasn't passed yet.

"I don't know what's going to happen," says Krochalis. "There are a lot of forces who would like to see light rail funded 80 [percent federal funding] and 20 [percent local funding], just like our roads. I guess the bottom line is there is not as much money in the pot as there used to be." As the budgets get cut on the federal level, light rail projects across the nation have called it quits.

"This is not just happening to us," says Molly Myers, communications manager for Spokane Regional Light Rail. "It's happening to many communities across the country. Currently, we aren't really counting on state funding at all."

Holmes adds: "But it's not like we won't ask the state. We will -- but it's hard to say what will come out of it."

One of the consultants on the Spokane project was also the project manager in the late 1970s of the first light rail project in Portland.

"Back then, there were only two or three projects across the nation. Today there is in the range of 80-100," says Bob Post, who's now vice president of URS/ERW, the international consulting firm that has developed the Environmental Impact Statement for the light rail project here in Spokane. "I think the federal government is trying to spread their resources over more projects. They put the projects through a lot of scrutiny and they are looking for more of the cost to be covered locally, but then again it's been heading in that direction for years."

Krochalis says that nationwide there are 26 projects that are mature enough to go for Congress's approval within a year. There are at least an additional 50 projects in the so-called "new starts" pipeline, but Spokane isn't even there yet.

"You are in still in the environmental phase, where you are trying to figure out what's going to work for the community," says Krochalis. "These things take time. I mean, this is not a case of the federal government coming in and dictating what is going to work in Spokane. Our goal is to try to help the local transit system. There is a fair amount of people in Spokane who are public transit-dependent, and we absolutely want to support them so they can get to that doctor's appointment and to work."

Do we really need it? -- The U.S. Census ranks Washington state as the 10th in the nation when it comes to population growth. Yes, much of that growth takes place on the west side of the state, in the Seattle area. Yet with the amount of traffic there, it's estimated that just buying up the land for the light rail project (which Seattle has been debating for years) will cost more than $230 million. That's without a single railroad tie thrown in.

And the population in Spokane is growing as well: By 2025, the U.S. Census estimates 561,627 people will live in Spokane County -- that's up by 34 percent compared to today. Kootenai County is expected to grow by 40 percent, to 143,977, in the same time. Not only will here be more cars, but people will drive many more individual trips and miles. Without an effective mass transit system, all of us will spend many more hours stuck in traffic.

"A community needs to realize that it's growing," says Myers. "It isn't going to be the same. We are no longer a sleepy little community. It's not a matter of if we have to face transportation issues -- it's about when."

It's hard to tell the effects of growth when you are in the middle of it.

"It creeps up on you," says Holmes, who used to live in Los Angeles. "All of a sudden, you sit there in traffic and ask yourself 'How did this happen?' "

An effective mass transit system makes life easier for diehard drivers as well.

"People forget that when they are stuck behind a bus in traffic, that bus represents 40 people who otherwise would be driving their cars," says French, adding that it may be that 95 percent of the people who pay through their taxes for a public transportation system rarely need it or use it, but their commute time still benefits from fewer cars on the streets.

Public transportation is also a proven economic development tool, especially when it comes in the form of rail. Where bus routes can change, rail lines stay put, often driving development along the lines, and especially near the rail stops. Portland is a good example of this.

"I know, I can hear people say, 'But we're not Portland, we don't have the congestion they do,' " says Meyers. "But Millie out on Valley Road hasn't been downtown in years, because it's too overwhelming for her to drive down there. The need really is in the eye of the beholder."

Speaking of the Valley: when the City of Spokane Valley incorporated earlier this year, an entirely new player was added to the light rail game. And the attitude coming out of the new city hall isn't exactly supportive.

"I think some day it may make sense with light rail for the Valley, but not today," says Mike DeVleming, mayor of the city of the Spokane Valley. "Some of the businesses along the Appleway Couplet are saying that they have lost drive-by business because of the way that was set up. Seems to me like we may lose even more business by putting people on a train and zipping them right through here."

Funding for a light rail system would have to be approved by a countywide vote -- not by the individual municipalities.

The city of the Valley has also been working on a project called Bridging the Valley, which seeks to consolidate the existing train tracks and putting them either above-ground on bridges, or underneath ground in tunnels.

"If we succeed in doing this, why would we then put in light rail at street-level? That doesn't make any sense," says DeVleming.

He doesn't believe light rail would be a major factor in job creation or business development within the Valley.

"If you put a new business on Sullivan Road, the Valley folks are not going to ride the light rail out there, and we don't have a lot of people living in downtown Spokane, so I'm not sure that would help," says DeVleming. "Yes, there would be some construction jobs -- that would be huge. And there would be some jobs for drivers and maintenance. But I don't think we'd see many more new businesses around the stops other than fast food places and espresso shacks."

Only time will tell how light rail in Spokane pans out. It could be a huge success like the one in Portland, or it could end up being another one of those projects that's talked and talked about forever. Does "North-South Freeway" ring any bells?

Supporters still have hope.

"I have often told people that planning the first line is always the most difficult," says Post. "Portland, in the early '70s, was in the same situation as Spokane is right now, asking the same questions about size and price and development. But fortunately, the community was looking into the future. If we hadn't started back then, it would have been impossible to pull it off today. We move 70,000 people a day today. It has been a huge success."

Publication date: 05/08/03

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