1928 Washington Railroad Map Excerpt
1928 Washington Railroad Map Excerpt

[This is the fourth and last in a series covering Spokane Moving Forward, the Spokane Transit Authority’s proposed ten-year plan to improve transit in the Spokane region, which will go to an areawide ballot tomorrow. Previously I discussed the proposed Central City Line, improvements for Cheney and the West Plains, and Core urban service in Spokane.]

In my first post about Spokane Moving Forward, I wrote of Spokane, “It’s the city for a huge geographic swath of the northern United States … the most populous urban area between Seattle and Minneapolis. Only Boise, population 208,000, and 350 miles to the south, comes close.” There was a time, though, when Spokane’s regional prominance was vested not only in the power of urban agglomeration, but in infrastructure: the railroad era. Before ubiquitous automobiles and paved roads, it was difficult to get far in northern Idaho or far-eastern Washington without going through Spokane.

The 1928 railroad map above, which captures the Washington rail network close to its apogee, tells the story. From Spokane, a knot of railways unraveled north up the grand valleys of the Columbia Mountains, strung west over the endless wheat country of the Columbia Plateau, and wove south into the myriad hills of the Palouse; but it was to the east, Coeur d’Alene, that the railways pointed like a bundle of arrows. The obtuse angle formed by Cheney, Spokane, and Coeur d’Alene has been the principal axis of urbanization and travel since the beginning of European settlement, and just like in Puget Sound, much of the pedestrian mobility we seek to enable today is merely an echo of that past.

With a population of about 45,000, about half the size of suburban Spokane Valley, Coeur d’Alene is the second-largest city within typical commute distance of Spokane. A sizable commuter population drives to the half-way city of Liberty Lake, the easternmost extent of today’s STA service, parks, and rides STA Route 174 express into the city. Conversely, as a lakeside resort town, Coeur d’Alene figures in the minds of Spokanites as a pleasant get-out-of-town day trip. There is therefore, considerable and longstanding interest on both sides of the state line, in an all-day interurban service that could connect Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.

Reality presents some fairly significant challenges to this idea. Any permanent service between Coeur d’Alene and and Spokane would require a financial partnership with Citylink, the tiny transit agency which provides hourly service to the towns east of the Idaho line. Such a partnership would require a major increase in Citylink’s budget, and it’s not yet clear where that money would come from. With an travel time of 35-40 minutes, a nonstop service would unavoidably have a high cost per passenger. An interurban service could reduce that cost and provide more connectivity with intermediate stops at Post Falls, Liberty Lake, and Spokane Valley, but each stop would likely require a deviation from the freeway, chipping away at the service’s speed and directness.

The Moving Forward ballot measure includes funds to operate a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene service on a pilot basis, although it will be several years before the pilot could take place, as the measure involves no debt financing, so in the early years, much of the revenue would be dedicated to capital projects. For all the challenges, there are good reasons to hope that such a pilot, if it happens, could eventually turn into a permanent feature: All the local governments involved, plus WSDOT, strongly support the idea, and like airport service, it’s an idea whose utility registers immediately, even to people who don’t habitually ride transit.

This concludes STB’s series on STA Moving Forward. The election is tomorrow. If you are voting in this election, get your ballot in as soon as possible; if you have friends or family who are voting, remind them!

32 Replies to “Spokane Moving Forward: A Coeur d’Alene Connection?”

  1. Great opportunity. Can grow in all directions without Seattle’s boundaries of mountains and waterways.

    Besides Boise, now would be good time to plan fast regional rail links to TriCities…maybe even plan for maglev.

      1. In Bailo-land, spall is the point. You can get to know nature a lot better when you pave over it to build your new housing development.

      2. It is Seattle that the Once-lers have ruined.

        Here’s a Truffula Seed.

        Maybe they will come back one day…but now they must leave…for Spokane!

      3. Advocating sprawl AND citing The Lorax while doing it.

        You’ve truly outdone yourself this time.

  2. Sorry to say, but you can almost measure how unrealistic an idea is by how much John Bailo likes it.

    Its really difficult to get a tourist service like this up and running and actually have significant ridership without a much larger population to draw from.

    Maybe the Coeur d’Alene tourism board could work with local businesses to piece together the funds for a tourist shuttle from Spokane? Its hard to justify using public funds for this when there are already so many other unmet needs in Spokane.

    1. Looks like Spokane has the goods on Seattle.

      Remember, we no longer base where we live on whether there’s a good harbor for schooners or not.

      Spokane is just planning for obvious high growth now that Seattle has become an impossibility for most if not all.

      They will do things right (maybe) where Seattle planners failed.

      1. If this were any other commenter, I’d assume this was a joke.

        I know things are very, very different in Bailoland than they are here on earth. But on this planet, Seattle is growing at around 3-4 times the rate of Spokane, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

        Out of curiosity, what’s the per rider subsidy of those Maglevs comforably zipping people from Kent to Kennewick over there in Bailoland?

      2. Wrong-go-ronny, Carnak.

        Even Pierce County is now growing faster than King..due to an exodus of folk fleeing high rents, high taxes…

    2. There are some places that are about the same distance with smaller populations–Ie there exists such a service between Middlebury, Vermont (At ~8,000 people smaller than either city, but has a significant student population) and Burlington (around the same size as Couer d’Alene). Another service goes between Middlebury and Rutland (~16,000 people). It’s not an impossibility.

      (I never rode either service when I was in the area though)

    3. The bread and butter of this service would be weekday commuters from Coeur d’Alene, and that market, while it can’t strictly be called proven (that’s what the pilot service would test), is absolutely known to exist based on carpool/vanpool/park’n’ride data.

      I do agree that the tourist use case is probably more appealing on paper than in reality, but it seems plausible enough to be worth a try. At least during the weekday, two way service could be offered for almost nothing by otherwise-deadheading coaches.

      1. In amending my comments above, I’d like to state here too that it might be worth considering co-branding existing bus services as also being to tourist destinations inside of and outside of the city.

        You could even do this in the city and alleviate a lot of tourist confusion:

        – Put ads on the 40 for Fremont and the Ballard Locks
        – Advertise the 5 as the best way to get to woodland park zoo

        Given that vehicles are shared between routes though, the ads might have to be digital… maybe its not that easy after all…

        Still, it seems like there ought to be some opportunity here to make the transit system easier to understand for visitors. I am a little surprised sometimes that often the only advertisement for local attractions are pamphlets tucked away in a corner of a hotel or on the ferry.

      2. I think any tourist use of a Spokane-Couer d’Alene bus would be limited by park and ride availability on both ends. People in Spokane would almost certainly refuse to take two buses to Couer d’Alene and to make sense as a commuter service this line would almost necessarily only go to downtown Spokane. If I remember correctly, there is a park and ride under the freeway, but it’s not very big.

        That being said, I think it would be great for commuters.

  3. Are you proposing an interurban rail or bus service? The railroad maps suggest the former, but your “deviation from the freeway” suggests buses, except WA has an amazing tendency to build light rail lines in the middle of freeways, so I really can’t guess what you mean.

    If bus service, how would this improve on the existing Greyhound service, which serves the city pair twice a day right now?

    1. Bruce isn’t proposing anything.

      The relevant municipalities and transit agencies are exploring the idea of an interurban bus connection.

      1. …Which might be worth subsidizing should it be shown to be an asset to the two cities, which function in tandem and formally share a Metropolitan Statistical Area.

        I’m not going to bother to look it up, but am I right to guess that the Greyhound services are part of longer and less reliable multi-city long-haul services, and probably at unideal times of day?

      2. As someone who semi-regularly uses Greyhound to get between a city-pair about 50 miles apart with no transit: it’s a miserable way to do it. You’ve generally got to get there early to line up your bag (if the bus is full and you don’t want to get bumped, it’s first come first served). The buses come from many hundreds of miles away. When it finally does arrive, you queue up, wait for 15-20 minutes in line, have the tickets checked, and sit on the bus another 10-15 minutes before it finally departs.

        I live with it because I don’t have a drivers licence and I only make the trip once a month or so, but it more than triples the time it takes to travel between my two destinations, despite making no stops in between. It punishes spontaneous travel (day of travel tickets can be over $20 one way; if I book weeks in advance I can sometimes get it for 1/3 that cost), but even then it can be cost-prohibitive for regular commuting, and is completely unreliable if you’re on any kind of timetable. I don’t know whether this service is justified by demand, but the present existence of Greyhound isn’t particularly relevant to the question of whether it’s needed, or a good idea.

      3. @d.p.

        If this is simply an interurban service filling in a gap caused by the loss of greyhound I have no argument against it.

        My gut reaction above was in response to John Balio’s inevitable “Spokane is a much better place to live in Seattle, because sprawl”

        It might be worth seeing if they can partner with tourist interests (with tourism based advertising, etc) to get a few extra runs paid for. Its useful to restore basic broken inter-city connections if it it can also benefit off of tourist traffic.

        Brings up another point though… I wonder if some of Snohomish county’s regional buses… like the one out to Snohomish could benefit off of tourist branding.

        If tourists knew they could get to their destination without renting a car or paying for a tour bus, more people might actually use these services instead.

      4. …and spontaneous travel is extremely important if your transportation service is trying to compete with driving.

        Which is why frequency is pretty important.

      5. I strongly doubt they’re looking at anything that would remotely resemble spontaneous frequency. I’m guessing we’re talking about a few trips per day, or at the most every other hour (1 bus/1 driver traveling back and forth repeatedly).

        And that’s just fine. It’s a 34-mile trip, and as with any 34-mile trip, some planning and an expectation to spend a chunk of time at the other end are both inevitable. Also like most 34-mile trips, the vast majority will continue to drive it.

        The point here is to make it feasible for a non-insane person to choose differently. And should that prove appealing to enough patrons and valuable to both the residents and commercial interests of the cities in question, then there will be reason to continue financially supporting it.

        And that means something exponentially better than the Greyhound experience DJW describes. It does not mean truly spontaneous frequencies (because it cannot). Glenn seems to forget that most of the world’s robust commuter transit services — including every American one that doesn’t land in New York City — fails the spontaneity test outside of rush hour. And that’s fine.

      6. Hell, for the Greyhound experience described by DJW, you could already be at the other end of the route by the time you are finished waiting for the Greyhound process to finish.

        For Spokane to Coeur d’Alene Greyhound almost works: one departure from Spokane at 5:55 am and another at 5:10 pm. The other direction isn’t so great: leaves Coeur d’Alene at 10:35 am and 11:59 pm (and it doesn’t get to Spokane until 12:45 am????).

        I don’t know what you would consider “spontaneous frequencies” but just about anything would be closer to achieving it than that.

    2. You can’t do rail service now. The closest place you can get by rail is a middle of suburbia pointless end.

      So, I’m pretty sure it will be a bus service.

      Twice per day operation doesn’t give a lot of travel options. Offering more frequency would be an improvement.

      1. No, nor HOV. That said, peak congestion is not even in the same league as Seattle.

  4. An interesting illustration in city planning: pan northeast to Calgary and compare the city footprint.

  5. Nice work Bruce.

    Does Coeur D’Alene have enough a transit system to be a decent choice for Spokane residents to come visit? Or is this strictly about park-and-ride commuting to Spokane?

    1. They have the bus stops on Google maps. The route (its only one) has the basics covered, but they’ve gone with span of service instead of frequency – once per hour and 40 minutes or so.

      But then, much of the basics you can do on foot reasonably well. A 1/2 mile walkshed from a central point covers almost all of downtown.

      1. What Glenn said. The visitor-oriented downtown/lakeside Cd’A is quite compact. Using transit service to access the rest of the city is probably not realistic unless it is substantially improved. This is another challenge to the concept.

  6. I would tend to think that WSU and Pullman/Moscow would be a better point for all day service. The Wheatland Express runs once a day, except during breaks when they run an additional trip.

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