[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!