Sunday, January 11, 2004


City in transit
Turmoil at STA represents just the latest notch on Spokane's public transportation timeline

Jim Kershner
Staff writer

In April 1888, a team of horses clip-clopped down Riverside Avenue, hauling a streetcar to Browne's Addition on a set of rails.

Photographers flashed pictures. Dignitaries made speeches. Onlookers gawked. They were witnessing something brand-new in Spokane: mass transit.

Spokane's urban transportation system was born that day. The horse-drawn streetcar was followed quickly by the electric trolley car, which ruled Spokane's streets from 1890 into the 1930s. Diesel buses entirely took over
the old streetcar routes by 1936.

By this time, the personal auto had already become the commuter vehicle of choice. The bus system continued under private operators, steadily leaking riders. Finally, in 1968, the city took over, followed by the Spokane Transit Authority in 1981. Local government has been in the subsidized public transportation business ever since.

Now the city is looking at one of its biggest retreats ever in mass transit. The STA plans to cut nearly half its service -- nights, weekends and outlying routes -- by this summer. The STA estimates ridership could reach historic lows of about 4million riders a year.

Even without the cuts, transit service today is a far cry from the heyday of streetcars in Spokane, which lasted roughly from about 1890 to 1915. In 1910, Washington Water Power's trolley lines carried 24million riders. Compare that with about 7.65million STA bus riders in 2003, in a city with nearly twice the population.

Those first transportation lines were not so much a public service as a marketing tool for real estate developers.

Before this time, working people had to live close enough to downtown to walk. But around 1888, housing developers started to build on the outskirts of town, in the Lidgerwood development on the north side, for instance, or near Cliff Park on the south side.

"But if you're selling lots more than a mile from the central business district, you're going to have a hard time selling those lots if you don't provide some transportation," said Charles Mutschler, the university archivist at Eastern Washington University and a historian specializing in transportation.

So the developers built their own streetcar lines straight to their new housing projects.

By 1889, real estate companies were operating six street railways in Spokane, all clanging toward different neighborhoods.

Even the mansions in Browne's Addition required streetcar lines, but not for the owners. The maids, cooks and servants had to get to those houses somehow.

WWP takes over

Spokane's early streetcars, defined as any conveyance running on rails in the street, were powered in several different ways:

•Horse-drawn streetcars, familiar in big cities since the 1830s.

•Steam-engine streetcars, pulled by small locomotives.

•Cable cars, pulled by underground cables driven by Spokane's abundant water power.

•The electric trolley car, propelled by power from overhead electric wires, and so named from the "trolley" pole sticking out the top of the car.

Spokane had all four in the early 1890s, but the first three all had significant drawbacks.

Steam locomotives were loud, smelly and dirty. They scared the horse traffic in the street. They required two men to run the engine and one to take fares. They couldn't go up steep hills.

Horse-drawn streetcars were slow and couldn't make it up steep hills either. They were also smelly and dirty in their own way.

Cable cars had plenty of oomph to make it up the steepest hills. One of Spokane's two cable car lines ran straight up Monroe Street on the South Hill and angled over to serve a housing addition near Cliff Park called Cable Addition.

"But it was a very expensive technology because you had to dig up the street to lay the cable," said Mutschler, co-author of "Spokane's Street Railways, An Illustrated History."

"Also, if anything went wrong, you had to stop the cable, which stopped every car on the line."

The electric trolley car, using technology perfected in 1888, soon proved both superior and cheaper than the other options. Within five years, by 1894, the electric trolley car trounced steam, horse and cable in Spokane. It didn't hurt that Spokane possessed abundant hydroelectric power.

The major generator of that power, Washington Water Power, soon began to buy the trolley lines. The real estate men had no long-term interest in running a trolley system, but the WWP did. For one thing, it coveted those street poles. It could string electric service lines up on those same poles, Mutschler said.

By 1895, the WWP had snapped up every streetcar line except one, the Spokane Traction Co. By 1910, 150 electric trolley cars crisscrossed the city. A nickel fare would not only transport you to work and school, but it would even take you out to Natatorium Park, a spectacular amusement park on the Spokane River west of town, built by the WWP to create even more traffic for its trolley lines.

The level of service was high; many lines had a car every 15 minutes. A special Owl Car took late-night partiers home after midnight. In winter, the trolleys had electric seat-warmers, anticipating one of the luxury-car options of our day.

Car trouble

Even as trolley ridership peaked in the 1910s, the instrument of its demise was rattling and backfiring around Spokane's city streets: the Model T.

That car and other mass-produced autos were now common enough to crash into trolleys with deadly regularity.

But that wasn't the true problem. The true problem was foreshadowed in what came to be known as the Jitney War of 1915.

That year, some Spokane auto dealers came up with an easy money-making scheme. They rented their cars to enterprising young men who would cruise the trolley lines and load riders into their cars for the price of a trolley fare, a nickel. They called the cars "jitneys," a kind of combination bus and taxi.

The jitneys were a smash success. Why wait for the trolley if a jitney is rolling past?

Smash was the word in more ways than one.

According to one account by jitney driver Robert Tenney, later published in The Spokesman-Review, "sometimes eight or 10 people would pile in on top of each other in the five-passenger Model T's."

"It made for some very companionable rides," Tenney wrote.

Soon, everybody with a car wanted in on the action. The trolley companies saw the jitneys as a threat. An anti-jitney campaign began, which included the potent argument that jitneys were an "inducement to immorality" because wives and daughters were riding on the laps of other men.

Jitneys were soon banned, but it didn't matter. They had merely been a foretaste of a bigger issue: The personal car was now within the reach of many Americans. People needed neither streetcar nor jitney if they could drive their own cars.

In 1922, Spokane's two struggling streetcar lines, the WWP and the Spokane Traction Co., merged into the Spokane United Railways, which was owned by WWP. But that didn't stop the bleeding, either.

"The city had stopped growing, and the private auto had become a middle-class item," Mutschler said. "When you add those two together, you've got a problem."

The city steps in

Ridership continued to drop (as it did all over the United States), and the Spokane United Railways finally succumbed to the inevitable. It began converting its system to diesel buses, many of which operated on those same old streetcar routes, including one that, in a nod to the past, was still called the Cable Addition route.

Buses were much cheaper, Mutschler said, because they required no maintenance of tracks, electric poles or wires.

"So the smart move in a city like Spokane was not to improve the streetcars, but to replace them with buses," Mutschler said. "Many cities the size of Spokane were doing the same thing, or losing their transit entirely."

In 1936, the last trolley in Spokane made its last stop. The bus system was not as romantic, but it was more efficient. Ridership spiked briefly to a high of 26million during World WarII because of gas rationing, but after that ridership suffered as cars and gasoline continued to get cheaper.

In 1945, Spokane United Railways sold out to Spokane City Lines, a subsidiary of a national company that operated a number of bus systems.

By the 1960s, ridership had plummeted to 5million and Spokane City Lines was in desperate financial shape.

The crisis reached a head in 1968, when the city's bus drivers went on strike for higher wages. The strike dragged on for more than five months, and Spokane City Lines had no way of meeting the strikers' demands. So the city of Spokane floated a ballot measure to take over the bus system, subsidizing it with a tax of $1 a month on every homeowner's utility bill.

The measure passed with 62percent of the vote. The city of Spokane was now in the public transit business.


Another crisis

The next crisis came in 1981, when even that $1-a-month tax was no longer enough.

City officials met with county officials and decided it was time to revamp the system by making it regional, serving outlying areas such as Cheney, Airway Heights and the Spokane Valley, and adding paratransit, van-pooling and ride-share services.

They formed a transportation council, which floated another new proposal to taxpayers: the formation of a new government entity, which became known as the Spokane Transit Authority. It was to be financed by a three-tenths of 1percent sales tax, as well as proceeds from the state's motor vehicle excise tax.

"The voters passed it with a 72percent margin," said Jim Plaster, who joined the STA at its beginning and is now the director of finance and administration. "Taxpayers saw it as a change from going to just a city of Spokane system to a regional concept. It brought the region together."

Those tax subsidies supported the bus system comfortably. In 1995, the STA opened a $20.6million transit center in the heart of downtown. Ridership had rebounded from a low of around 4million in the 1970s into the 7million range, even if it never approached the streetcar heyday.

However, the next funding crisis came to a head in 2000.

Voters rebelled against the motor vehicle excise tax, approving a Tim Eyman anti-tax initiative by a large margin. The state Legislature saw the writing on the wall, and rescinded the motor vehicle excise tax.

"That took away 40percent of our revenue base," Plaster said.

So now the STA is once again contemplating drastic cuts in service and hours.

Among the areas that may lose service: a South Hill neighborhood served by one line or another since 1890. It was once called Cable Addition, named after those old clang-clang-clanging cable cars.

•Jim Kershner can be reached at 459-5493 or by e-mail at

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