Donna Bray worries about school children, including her own, getting home safely in the East Central Neighborhood.
She volunteers on school days to get them across busy streets near her home.
Carolyn Jacobs and Bill Heinz meet regularly with transportation engineers to help find solutions to traffic problems in the East Central area.
These folks are a new breed of Spokane neighbors who are no longer content to let government solve their problems without neighborhood input.
“We are all aware we have a serious problem and it’s not getting any better,” said Heinz.
He and Jacobs are members of a neighborhood traffic committee formed eight months ago.
East Central, Heinz said, has long been a crossroads for Spokane.
The heart of the neighborhood is bisected by Interstate 90. Major arterials pulse in all four directions, funneling traffic from throughout the area.
With population growth and urban development continuing on the fringes of the city, the residents of East Central often feel over-run. “The City Council isn’t shutting down a lot of projects on the South Hill,” Heinz said.
Traffic backs up on arterials and motorists cut down residential streets to save time.
This is the same problem seen in other areas on the South Side.
Residents along Garfield Road and Rockwood Boulevard have complained for years about controlling traffic passing through from other neighborhoods. South Monroe Street and West 29th Avenue are other hot spots.
Many South Side residents remember the political flap a few years ago over installation of a divider at 29th and Pittsburg, which was designed to prevent motorists from crossing 29th and using residential streets to the north.
So far, East Central residents are the only neighborhood group in the city that has been working directly with transportation officials on traffic problems.
City officials say they are willing to work with other neighborhoods where interest warrants.
Growth and development isn’t the only cause of traffic congestion in older neighborhoods.
Commuters in outlying areas obviously use city streets to get to and from their homes, said Glenn Miles, manager for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.
But the country’s car-oriented lifestyle also contributes to congestion.
In the early 1960s, households in Spokane averaged about six vehicle trips every day.
That increased to nine trips a day by the early ‘80s, and about 11 trips a day by 1990.
Some subdivisions, especially those with many younger families, may average 15 trips a day.
“People are just using their cars more,” Miles said.
This is occurring at the same time the average number of people living in each household declines. The last census showed an average of 2.5 persons per household in Spokane County in 1990 compared with 3.2 persons in 1980.
At the same time, the average home has 1.8 vehicles.
Traffic volumes in East Central Spokane have remained heavy on arterial streets the past five years, but the growth in vehicle counts isn’t as great as some might suspect.
Thor Street carries about 20,000 vehicles a day on the overpass of I-90, and Freya has 11,400 vehicles going over the freeway. Those counts from 1995 roughly equal the 1992 totals.
Hartson Avenue, a feeder arterial south of the freeway, has seen traffic volume grow from 2,400 vehicles a day in 1992 to 2,800 vehicles a day in 1995.
Fifth Avenue between Thor and Freya carried about 1,300 vehicles a day last year.
Danger increases with heavier congestion, resulting in more accidents, city traffic officials say.
In East Central, the city reported 233 accidents on South Thor and South Freya streets over the past five years. A lot of those accidents involve rear-end collisions when traffic is backed up as well as a large number of accidents at busy traffic lights.
During rush hours, added traffic in the neighborhood invites many motorists to drive residential streets to save time when lanes are backed up at traffic lights.
Cutting through residential streets endangers schoolchildren and other pedestrians as well, the residents said.
Many parents are taking children to school in the morning, and picking them up, adding to the traffic problems, neighbors said.
Along Rebecca Street, not an arterial, some commuters are seen speeding through the residential area just about every day because they are seeking a quicker way to get on the eastbound freeway lanes, Jacobs said.
Neighbors propose several improvements, such as new crosswalks, traffic islands and lane dividers to slow the traffic and discourage motorists from cutting through residential areas.
Traffic islands could be installed on Hartson near Underhill Park.
Funding for new sidewalks and crosswalks is being sought for Perry Avenue where it crosses under I-90 near Liberty Park.
Additional lane dividers on Thor Street could be installed to prevent left turns. Motorists trying to turn left often hold up through traffic, Heinz said.
One solution for heavy arterial traffic is to turn Freya Street into a one-way northbound route to carry traffic coming off the Ray Street hill. Thor could then be used for southbound traffic from the freeway to the base of the hill.
City officials have never developed that one-way couplet system even though the freeway interchange at Thor and Freya was designed to accommodate it, said city traffic engineer Don Ramsey.
The one-ways were never developed because the plan has always been tied to additional improvements to the freeway system in East Spokane, including improvements to the Thor-Freya interchange and different proposals for a North Side freeway, Ramsey said.
“We are looking to solve problems rather than putting up (traffic) signs that don’t really do anything,” he said.
Long-range plans by the state to build a North Spokane freeway will have big impact on the East Central neighborhood.
Although construction of a freeway - if it’s ever done - is still years away, residents already are meeting with state officials to help them design a new freeway interchange in the vicinity of Havana.
Additional on-ramp and off-ramp lanes are envisioned for Second and Third avenues, which would have limited access from the neighborhoods.
State officials also are considering closure of freeway access at Altamont and Havana streets.
Construction of the new freeway would probably occur in phases. Officials said the northern parts of the North Spokane freeway would be built first near U.S. Highways 395 and 2, and then extend in phases toward I-90.
“The funding, of course, is anybody’s guess,” said Al Gilson, spokesman for the state Transportation Department in Spokane.
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