August 10, 1997 in Nation/World

Gridlock On The Horizon Officials Concerned That Roads Can’t Handle Rush To The Valley Mall

Dan Hansen Pat Sciuchetti Contributed Staff writer
 

Outdated studies and unexpected growth leave Spokane County ill-prepared for the traffic expected when the Spokane Valley Mall opens Wednesday.

The county decided 12 years ago that the mall could open before construction of an Interstate 90 interchange. Studies showed existing roads could handle the traffic, but residential and commercial growth has exploded since then.

At the same time, Americans have become more reliant on their cars, driving them farther and more frequently than a decade ago.

As a result, traffic on I-90 is much heavier than anyone predicted, especially at the Sullivan and Pines exits, east and west of the mall.

Add to that existing traffic the 23,000 cars that are expected at the mall each day, and it’s easy to understand why the sheriff has assigned three deputies to traffic control for Wednesday, the day most of the stores open.

“We’re probably going to start getting hate calls about (Thursday),” said Jerry Lenzi, regional director of the state Department of Transportation.

Rex Frazier, president of Salt Lake City-based JP Realty Inc., predicted shoppers will have little trouble getting to the mall his company built.

JP Realty built Indiana Avenue between Pines and Sullivan to help deal with the traffic, and is obligated eventually to help pay for a new interchange.

“We’ve complied with all of the studies,” he said, adding that J.C. Penney and other major stores “would not have made the commitment to be there if they were not comfortable with the studies.”

Stuck in traffic

A computer program designed by DOT and the county models the weekday traffic expected on Sullivan Road after the mall opens. It shows long lines of cars, particularly in left-turn lanes, during evening rush hour. More cars are backed up on I-90’s westbound off-ramp.

Engineers say the traffic projections used in the program are conservative.

The same program shows that traffic would flow smoothly if the Evergreen interchange existed. The interchange would take I-90 traffic directly to the mall, leaving the Sullivan and Pines exits for people going elsewhere.

But in 1985, the county gave Price Development Co. (JP Realty’s parent company) permission to open Phase 1 of the mall without building the interchange.

The interchange must be built before the mall expands or nearby land is developed by Raymond Hanson, an industrialist who sold the 85-acre mall site to Price but kept more land for himself.

The county’s decision to let the mall precede the interchange was based on an environmental impact statement that showed the Sullivan and Pines interchanges were adequate to handle the traffic.

In 1985, 37,500 cars used I-90 at Pines each day, according to DOT figures. Traffic had grown to 60,000 cars a day in 1995, the last year that figures are available.

During the same years, traffic on Pines soared from 24,500 to 35,000 cars a day.

“If you try to use the freeway around 4:30 p.m., you’re stuck,” said cab driver Rocky Fissette. “Pines Road around the freeway is a major pain, it’s so bottled up.”

Sullivan Road, which carried 19,000 cars a day in 1983, was used by 26,000 in 1994, when the county made its last survey. During the evening rush hour, the line of cars waiting to get onto I-90 from the north stretches a half-mile.

The Evergreen interchange will take pressure off both Sullivan and Pines. But the $23.4 million interchange won’t be open until 2001, at the earliest. DOT engineers are designing the project now.

About $10.1 million has been raised for the project so far, mostly from state and federal coffers.

The state Transportation Commission plans to ask the Legislature for another $4 million, which would leave about $9.3 million to be paid by Price, Hanson and Inland Empire Paper Co., which owns land nearby.

“Where do they all come from?”

At Little League games and in barber shops, over back fences and at community meetings, Valley drivers grumble about the traffic. Even professional drivers are feeling the pressure.

“When they build (roads), they don’t think ahead to what’s coming,” said Monte DeChenne, transportation supervisor for Spokane Transit Authority. “They do catch-up construction. They never improve it.”

“Where do they (the cars) all come from?” asked a clerk at a Valley glass shop.

Some of the cars added in the last 12 years come from Liberty Lake, where developments planned in the 1970s lay dormant for 20 years. This decade, growth hit the lake community like a monsoon.

Some of the cars come from Kootenai County, which since 1980 has grown 66 percent, to nearly 100,000 residents.

In 1996, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council interviewed 445 drivers using I-90 to drive into Washington from Idaho. The council found that 182 of the drivers lived in Post Falls or Coeur d’Alene, and many of them made the trip daily.

And some of the cars come from Sullivan Road, which forms the eastern boundary of the mall property.

In 1985, Sullivan was lined with small farms south of Sprague Avenue. Then in 1990, the Bella Vista subdivision on the south end of Sullivan was the site of the 1990 home show. That was the start of a boom that has filled pastures and hay fields with well over 1,000 houses so far.

Industries along Sullivan north of I-90 also have grown in the ‘90s. The Spokane Industrial Park proposes still more expansions, expected to generate another 11,500 car trips a day. Among the plans are a restaurant and 87-room hotel.

Between Sprague and I-90, Sullivan has become the Valley’s retail core.

Fred Meyer led the way, opening in 1993. A partial list of the stores that followed includes Wal-Mart, Petco, Future Shop and Huckleberry’s Fresh Market. Toys ‘R’ Us is set to open in November. Hundreds of acres of vacant land zoned for commercial development still are available along Sullivan.

Caught off-guard

Many of the recent projects were approved in the 1970s and 1980s. Developers waited for better economic conditions before building, but planners said they never dreamed all the projects would happen at once.

And once final approval is given, the county can’t later change the requirements it imposed on projects.

As recently as the early 1990s, regulators didn’t take into account dormant projects when deciding what road improvements to require of each developer.

“When the mall was approved in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the tools they had to look at things were very crude,” said Greg Figg, DOT transportation planner. “If it (another project) wasn’t on the ground, basically, it couldn’t be taken into account.”

Nor did the county always listen to the advice of road builders, said Figg.

For instance, DOT suggested the county require extensive traffic studies and road work before approving the proposed 154-unit East Mission Plaza apartments near Sullivan. But county commissioners ruled the developer had to spend only $5,000 for studies and construction combined.

“But that was in 1992,” said Figg. “Things have gotten better since then.”

More recently, the county required $31,000 from the developers of the 272-unit Whimsical Pig apartment complex. And developers conducting traffic studies now must take into account the cars that will come from projects that are approved but not yet built.

Still, there are uncounted projects like the East Mission Plaza apartment complex that could come to fruition at any time.

“And they can go ahead and build without any mitigation” for traffic congestion, said Mark Rohwer, DOT planning manager.

The county could collect money from developers and save it for road work. The county doesn’t do that because the state requires that the money be spent within five years, on work near the development that provided the money, said assistant county engineer Ross Kelley.

The county can’t make that guarantee and doesn’t want to risk having to refund the money with interest, said Kelley.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: The road to the mall

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MAJOR ROAD PROJECTS SLATED FOR VALLEY The state Department of Transportation is planning several major projects designed to reduce traffic congestion along Interstate 90. The department hopes to complete the projects by 2001, but several have not yet been funded and could be delayed.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part one Description: Widen Fancher Road near Exit 285 in preparation for additional lanes at a later date and create a new signal system at the intersection of Fancher and Sprague. Construction: In progress; completed by this fall. Cost: $987,000.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part two Description: Build a new eastbound freeway bridge over Sprague Avenue and the Union Pacific Railroad; add one eastbound lane and one merging lane between Custer Road and Broadway Avenue (exits 284 and 286); build a temporary ramp to eastbound Sprague, followed by a permanent connection to the eastbound portion of the Sprague Avenue couplet along First Avenue, once the couplet is completed by Spokane County. Construction: 1998 to late 1999. Cost: $18 million.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part three Description: Construct a new westbound freeway bridge over Sprague and the Union Pacific Railroad, and add one new westbound freeway lane and one merging lane between Broadway and Custer (exists 286 and 284). Construction: At earliest, late 1999 to 2001. Cost: $22 million to $27 million; this project is not yet funded.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part four Description: Build a five-lane Park Road bridge over the freeway, replacing the current configuration; add one new freeway lane in each direction between Broadway and Argonne (exits 286 and 287). Construction: At earliest, late 1999-2001. Estimated cost: $15 million to $20 million; this project is not yet funded.

Sprague Avenue to Pines Road Description: Repave I-90 from Sprague to Pines (exits 285 to 289) to smooth rutted surface. Construction: Completed by this fall. Cost: $750,000 to $1 million.

Pines Road interchange project, part one Description: Add a second lane to the eastbound off-ramp and add a second left-turn lane from southbound Pines at the Mission Avenue intersection. Construction: In progress, completed by fall. Cost: $371,000.

Pines Road interchange, part two Description: Add a second left turn lane from northbound Pines to westbound I-90. Construction: 1998. Cost: $1.5 million.

Argonne Road to Pines Road Description: Add one new freeway lane in each direction from Argonne to Pines (exits 287 to 289). Construction: At earliest, 1999 to 2000. Cost: $6.3 million; this project is not yet funded.

Pines Road to Sullivan Road Description: Add one new freeway lane in each direction from Pines to Sullivan (exits 289 to 291). Construction: At earliest, 1999 to 2000. Cost: $6.5 million; this project is not yet funded.

Evergreen interchange Description: Construct a diamond interchange allowing vehicles to get on and off the freeway at Evergreen. Construction: At earliest, 1999 to 2001. Cost: $23.4 million. - Staff writer Pat Sciuchetti

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Dan Hansen Staff writer Staff writer Pat Sciuchetti contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: MAJOR ROAD PROJECTS SLATED FOR VALLEY The state Department of Transportation is planning several major projects designed to reduce traffic congestion along Interstate 90. The department hopes to complete the projects by 2001, but several have not yet been funded and could be delayed.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part one Description: Widen Fancher Road near Exit 285 in preparation for additional lanes at a later date and create a new signal system at the intersection of Fancher and Sprague. Construction: In progress; completed by this fall. Cost: $987,000.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part two Description: Build a new eastbound freeway bridge over Sprague Avenue and the Union Pacific Railroad; add one eastbound lane and one merging lane between Custer Road and Broadway Avenue (exits 284 and 286); build a temporary ramp to eastbound Sprague, followed by a permanent connection to the eastbound portion of the Sprague Avenue couplet along First Avenue, once the couplet is completed by Spokane County. Construction: 1998 to late 1999. Cost: $18 million.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part three Description: Construct a new westbound freeway bridge over Sprague and the Union Pacific Railroad, and add one new westbound freeway lane and one merging lane between Broadway and Custer (exists 286 and 284). Construction: At earliest, late 1999 to 2001. Cost: $22 million to $27 million; this project is not yet funded.

Sprague Avenue to Argonne Road, part four Description: Build a five-lane Park Road bridge over the freeway, replacing the current configuration; add one new freeway lane in each direction between Broadway and Argonne (exits 286 and 287). Construction: At earliest, late 1999-2001. Estimated cost: $15 million to $20 million; this project is not yet funded.

Sprague Avenue to Pines Road Description: Repave I-90 from Sprague to Pines (exits 285 to 289) to smooth rutted surface. Construction: Completed by this fall. Cost: $750,000 to $1 million.

Pines Road interchange project, part one Description: Add a second lane to the eastbound off-ramp and add a second left-turn lane from southbound Pines at the Mission Avenue intersection. Construction: In progress, completed by fall. Cost: $371,000.

Pines Road interchange, part two Description: Add a second left turn lane from northbound Pines to westbound I-90. Construction: 1998. Cost: $1.5 million.

Argonne Road to Pines Road Description: Add one new freeway lane in each direction from Argonne to Pines (exits 287 to 289). Construction: At earliest, 1999 to 2000. Cost: $6.3 million; this project is not yet funded.

Pines Road to Sullivan Road Description: Add one new freeway lane in each direction from Pines to Sullivan (exits 289 to 291). Construction: At earliest, 1999 to 2000. Cost: $6.5 million; this project is not yet funded.

Evergreen interchange Description: Construct a diamond interchange allowing vehicles to get on and off the freeway at Evergreen. Construction: At earliest, 1999 to 2001. Cost: $23.4 million. - Staff writer Pat Sciuchetti

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Dan Hansen Staff writer Staff writer Pat Sciuchetti contributed to this report.


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