Keeping track of where the most northerly stretch of the proposed North Spokane Freeway will go is like watching a Super Ball bounce.
First it’s here. Then it’s there. Next it’s anybody’s guess.
In January, state Department of Transportation engineers unveiled a new northerly route they said they preferred over the long-established route seen in environmental documents and on maps. The latest path likely would cost fewer dollars, take fewer homes and businesses, and involve less fancy dancing by engineers, they said.
But a few months later, the DOT’s newest darling began to show a few flaws, sending engineers back to the drawing board to see if another route might be better.
Engineers are now studying three possible routes to take the freeway north from Hawthorne Road to U.S. 395. By the end of this week, project engineer Keith Martin says he plans to recommend one to his superiors.
“We’re looking at all of them on equal ground, trying to see which one rises to the top,” Martin says.
Last month, the state Legislature plopped down $25 million over two years as a down payment on the freeway to buy right-of-way and do preliminary design work.
Exactly whose property north of Hawthorne the DOT should buy remains unclear. In fact, even though it has estimates of how many property owners would be affected along each route, the DOT says it’s dealing with imprecise plans and refuses to identify those property owners.
What is clear is that some landowners - including Kaiser Aluminum - have worked for years to influence where the freeway’s northernmost stretch will be built.
Maps of the three proposed routes show how they have evolved from cutting a wide path through the aluminum manufacturer’s land at Farwell and U.S. Highway 2 to just grazing a corner.
Some residents in the Garden City and Shady Slope neighborhoods think that Kaiser officials have put undue pressure on the DOT to keep the freeway off the company’s property. Earlier this year, these neighbors were shocked to learn the freeway they thought would go about a half-mile south of them might move into their back yards.
“We’ve never understood … the underlying reasons to shift it from the original Kaiser route to any of the north routes,” says Garden City resident Larry Rees.
DOT’s Martin disputes that Kaiser has had a greater influence than any other landowner, noting that developer Harlan Douglass owns a 107-acre development in the path of the original route.
“I can tell you that Kaiser really hasn’t been a factor any more than Garden City or Douglass,” Martin said. “We have been strictly objective other than the fact that we’ve tried to be conscientious about several constraints.”
Since he took over the project, Martin says he’s met several times each with Mead school representatives, community college officials, church leaders and neighborhood groups to discuss possible impacts and look for alternatives.
“If we can tweak (the route) a little bit and miss a church, we need to be doing those things. We haven’t intentionally tried to benefit one entity,” he says.
DOT Regional Administrator Jerry Lenzi echoes Martin’s comments.
“Kaiser has played a role but not played a domineering role,” he says. “Kaiser has played a role like other folks.”
Kaiser spokeswoman Susan Ashe says her company has good reasons to try to keep the freeway as far from its Mead plant as possible. While the land may someday be needed for expansion, its most important role is to serve as a buffer between the company and encroaching residential developments.
“Our preferred route is the one which least disrupts our operations,” she says. “In our view, it’s a competitive issue.
“If (the freeway) has the potential to impact our current flexibility and future expansions, it has the potential of making our operations less competitive.”
But she doubts that Kaiser wields a big enough hammer to move the freeway off its land.
“If Kaiser had any power, the original alignment wouldn’t have bisected our property,” she says.
The alignment Ashe refers to is one that appeared on environmental documents and maps in the early 1990s, along with several other possibilities. By the time a final environmental impact statement came out in 1997, that route, which cut a diagonal swath across vacant Kaiser land north of the Mead plant, was highlighted as the freeway’s most likely path.
A DOT document entitled “Kaiser Aluminum Contacts” details eight meetings with Kaiser between July 1991 and December 1997, as well as letters and memorandums between the company and the DOT.
During that time, Kaiser representatives repeatedly spoke in favor of the freeway but against any use of their property.
In February 1998, then-project engineer Harold White wrote in a memo to Lenzi that the DOT “will continue working the issues with Kaiser. However, to justify changing the alignment and potentially impacting additional residences will require specifics from Kaiser, which have not been forthcoming to date. General reasons will not suffice.”
A few months later, when Martin took over as project engineer, he says he brought a fresh eye to the project. He studied development patterns and how many homes had sprung up between Highways 2 and 395 since the original route was drawn.
“The world changed,” he says.
Moving the freeway north made sense, he says. “The original route would form a physical barrier in this residential area.”
He lists other reasons for looking farther north: The original route crossed a fill site. It hit U.S. Highway 2 at an odd angle, and engineers prefer to build at 90 degrees. It went through a valley. Moving it north would put it on a ridge above two schools instead of right next to them.
Also, he says, he felt intuitively that a northerly route would look better and create fewer noise problems.
“That’s how that came to be,” Martin says.
He adds that avoiding industrial land keeps costs down because it’s more expensive than residential.
“You could put any name you want to the properties out there,” he says. “From a cost standpoint, industrial zoned property is steep.”
Martin’s engineers worked on the new route most of 1998, showing it to the public at meetings earlier this year as the department’s new “preferred alternative.”
In March, a 21-member committee made up of DOT planners and engineers, affected homeowners and a Mead school official, worked on a federally mandated process called a “value engineering study.” Basically, the committee took another look at where the freeway should go once it crosses Hawthorne.
Committee members ignored the two DOT proposals - the original route and the preferred alternative - and looked at clean maps. They blocked out a variety of “constraints,” or properties they wanted to avoid, such as Kaiser Aluminum land, the Mead Royale Mobile Home Park and the Mead School Administration building.
Two corridors emerged: a route similar to the original route but going north and west on the edge of Kaiser’s Farwell land, called the south route; and a route that went through the Garden City neighborhood, nearly identical to the DOT’s most-recent “preferred alignment,” called the north route.
After a weeklong study, the north route won the committee’s recommendation. The study cites several reasons, including lower right-of-way costs, fewer home and business displacements, less noise and better access.
Included in the 202-page study is a March 3 letter from Kaiser responding to questions raised by the committee about how a freeway across the company’s land might affect operations.
In the letter, spokeswoman Ashe and Mead Manager Jim Chapman reiterate that the original freeway route found in the environmental documents “is unacceptable.”
They go on to say that Kaiser’s economic viability is crucial to Spokane’s economy. The company contributes $1.5 billion to the area economy and “employs approximately 2,700 people, and one in 20 Spokane County jobs are attributable to Kaiser’s two plants.”
Garden City resident David Kirkman, who was on the study’s committee, says a lot of attention was paid to Kaiser’s concerns while possible routes were being explored.
“We heard it a lot in fairly great detail,” he says.
But shortly after the engineering study was done, cracks began to show in the north route, Martin says. Indepth sound studies found more problems than expected. The number of displacements shifted to favor the south route. Right-of-way costs moved closer together.
Also, at the public’s urging, Martin decided it was only fair to take another look at the original route, which included a large cloverleaf interchange across Kaiser’s property.
The department never planned to build such a massive structure, but environmental studies always look at worst-case scenarios, he says. His engineers recently designed a smaller interchange.
All these factors led him to toss the study’s recommendation and give all three routes equal consideration, he says.
DOT engineers currently are refining all proposed routes, analyzing their design and detailing their costs before making a final recommendation, he says.
Garden City’s Kirkman has little hope the final decision will keep his neighborhood intact. In the value engineering study that he worked on, a reference is made to Kaiser possibly pursuing an injunction to stop the project.
“Who’s going to offer the most litigation? It’s certainly not going to be the Garden City neighborhood,” Kirkman says.
Kaiser and DOT officials say the aluminum manufacturer never has threatened to sue. But Ashe says the company won’t roll over without a fight.
“(A lawsuit) is certainly nothing that we have articulated, but understand we’re certainly going to always look at our options,” she says.
“It’s not only in our interest but in the community’s interest as well.”
As for Martin, he knows whatever his engineers recommend will upset someone.
“We’re not out to make anybody particularly happy or not,” he says. “That’s just not our main focus.”