Improving north-south traffic in Spokane is an idea born in the postwar years, back when you started your car by stepping down on a floorboard push-button.
In 1956, the cost of a north-south freeway was estimated at $13 million.
Today, cars have electronic ignition and fuel injection. And the cost of a limited-access high-speed route through north Spokane has ballooned to $1 billion.
With so much money involved, officials say it could take 10, 15, even 20 years to complete the long-sought route.
On Wednesday, a half-century of debate will culminate in an official groundbreaking ceremony, scheduled to coincide with the first day of construction on the first leg of a highway that’s come to be known as the North Spokane Corridor.
“It’s the old adage. You can only get a road built when you start one,” said Dale Stedman of the Spokane Area Good Roads Association advocacy group. Stedman has been a proponent of a north-south freeway for nearly as long as the project has been under discussion.
The work that begins Wednesday involves a tiny fraction of the project - a $3.5 million job for grading and drainage between Hawthorne Road and U.S. Highway 2.
The groundbreaking is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Wilson Street south of Farwell Road near Mead. The public is welcome.
Freeway completion is planned in segments, the first being the section between U.S. 2 and Hawthorne Road near Market Street.
The speed of construction hinges on availability of money from Olympia and Washington, D.C.
Even so, the act of laying steel to dirt is a big moment for those who want the freeway.
“I think it’s the realization of a dream that’s been around here for 50 years,” said Jerry Lenzi, Spokane regional administrator for the state Department of Transportation.
Over the past decade, Lenzi has shepherded the project through community meetings, route selection, an environmental impact study and initial right-of-way purchases.
To him, the North Spokane Corridor offers more than transportation efficiency by allowing motorists to bypass clogged arterials.
“This is going to be a facility you can drive at 60 mph unimpeded by traffic lights,” he said.
It is also seen as an economic asset.
For starters, it offers a reliable route for moving some 3.7 million tons of freight through the city each year, Lenzi said.
According to DOT, construction of the highway will create 750 jobs in the Spokane area alone. It has the potential to reduce air pollution from stop-and-go driving by 2.4 million pounds of carbon monoxide a year.
The savings in accident reductions because of the relative safety of the route could total $22 million a year. And the highway collectively would save motorists 2 million hours of time that they now spend in traffic on the North Side.
But those savings come at a cost.
In the East Central Neighborhood alone, the freeway would consume 370 homes and 50 business for its ramps, bridges and extra lanes.
The entire route would take or alter nearly 700 homes and businesses.
Along Interstate 90, improvements to east-west traffic would add eight new lanes for what highway engineers call a collector-distributor system.
“Just picture a great big ‘X’ in the middle of the neighborhood when they get done,” said Eric Johnson, chairman of the East Central Neighborhood Council.
“There are some of us hoping the Legislature never finishes funding it to save the neighborhood,” he said.
The idea that freeways will reduce pollution and save on fuel consumption is faulty thinking, he said. Freeways only stimulate suburban sprawl, and bring with them the demand for an ever-widening circle of municipal services.
“It’s for the benefit of people living in suburbs,” Johnson said. “Why do they keep doing it to low-income neighborhoods?”
Among the businesses already being displaced is the Max J. Kuney Co. of Spokane.
The company earns its profits by building bridges, many of them for highway projects like the North Spokane Corridor.
But the company’s storage yard on Parksmith Drive just east of the Kaiser Mead plant lies in the path of the highway.
“We are not wild about moving,” said Max Kuney.
His workers have until Sept. 15 to clear useable scaffolding, steel beams and other construction equipment. The rest is being sold for scrap.
In all, there are probably 50 semitruck loads of materials to be moved, with much of it going to a new construction yard near Airway Heights.
The Kuney company has a long record of construction in the region. It built the elevated freeway through Wallace, Idaho; the new Sprague Avenue interchange on I-90, and the downtown Opera House and Convention Center.
The company is likely to compete for bridge contracts on the North Spokane Corridor.
“I think it’s a needed project,” Kuney said.