April 26, 2007 in Voices

Planners tackle Valley-Post Falls commute

By The Spokesman-Review
 
J. BART RAYNIAK photo

The Liberty Lake Harvard Road exit only services the south side of Interstate 90, causing jams during peak hours at Appleway.
(Full-size photo)

Inside

Map shows boundaries

of traffic study area/Page 3

The worst traffic troubles along Interstate 90 between Spokane Valley and Post Falls can be summed up in six words: “You can’t get there from here.”

“I-90 splits the town in half,” said Bill Melvin, city engineer for Post Falls. He sees a need for two additional freeway interchanges for his small city, which was once considered a quiet bedroom community but now has real, urban traffic problems.

The same can be said for Liberty Lake, a rapidly expanding community that straddles the freeway on the Washington side of the state line. Only one road connects Liberty Lake’s north and south sides. One road has been enough until now, but with plans for as many as 3,000 new homes and apartment units on the mostly vacant north side of the interstate, city officials there say one road won’t be enough for long.

They, too, want a second, fully functional freeway interchange.

Local transportation officials at all government levels see rough patches ahead for commuters between Spokane Valley and Post Falls, and not just on the freeway. There are secondary roads between the two that haven’t been improved upon for several decades, mostly because the lots on their shoulders had remained rural. Those lots are now filling with homes and businesses. And traffic analysts are launching a new study of the community’s road needs. As a first step, they’re asking residents to register their concerns.

“We’re just starting to look ahead at what our transportation needs might be in the future,” said Staci Lehman, of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

SRTC is the “big picture” organization charged with making sure that the road plans of various governments in the Spokane area work together. The federal government requires all urban communities with populations of 100,000 or more to have organizations like SRTC.

Kootenai County had to form its own big-picture organization after the 2000 census, which pegged its population at 108,865. That organization is known as the Kootenai County Metropolitan Planning Organization, or KMPO, and it works closely with SRTC. The Spokane group is on contract to provide the day-to-day operations for the Kootenai group.

Explosive growth in both sides of the state line has traffic engineers concerned about whether the area’s roads are ready for more. Kootenai County, which grew 55 percent in the 1990s, added nearly 4,000 new residents in 2006 alone.

Post Falls, which last year approved plans for 900 new homes, condominiums and apartments, is expected to take the brunt of the county’s population boom.

Post Falls considers a new freeway interchange at North Greensferry Road to be crucial. The crossroad is needed to provide access to a retail area on the interstate’s south side that currently has no clear path to the interstate.

In fact, between the Seltice Way I-90 interchange and U.S. Highway 41, there’s no way to cross the interstate for 2 1/2 miles.

Growth along U.S. 41 is another big issue for Post Falls, said Melvin.

“Highway 41 is seeing a lot of transportation impact. There’s a lot of growth along that corridor,” Melvin said. “We recently installed sanitary sewer along part of 41, so that’s ready to grow.”

On the Washington side, traffic on I-90 through the area averages 45,000 cars a day and has increased about 1,000 cars a year since 2002, according to the Washington Department of Transportation. Changes in Liberty Lake could add several thousand trips to that total.

Liberty Lake annexed 644 acres on the north side of I-90 last year, and developers have plans for a 3,000-home project there, including retail shopping along I-90 near the Spokane Valley city limits and a community center near Harvard Road.

The kind of growth potential between Liberty Lake and Post Falls has already resulted in big box stores positioning themselves for growth. Liberty Lake, a city of only 5,000, landed The Home Depot last year.

Outdoor sporting goods giant Cabela’s is building a store in Post Falls on North Beck Road. Officials believe Cabela’s will attract other businesses to the area and enough traffic to warrant a new freeway interchange, which would be just one of three that communities are pining for. Liberty Lake wants to expand its western-most freeway exit to service the north side of the interstate. Currently, exit 294, known as the Greenacres interchange, only services the south side of I-90.

“We’ve identified in our local study that the Greenacres interchange is something that needs to be improved,” said Doug Smith, Liberty Lake’s director of community development.

As it now exists, the Greenacres interchange only accepts westbound interstate traffic and only dumps it on the south side of Liberty Lake. Drivers trying to get on I-90 from the interchange can only travel east. Liberty Lake would like to see the freeway fully accessible at exit 294, which would also make it a functional bridge over I-90.

Without the improvements, Smith said traffic from north Liberty Lake will likely clog the interchanges at Harvard Road, as well as Barker Road in Spokane Valley.

Spokane Valley has its own growing pains east of Sullivan Road. Flora Road, once a rural connector over the freeway between north and south Greenacres, is shouldering hundreds more cars than it did a few years ago as homes sprout up on the north Greenacres pasture land. Wal-Mart traffic on East Broadway Avenue east of Sullivan has become so steady that members of the Assembly of God church were unable to turn left from their parking lot onto Broadway after weekend church services. The church had to buy land south of the building and punch a private drive through to Valleyway Avenue, just to beat the big-box rush. Now Lowe’s Home Improvement plans to build just east of Wal-Mart.

Away from the I-90 corridor, traffic planners are responding to increasing traffic along Trent Road all the way to Starr Road in the Newman Lake area, where plans are in the works for a traffic light or traffic circle.

There are plenty of needed traffic improvements to talk about, Lehman said. The problem is that too few people are talking. At its only traffic meeting so far, SRTC received only 20 comments, half of which were from landholders, builders and others with direct interests in a particular change in the study area.

What the commission would like, Lehman said, are comments from everyday commuters, including pedestrians and bicyclists who see a need for trails.

SRTC doesn’t have another meeting scheduled at the moment. It is asking the public to submit comments to srtc@srtc.org.


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