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Sat., Dec. 13, 2008

Leaner corridor needs our region’s support

After six decades, the regional dream of a high-speed transportation corridor connecting North Spokane with Interstate 90 is beginning to be realized.

By 2011, 5.5 miles of the corridor between Wandermere and Freya Avenue will have opened, thanks largely to a state investment of more than $530 million. It’s an impressive start, but we can’t stop there.

To build on that progress we must take a realistic view of the state’s financial challenges, which include declining transportation revenues and escalating construction costs combined with a backlog of worthy projects.

To do this, we have worked with the state Department of Transportation over this past year to develop what we call the “six-year solution.” It builds on existing investments in the North Spokane Corridor, extends it all the way to the Spokane River and accelerates construction timelines to reduce price escalation. It also eliminates expensive design assumptions like depressed roadways, bridges and retaining walls and utilizes less expensive industrial right-of-way to significantly drive down costs.

What’s more, this approach preserves all expansion options for the future, including high-capacity transportation.

Remarkably, all this has slashed the cost of the eight-lane corridor in half. And to get started by building the first four lanes in the current phase – plenty for today’s needs – we’d need $285 million, a very modest sum for such a major project. It’s an innovative and cost-saving approach to looking at the state’s $38 billion backlog of highway construction projects, and it could prove a model for other regions to emulate.

When you weigh these much reduced costs with the benefits, the six-year solution becomes even more compelling. After completion in 2015, the 8.5-mile commute from Wandermere to the Spokane River will be reduced from 27 minutes to as low as seven minutes. WSDOT estimates that would save more than 1.7 million gallons of gas a year and 2 million hours a year for commuters and freight users.

Air quality would benefit from a reduction of 2.4 million pounds of carbon monoxide annually. Our neighborhoods would see lower accident rates and reduced street wear and tear caused by truck and car traffic diverted past homes, schools and parks.

In this struggling economy, it’s also important to acknowledge the benefit to local businesses, particularly those in the Hillyard area, who complain of the added costs of navigating city streets. A functional North Spokane Corridor would help them thrive and add even more living wage jobs.

Lastly, there is the direct economic stimulus benefit of $285 million in new employment associated with this next phase. It is this promise of thousands of new construction and related jobs that prompted U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to embrace this approach and pledge to seek federal funding.

We understand a successful process must respect neighborhood priorities and involve neighborhood leaders. Preliminary discussions between WSDOT and neighborhood leaders are under way.

But we also know the power of unity and what dreams a community can realize when it comes together.

We were encouraged that regional business leaders recently endorsed the North Spokane Corridor as the top regional highway project priority and that our local chambers of commerce will deliver that message as part of their joint Olympia visit next month.

And at a recent announcement for this new funding proposal we were joined by elected officials from both parties as well as local officials and representatives from business, the neighborhoods and organized labor.

This is the type of bipartisan, collaborative effort we will need to deliver a strong message to our colleagues in Olympia during the 2009 legislative session that begins Jan. 12.

Washington state Sens. Lisa Brown and Chris Marr, both Democrats, represent Spokane’s 3rd and 6th Legislative Districts, respectively. Brown is Senate majority Leader. Marr is vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a former member of the state Transportation Commission.

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