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Northeast county roads matter for election

Editor’s note: The following is an open letter to Spokane County commissioners and commissioner candidates.

I have lived on Bridges Road, in northeastern Spokane County, since late 1974. When I first moved there, there were six families on the four-mile stretch of that road between Elk and Jackson Road, where Jackson forms a T intersection with Bridges. I was informed by Spokane County Road Department employees when I went there last year to inquire about improving Bridges Road that there were 117 families living on Bridges then; there are more now – I don’t know how many.

The section of Bridges Road that I live on is one of the worst I’ve driven in Washington, or for that matter, any other state. Worst in these respects: When the road is dry, which is nearly continuously from May to October, it is enshrouded in a dust cloud up to a half mile in width, thick dust that residents along the road and drivers using it must breathe, dust which permeates every corner of their homes and cars. The condition of the road represents a serious health hazard, and an outrageous violation of the Clean Air Act.

When the road is dry and a driver passes an oncoming car, visibility is reduced to zero for several seconds, and a driver simply can’t see whether another car is coming, or whether there’s a child, a bicyclist, a dog, a deer, or anything else on the road. The condition is very, very dangerous. And, although less important, the physical condition of the road – the deep and continuous washboard, the holes – pounds cars and trucks to pieces.

As commissioners or commissioner candidate, you may entertain the notion that rural roads are simply bad, there’s not much to do about it, and besides, as Spokane County Road Department employees are apt to explain, Spokane County has hundreds of miles of roads. Yes, it also has hundreds of thousands of residents. Why is it that whenever one leaves Spokane County by a county road, to any of the adjacent county roads in Washington or Idaho, the roads suddenly become better?

I’ve had Spokane County Road Department employees try to explain to me that it’s because the smaller, in population, adjoining counties receive hundreds of thousands or millions of federal tax dollars in road assistance; a close acquaintance of mine is the Pend Oreille County engineer, and he tells me that is simply false.

In May of this year the Spokane County Road Department held a meeting at Riverside High School for northeastern Spokane County residents regarding Bridges and other dirt roads in the vicinity. At the meeting, representatives of the department announced that Bridges Road could be paved, but only through the vehicle of a Road Improvement District, at a cost to each resident of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. That was the only alternative. Otherwise, the residents would get nothing. Bridges was not eligible for paving because it doesn’t qualify as an arterial.

Well, the year before last the road department paved Tallman Road, a road that dead-ends somewhere up the side of Mount Kit Carson. But, road department employees notwithstanding, Bridges Road is an arterial, its extension connecting with Spring Valley Road in Pend Oreille County, which is paved, and leads to Newport, Wash.

These announcements were remarkably arrogant; road department officials are not elected, they are employees of the county and have no authority to make such policy. But what, those in attendance wondered, as do I, has happened to our dedicated road taxes? They’re not used for road maintenance – there is virtually no road maintenance. And you must understand, so far as property taxes are concerned, except for schools and fire protection (both funded through separate tax districts) road construction and maintenance is the only county service rural county residents receive.

Bridges Road should be paved, in an inexpensive manner, out of the road taxes that residents along the road, and other residents living in northeast Spokane County who use that road, have paid and continue to pay. And those residents should not be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of personal debt to achieve the end to which they are entitled.

Northeast Spokane County residents might have legitimate complaints, regarding the health and safety issues raised by road conditions, to the Environmental Protection Agency, or regarding local tax issues, to the state auditor. I write to you, as commissioners or candidates, because you are or will be elected officials within whose purview this issue lies – a policy matter for your deliberation and decision. Northeast county residents are entitled to know what your opinions on this road issue are and what your actions will be, if elected, so that we can register an informed vote.

Mark E. Wilson is professor emeritus at Gonzaga Law School.