With a populace that has complained loudly for decades about bumpy roads, Spokane’s focus on street money is creating smoother rides for cars.
But with voices growing for better bike transportation routes and pedestrian rights, there’s increasing pressure to construct bike lanes, separate sidewalks from the curb, plant more street trees and build bus shelters for transit users.
It’s a concept known as “complete streets,” and the Spokane City Council will take a new step today in developing policies for creating roadways that serve multiple kinds of users. Councilman Jon Snyder introduced the proposal, which asks city workers to “identify the gaps” and locate “opportunities to supplement and fund” complete street plans. Snyder said he hopes the nonbinding resolution will result in guidelines and rules for future street construction.
“The city has done some really good things and has missed some really important opportunities,” Snyder said. “Everybody benefits when this is done right.”
Supporters of the idea say improving transportation for pedestrians and bicyclists helps makes streets safer for everyone, including drivers. They also say it encourages commuters to travel in a way that promotes exercise and lessens environmental impact.
Some, however, warn that there could be costs. Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she supports adding bike lanes and other pedestrian and transit amenities – if the city can afford them.
“The concept of complete streets is great,” McLaughlin said. “The affordability of complete streets is a whole other story.”
She said she’s open to Snyder’s proposal as long as it isn’t dismissive of drivers and is clear that the city has limited resources.
“I may be able to support it if I can get some amendments added to it,” McLaughlin said.
Snyder stressed that some streets are “complete” the way they are and don’t need bus shelters or bike lanes. The city already has a bike plan that guides bicycle route improvements.
“The biggest misconception is they think that every street is going to need every change,” Snyder said. “A lot of the (improvements needed for) complete streets cost little or zero funding.”
For instance, Snyder said, the money needed to stripe a road for on-street parking or for a bike lane is nearly the same. In the long term, complete streets can cut costs by promoting travel that creates less wear on roads, he said.
Earlier this year Futurewise, a nonprofit planning and environmental policy group, started Complete Streets Spokane in partnership with other organizations including the YMCA. One goal of the new coalition is to promote complete street standards.
City public works officials say they’re committed to the concepts and that much of their work already incorporates them, but they say some improvements come with cost limitations and trade-offs.
For instance, when the city repaves 37th Avenue this year between Perry Street and Grand Boulevard, new bike lanes will be installed, but on-street parking will no longer be allowed, said Mike Taylor, Spokane’s engineering services director.
The city also will install sidewalks, but they will be attached to street curbs. Building a pedestrian path separated from the curb with a green space would have forced the city to buy more right-of-way.
“How much you can do depends on how decision makers allocate funding,” Taylor said.
Most of the 37th Avenue project will be paid for by the 10-year street bond approved by voters in 2004, but the Spokane Transit Authority is paying for the sidewalks. Taylor said that’s because the street is a significant South Hill bus route.
With growing budget difficulties, Taylor said it may be harder to win supplementary funding from agencies such as STA.
Still, city and county leaders are in the midst of debating the creation of a vehicle license fee, most of which would be used to improve local streets. At a meeting last week of Spokane and Spokane Valley city leaders, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said if a tab fee is pursued, she hopes it would be countywide and mostly divided among local jurisdictions.
County commissioners could approve a $20 tab fee without asking voters. Anything higher would have to be approved by ballot.
In 2004, Spokane voters approved the $117 million street bond funded by property taxes. It’s already paid for the repaving of 53 miles, but city leaders have been strict in using those funds and generally only allow them to be spent on work between existing curbs. That’s why the city used STA money to build the sidewalks on 37th.
The policy has angered some who say it has forced the city to abandon plans long in the works to improve bike and pedestrian travel. Snyder noted that when Second Avenue is repaved this year through downtown, it won’t have a bike lane, even though the city’s master bike plan calls for one. Supporters of the strict rules say the city is just trying to ensure it has enough money to finish all 110 miles of repaving promised in the 2004 vote.
Snyder said he’s hopeful a new complete streets policy can be ready before creation of a new funding source, such as a vehicle license fee, to ensure money could be used for more than motor vehicle travel.
Several cities have adopted complete street rules, including Seattle in 2007. Snyder said Spokane’s rules should be unique and the “policy that’s best for Spokane.”