A month after Spokane leaders endorsed goals to make streets more amenable to pedestrians and bicyclists, debate is emerging that could delay one of the city’s largest planned repaving projects this year.
At least two City Council members are pushing administrators to redesign Second Avenue downtown before it’s reconstructed this summer.
The debate is similar to disputes that have arisen over the design of several repaving projects paid for by the street construction property tax approved by voters in 2004.
Voters were told their tax money would pay to smooth 110 miles of Spokane’s notoriously bumpy streets, and city leaders argue that adding extra features like bike lanes, sidewalks or street trees would make it difficult to fulfill that promise. One of the few exceptions has been to make adjacent sidewalks at intersections compliant with federal accessibility law.
Some bicyclists and neighborhood leaders say the city is wasting opportunities to make design and streetscape improvements, including changes called for in the city’s long-term development plan. Mayor Mary Verner has taken the same stance as her predecessor. She says street bond money should be used only to redo the street as it was. But she recently formed a committee to look for grants and other funding opportunities to add features to paving projects falling under the 2004 street tax.
Supporters of more bicycle-friendly streets recently discovered that plans to repave Second between Division Street and Latah Creek won’t include a bike lane, even though the street is labeled a bicycle route in the city’s bike plan.
Council members Richard Rush and Jon Snyder say the city should consider a new concept for Second that could improve pedestrian safety and enhance the look of the street.
“The question is what are we doing for our small businesses and how is that street design helping or hurting our small businesses,” Snyder said.
In April, he spearheaded the City Council’s efforts to direct city workers to “identify the gaps” and locate “opportunities to supplement and fund” complete street plans.
Administrators say it’s important to keep on schedule with the Second Avenue project. They also say changing plans is an additional expense, even if construction is expected to cost the same.
“The engineering work is complete,” said City Administrator Ted Danek. “Two weeks before contract issuance is a really bad time to re-engineer a project.”
City Engineer Mike Taylor said delaying construction could increase costs. Since the economy tanked, paving bids have fallen 30 percent below expectations, but as the economy improves, contractors are expected to begin charging more, he said.
The Second Avenue project is estimated to cost $2.1 million and start around August.
Councilwoman Amber Waldref said she’s open to the idea of redesigning the street because Second serves as an entrance to visitors coming off Interstate 90.
“It could be an opportunity for people to do some shopping and drive them deeper into downtown Spokane and hopefully spend some dollars,” Waldref said.
At least a couple of business owners on Second said they wouldn’t necessarily mind a delay.
Craig Davis, who co-owns Marcella’s Bridal, said as long as street parking is maintained, he might prefer waiting if the final design includes better plans for pedestrians and “more of a community-type atmosphere.”
Dan Spalding, who remodeled a building that includes Lolo Boutique and other businesses, agreed. “I would be all for waiting a little longer and coming up with a better mousetrap,” he said.
Brent Christensen, general manager of Larry H. Miller Honda, said he’s unsure whether he would support a delay. Either way, the road needs to be repaved soon, he said. “If you’ve driven down it, you know it needs to be done.”
In arguing for a different plan, Rush has pointed to a recent street redesign in New York. That project inserted a bike lane next to the street curb and moved street parking between the bike and car travel lanes.
That kind of plan is doable, but only after a lot of planning, a strong endorsement from adjacent businesses and finding the money for the extra costs, Taylor said. Additionally, the city must study if removing traffic lanes would increase congestion and air pollution, or if other factors – like creating turn lanes at intersections – could mitigate traffic backups. All these considerations and negotiations could take three years or more for an untraditional design like the New York example given by Rush, he said.
“You don’t want to alienate (businesses and residents) when you look for a new way of thinking,” Taylor said. “You don’t put that stuff together without lots of collaboration.”
Taylor said the city is interested in “complete street” concepts, such as the Market Street construction last year and the 37th and Lincoln projects this year. In those cases, the city supplemented street tax funding with grants and other sources of money to add features including bike lanes, improved storm water collection, street trees and improved lighting.
Taylor said several street bond projects remain that could incorporate “complete street” concepts without affecting construction schedules. One example could be Rockwood Boulevard, he said.
“I’m 100 percent for complete streets, Spokane style,” Taylor said.
Dallas Hawkins, chairman of the Citizens Streets Advisory Committee, said halfway through the 10-year construction period, the city is on track to pave 110 miles of streets in part because Spokane has not diverted money for extra features. If the city hopes to win more tax votes for streets, it shouldn’t be sidetracked from the goal, Hawkins said.
Already, city leaders are debating how to fund new street projects once the $117 million generated by the 2004 tax is exhausted. Hawkins suggested city leaders start planning what new features besides paving should be covered, before voters cast ballots.
For now, Hawkins said Second Avenue work should move forward “as advertised.”