Corridor funding may hit dead end
Freeway faces competition for dwindling money
As the northern half of the north Spokane freeway nears completion, state transportation officials say there is no clear route to financing the hugely expensive southern half.
Nearly $600 million has been allocated so far, and the opening of the 5 1/2 miles from the Little Spokane River to Hillyard is expected early next spring.
More than twice that amount – $1.3 billion – is needed to complete the southern five miles from Francis Avenue to Interstate 90.
Just one additional piece of construction is being funded with savings in the current run of work, a large new rail overpass bridge for Francis Avenue, starting next year.
Beyond that, the funding picture is dim, leaving determination as the main fuel behind the north-south freeway drive.
Wayne Brokaw, executive director of the Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors, has spent the past few years lobbying heavily for the freeway.
“This is a priority project. We need to get it funded and completed,” he said. “The feds need to step up and match the state.”
But federal money may be hard to come by. According to an analysis by the Washington State Department of Transportation, federal highway funding could drop by 20 percent in coming years, and reauthorization of the federal transportation act is stalled in the other Washington. The federal highway construction program and the gas and diesel taxes that pay for much of it expire Sept. 30.
The program has limped along for two years under short-term extensions and money infusions from the general treasury. President Barack Obama urged Congress last week to pass bills to fund highways and air travel.
At the same time, state gasoline tax receipts are expected to decline over time as drivers switch to electric and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
On top of that, there are dozens of transportation priorities competing for what appear to be shrinking funding sources.
How Spokane fares in coming years is anybody’s guess. Freeway funding is likely to arrive a piece at a time, pushing final completion out a decade or longer.
Even so, Brokaw and others try to remain optimistic.
“We are hopeful the Legislature will address long-term funding for this project,” said Al Gilson, spokesman for the WSDOT in Spokane.
Advocates are going to keep promoting the freeway in Washington, D.C., and Olympia.
To take advantage of smaller funding pots, state engineers have redesigned the next three miles through Hillyard to reduce costs, and they have sliced that work into more bite-sized pieces.
The North Spokane Corridor was the beneficiary of state gasoline tax increases in 2003 and 2005 that are financing projects around the state over 30 years through the sale of bonds.
While those two gas tax increases totaling 14.5 cents a gallon continue to be collected at the pump, the money now will go mostly to retire construction bonds. As a result, there are no big pots of incoming tax money available to use.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has convened a Connecting Washington Task Force to look at the problem statewide.
Nonetheless, drivers here are going to see half of their new freeway opened by next spring from the Little Spokane River at Wandermere to Freya near Francis Avenue.
Part of the route will run on the currently open two-lane segment between Farwell Road and the Freya interchange.
Southbound lanes from Farwell to Freya are under construction through a federal economic stimulus grant of $35 million and will open next year, too.
A sizeable number of drivers will likely find it useful. Engineers expect traffic counts to reach 14,000 to 15,000 vehicles a day along the 5 1/2-mile route, said Larry Larson, project engineer for the state Department of Transportation. “There’s a demand,” he said.
A favorable bid climate last year allowed the state to retain enough money to build an interchange at Parksmith Drive to be completed next year. Bids are being sought now.
In addition, the Francis overpass bridge is being funded with savings from work on the north end jobs. It will require a temporary grade crossing during two years of construction.
Originally, the state had hoped to open the northern half by this summer, but the contractor building flyover ramps just south of the Little Spokane River ran into problems with groundwater coming from excavation for ramp piers.
Next up in the long-range plan is building the segment from Freya to the Spokane River, a distance of about three miles.
The state has cut the cost there from $730 million to $328 million by dropping a plan to place the roadway in a sunken grade through Hillyard and by reducing railroad realignments.
Landscaping and noise walls through the neighborhood are planned to help mitigate sight and sound problems.
Piers for the new Francis bridge will be stamped with art-deco designs incorporating locomotive images, making it Spokane’s new northern entry point.
A trail just west of the BNSF Railway line will provide the neighborhood with an important amenity, and will be part of a longer trail system included in the freeway.
Dave Griswold, a Hillyard neighborhood leader, said residents have accepted the fact that a freeway is coming their way, and they see an upside in increased commercial activity from a higher number of vehicles passing through the area.
“It’s like anything else. This is a transition we have to make,” he said.
The work through Hillyard could be finished in seven years if money is available, Larson said.
Brokaw and others in Spokane keep promoting the advantages of full completion. Among the points they make:
• It will save at least 30 minutes of travel time, an important consideration for freight operators as well as drivers.
• The project creates jobs and provides access to 400 acres of industrial property that could be developed for more jobs.
• It will cut fuel consumption and emissions.
• Traffic on North Side arterials, particularly big trucks on Division Street, will be reduced.
• The freeway opens the possibility of increased trade with Canada.
The Goliath remains the final two miles from the Spokane River to the connection with I-90. It involves building an elevated section of highway and a trumpet-shaped interchange of ramps and collector arterials.
Real estate along Second and Third avenues continues to be purchased. In all, 439 homes are being taken to make room for the new freeway system through east Spokane.
The estimated cost of construction of the final segment of freeway is $1 billion.
Brokaw said he’s optimistic the full project can be finished in 10 years but acknowledges it could take much longer than that.
“If we get it done in 20 years, I’ll still be elated,” he said.