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Tue., July 16, 2013

U-district bridge vital to promote area growth

A University District confined to the area north of the BNSF Railway tracks will not become the hub of bio-medical research supporters have envisioned since the Spokane Intercollegiate Research Technology Institute sprouted up across the Spokane River from Gonzaga University 20 years ago.

As one new building after another has erased what was once a wasteland, the combined Washington State/Eastern Washington University campus has filled out the footprint north of Spokane Falls Blvd. The Bookie, Spokane Technology Center and campus parking are on the south side. The area available for future construction is limited, and should be preserved for the public and private laboratories and offices district supporters hope will one day generate $350 million in additional economic activity.

If the university faculty, students and high-skill workers are going to have a convenient place to live, shop and recreate, the district must reach into the East Sprague area. A 2009 study indicated demand for housing alone could exceed 1,500 units where there are 100 today.

That will not happen without a bridge.

The cable-stayed structure authorized by the Spokane City Council will be 400 feet long and top out at 120 feet in height, in part because the railroad wants 26 feet of clearance for its trains. The preliminary renderings show a graceful, arched refinement of the cable bridge across the Columbia River at Tri-Cities; the first of its kind built in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the design and its cost have raised eyebrows almost as high as the bridge. A price tag of around $15 million would about equal that of reconstructing the Monroe Street Bridge eight years ago. And it carries cars.

So far, the cost to the city has been minimal. Conceptual work, including public meetings, consumed $440,000 in state discretionary money, and more state and federal dollars will pay for design and some of the needed land. Construction constitutes about half the final tab.

The Spokane Regional Transportation Commission will determine whether and how much more public money will be dedicated to construction. Other funds would be generated from a tax-increment finance zone that encompasses some of the property that would increase in value when there is access to the U-District.

How all these elements coalesce will become clearer as the design progresses, land acquisition begins and applications for funding are processed.

Six of seven City Council members approved the design go-ahead with the conviction that an expensive bridge can be justified by the economic development expected in the area as the U-District campus becomes a complete community for educators, students, professionals and businesses.

If so, the district would become a wonderful bookend for the Kendall Yards development at the other end of downtown. Bridge supporters say developers are anxious to piggyback on the public dollars and transform East Sprague. It would be encouraging if those entities stepped forward with projects and investment before officials buy the public a bridge.

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