Spokane city officials are pushing forward with a long-term plan to clean, paint and upgrade downtown underpasses under Interstate 90 and the BNSF Railway tracks.
Launched last year, the effort is guided by a “gateway” committee focusing on refreshing the appearance of freeway exits at Division, Lincoln and Maple streets, as well as 18 railway underpasses, said Jan Quintrall, director of the city’s business and developer services.
The committee includes city officials and representatives from the Downtown Spokane Partnership, Washington State Department of Transportation and BNSF. The state and the railway own the land beneath their underpasses. The city has a lease from the state to operate underpass parking spaces and BNSF provides easements for traffic and utilities below the train tracks.
City officials for several years have discussed taking steps to beautify the Division and Lincoln exits, which have become eyesores greeting drivers entering downtown, according to Quintrall.
So far the city has committed to spend $50,000 this year on those efforts, she said. The money comes from economic development funds and parking lot receipts.
City officials have discussed working on the underpasses for years, but “this is first time we’ve seen this kind of investment in the gateways in many years,” Quintrall said.
The city has used work crews from Geiger Corrections Center to paint and clean up the railroad underpasses and a large portion of other underpasses from Division to Maple streets. The eight-person work crews have also planted new vegetation along the Division and Lincoln exits, said Corrections Deputy Clint Barnett.
The crews are not paid, but Barnett said they “take a lot of pride in doing this because most of them are from right here and they like seeing the improvement.”
Most of the city funds for the project come from fees charged at downtown underpass parking lots. The expenses are primarily for paint and landscaping materials, as well as administering the cleanup program using Geiger workers, Quintrall said.
She said few other cities have underpasses as prominent in their downtowns as Spokane does.
If Riverfront Park is Spokane’s “front door” for visitors, “The exit ramps are the ‘back doors’ to our city and we want them to appear more consistent and attractive,” Quintrall said.
Another goal of the gateway program is to prompt business owners near the underpasses to help the city and the state stay on top of graffiti, littering and other eyesores, Quintrall said.
BNSF has taken a supportive role, having committed to restoring the concrete rail underpass at Washington Street, a major project that city officials say will make a significant imprint on that section of downtown. No date has been set for that upgrade.
BNSF also approved city-led efforts to paint underpass columns downtown. “Some of those areas have never seen paint, I bet, in the years they’ve been there,” Quintrall said.
Work crews focused first on Division and Lincoln because those exits were so ugly, she said. The side ramp exits have been painted and fresh plants put in.
The Maple exit isn’t as visually messy but has confusing lane markings. The goal there is to make it simpler for drivers to know how to get to their destination, she said.
Charlene Kay, a planning manager with the state Transportation Department, has been on the gateway committee. Kay said the Spokane project is the only one she’s aware of in Eastern Washington looking at underpass improvements.
She added that the project is more than just painting and adding plants.
“I see this as providing a context for the city’s history and our culture in this area. Gateways into the city are the first opportunity for others to see who we are as a city,” Kay said.