Plans to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge connecting the Riverpoint campus to the University District area along East Sprague Avenue were put on hold temporarily this week to allow more time for public comment.
The city of Spokane is considering a $1.3 million agreement with Seattle-based KPFF Consulting Engineers to complete a design for the span over the BNSF railroad tracks bisecting the University District, an area of industrial buildings, mixed-use developments and college campuses on the south bank of the Spokane River. Proponents say the project would invite development and potentially revitalize an entryway into downtown Spokane, while Councilman Mike Fagan and some business owners worry the revenue stream for the project could dry up, ultimately leaving local taxpayers to foot a bill that area businesses and universities should pay.
“It seems like an island,” University District Project Manager Brandon Betty said of the roughly 40-square-block neighborhood nestled between the train tracks to the north and I-90 to the south. “The bridge is meant to open that area up to connectivity with the Riverpoint campus.”
University District leadership hopes the project will build on momentum generated by construction of the new Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences building near the proposed bridge. Just last week, industry analysts revised upward the economic impact of improvements to Washington State University’s Riverpoint campus to $350 million annually, thanks in part to the construction of the new building.
But Betty said the suspension pedestrian bridge, with a support tower topping out at 120 feet, would have a lasting effect on the entire city.
“This will become a future part of the Spokane skyline,” Betty said, explaining that it will be viewable as you enter the city from the Spokane Valley in the east and from Sunset Hill on the west.
Funding for the design contract will come entirely from a state grant earmarked for the project. But Fagan is worried about the project’s final price tag, estimated between $14 million and $16 million, as the state Legislature bickers about its budget. He wants to give community members more time to weigh in on the costs, so he asked the council to open the contract agreement to public comment at its next meeting.
“I just want to give the people the opportunity to opine,” Fagan said.
Business reactions along Sprague were mixed. Sunset Junction Model Trains owner Jim Smith, who has operated his business out of 419 E. Sprague for 12 years, wondered who would use the bridge with a railway underpass available at the end of the block on Division Street.
“It’s a dumb idea,” Smith said, though he added he was pleased with other business-promoting actions by the University District leadership.
His neighbor, Floormart owner Mike Rohme, said he was excited for the project and its potential to bring in new businesses to that area of the city with foot traffic from the college.
“You’re going to see just a whole sprouting of new types of businesses,” Rohme said.
Fagan’s counterpart on the council, northeast district Councilwoman Amber Waldref, agreed.
“I just think it’s an exciting project and we need to move forward on it,” Waldref said. The money for the consulting contract has already been allocated, she said, and stakeholders have already weighed in several times throughout the process.
The consulting contract is paid for entirely by a $3.1 million state grant. Leftover money will go toward buying right-of-way and beginning construction on the bridge.
Fagan said he plans to oppose the bridge as the process continues. He wants the colleges to pay for the project and WSU to donate the land needed for right-of-way on the north side, which the university plans to do. The latest estimates put right-of-way costs at around $2 million.
Originally proposed in a districtwide study in 2004, the bridge likely won’t be completed for at least a few years as the city explores funding sources. Its price tag would place it among the costliest bridge projects the city has undertaken in recent memory. The two-year rehabilitation of the Monroe Street Bridge ending in 2005 cost $18 million, and the 2003 Trent Avenue Bridge project cost $9 million.
The University District is part of a tax-increment financing district, which allows property tax increases from area development to fund infrastructure projects. State grants for pedestrian and bicycle projects are also a potential source of revenue, Betty said.
Councilman Mike Allen said he agreed with Fagan’s request for more time to discuss project plans.
“It is a very important project, but it is also a very expensive project,” he said.
The council will hold a hearing on the contract at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall.