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City ready to move forward with Ben Burr Trail project

East Central neighbors showed up at Monday’s meeting of the Planning, Community/Economic Development Committee at City Hall for one agenda point only: an update on the Ben Burr Trail project.

Engineering services operations manager Kyle Twohig brought the committee up to date on a project that continues to meet resistance in the neighborhood it’s carving through.

“Unless otherwise directed by the City Council, we are ready to move forward with the project in February,” Twohig said, adding that the city has spent about $100,000 on the project already.

The East Central Neighborhood Council recently passed a resolution opposing the project in its current form.

City Council member Candace Mumm, who heads the committee, said there must have been “a breakdown in communication if a neighborhood that once was supportive of this project is now passing a resolution against it.”

East Central Neighborhood Council chairman Jerry Numbers said after the meeting the problem is not a breakdown in communication.

“We have had no communication,” Numbers said. “That’s the problem.”

The 2.2 mile-long Ben Burr Trail follows an old railroad track running northwest through East Central. It begins at East Hills Court, just below East 11th Avenue and Fiske Street, traverses the South Hill and ends in Liberty Park, just south of Interstate 90. The trail is 6 to 8 feet wide – the width of the original train track– and mostly gravel. The proposed project would change the trail to a 12-foot-wide paved lane, with 2 feet of shoulder on both sides, as well as fencing where steep drop-offs could prove hazardous. The finished trail would be connected to the Centennial Trail in the University District, as well as to the downtown bike network via Third Avenue.

The $1.7 million project is funded mainly by the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program and the Surface Transportation Program. The grants have already been awarded.

The trail and the neighborhood’s desire to have it improved are mentioned in East Central’s Neighborhood Plan, which was finalized in 2006.

Yet, Numbers said East Central residents were completely surprised when they learned the city was this far along with the Ben Burr Trail project. And he doesn’t buy the argument that the neighborhood had plenty of opportunity to provide input back in 2006.

“I was at those meetings, back when the city was planning on applying for grants,” Numbers said. “We were told there would be some paving – but never anything like this.”

City engineers maintain that project grants require paving the trail, and paving what neighbors consider a nature trail is one of the biggest points of contention.

Mumm said she had researched the paving requirement and couldn’t find it anywhere.

“It seems to me that local jurisdiction has the ability to use different types of surface materials,” Mumm said.

Twohig said paving is preferred because the trail has to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“And it is assumed bike paths are paved,” he added.

The public comment period for the Ben Burr Trail project ended on Jan. 24. Twohig said that the city has received 71 comments in support of and 33 comments opposing the trail project.

He said the comments were left on the city’s blog site and submitted on cards after public presentations at East Central, Southgate, Rockwood, Lincoln Heights and Comstock neighborhood council meetings.

“One citizen brought in 20 letters formally signed against the project,” Twohig said. “And there was a signed petition opposing the project.”

Opponents of the project, including East Central resident Michelle Welch, claim the city is not fully disclosing the number of comments submitted against the project.

“I collected and submitted 54 signed form letters opposed to the project. I have copies of them,” Welch said. “I walk the trail a lot and I just talked to people I met there. If I had gone door-to-door I can guarantee you I would have gotten more.”

The letters were submitted to Julie Happy, communication manager of the city of Spokane’s Business and Development Services.

Happy wrote in an email on Monday that she received “28 letters and 11 additional signatures” opposed to the project.

At one point during Monday’s committee meeting – which like all other committee meetings did not allow for public comment – City Council member Mike Fagan suggested the city put the project on hold.

Council president Ben Stuckart said the only way to stop the project would be for the City Council to take action to do so.

“It seems like this conversation is happening too late, after we have accepted the grant,” Stuckart said.