Like a falcon waiting for its prey, Shane Allen sits on his perch, biding his time for what’s sure to come.
It’s rush hour in Spokane, and the traffic below Allen won’t flow long before something bad happens. A rear-ending. An empty gas tank. A blown tire. Something to ruin a perfectly fine commute.
Then he’ll swoop into action, siren wailing, spare fuel or car jack at the ready.
Allen is a member of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Incident Response Team. For up to 200 miles a day, he plies the region’s freeways, looking for trouble so he can help. His Ford F-350 is stocked with an emergency spill kit, flares, fire extinguishers, two shovels, two brooms, a tarp, bolt cutters, jumper cables, an air compressor and all kinds of other tools to do minor repairs on the fly.
He can change a tire in “six or seven” minutes, though he notes he’s “not trying to break a record.” He has eight gallons of fuel for motorists who waited too long to fill up. “We do have frequent fuelers,” he said a bit ruefully of the folks he’s seen more than once looking for a top-off.
And the truck has a specially built nylon bumper so he can push vehicles off the road without scratching the paint.
“Our trucks have pushed semis up Sunset Hill,” he said, estimating that his rig could move 100,000 pounds on flat ground. “You got to put it in four-wheel drive, low, but it’ll do it.”
What Allen does eight hours a day is just one of the many programs WSDOT has devised to keep Spokane’s major roads moving – in other words, to fight traffic jams. Interstate 90, the region’s busiest road by a wide margin, is its main focus.
For every minute a vehicle blocks a lane on the interstate due to a collision or other trouble, up to 10 minutes of congestion can follow. Even a gently tapped brake can unleash a mathematically proven ripple effect, and no one wants that. Not the tens of thousands of daily commuters, not the big-rig drivers, not the countless wayfaring travelers passing through – and not WSDOT.
Not Allen either, even if such blockages are the reason for his employment. If Allen can get to one of those barricading vehicles soon enough, traffic will flow. That’s a big if, however, since he’s decades behind.
When construction began on I-90 in 1956 as part of the Eisenhower-era interstate highway system, it was designed to carry 50,000 vehicles on the average day. It reached that in 1978, just four years after the Spokane freeway was officially completed in 1974.
Though nothing has changed in its design, today I-90 carries on average more than 120,000 vehicles every day in Spokane. That number will continue going up, if the past is any indicator, especially considering projections show the region’s population increasing by 15,000 people next year.
What’s more, when I-90 was being designed, traffic engineers had different conceptions of how a freeway should be built. What was considered good and safe then just isn’t anymore.
Putting aside the decision to build the freeway directly through one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the expensive choice to build the elevated viaduct through the city core, the interstate’s primary problems come with its many interchanges.
Some of them, like the eastbound Walnut on-ramp, are too short and steep, stifling attempts to reach a speed appropriate for a freeway. Others, like the interchange with U.S. Highway 195, allow no time to merge with dense, racing traffic. Still more, like the string of interchanges in the east end of the city, weave together, creating conflict between all those commuters, truck drivers and travelers who use I-90 on a daily basis.
And that’s where Allen is, at an interchange, perched at the westbound Argonne on-ramp.
“Argonne on,” he said, in shorthand. “I sit there.”
As anyone who regularly drives on the interstate knows, Argonne’s a good place to wait if you’re looking for trouble. But there are worse spots.
A recent analysis of rush-hour crash and collision data from WSDOT and the Washington State Patrol have uncovered the four most collision-likely locations in Spokane. And they’re on I-90 in the urban core: the Altamont, Freya, westbound Division-Lincoln and eastbound Maple-Walnut interchanges.
This data – representing all of Spokane County’s roads and spanning five years – reflects at the region’s weekday commutes, from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. Gathered and analyzed by The Spokesman-Review and KHQ, the data highlights serious deficiencies in the design of the interstate, and confirms the fact that I-90’s design through Spokane is antiquated and has too many motorists. If there was ever a time to remake the road, now’s that time.
Though officials at WSDOT acknowledge the increasingly dangerous situation on I-90, they say it’s really no more dangerous than any other major road. That, and their hands are largely tied. There’s no funding to redesign it.
“We have what was built in the past and we have to figure out how to operate it better today, because funds are not there to change this facility,” said Glenn Wagemann, a traffic engineer with WSDOT.
While Wagemann pushed back against suggestions that the freeway was dangerous by design, he did acknowledge that it would be done differently today. Namely, there would be fewer on-ramps. Regardless, Wagemann said there is plenty of room on I-90 to handle the expected growth in traffic. We just have to use the interstate a bit differently.
“There has been a lot of capacity on I-90 for a long time and all of a sudden we’re getting to that point where we don’t have it,” he said. “The design of the past has served us well for many years, but now we’re at the point where we have to think differently to operate it.”
That’s where Allen comes in, with his spare fuel and watchful eyes.
From autobahn to interstate
It’s about 3:30 p.m., and Allen has a lot going on. He’s got “state patrol chatter in my ear” so he can monitor any wrecks he may have to assist on. He’s surrounded by hundreds of fast-moving vehicles, the beginning of rush hour, flowing fine but getting thicker by the mile. And his eyes are always scanning.
Like that falcon, his eyes are trained to see things that other eyes still search for, even after he’s pointed them out.
This day, he sees a white Chevrolet pickup parked a quarter of the way down the eastbound Sprague Avenue exit, its hazards flashing.
Allen pulls up behind it and gets out. After peering in the windows to “make sure there’s nobody in there or something else to let state patrol know about,” he sketches bright green checkmarks on the glass, a signal to let troopers or other members of the response team know the vehicle’s clear.
Back in the cab, Allen describes his range: the state routes of Spokane County. But during rush hour, the extent of his roaming is decidedly smaller: from milepost 270 to milepost 299 on I-90.
Heading east, looking and looking, Allen gets off at Barker Road. A moment later, he’s in freeway traffic again, heading west back to the core, where more people use the freeway. It also happens to be the original stretch of road, what locals first called the Valley freeway.
It’s easy to think the highway building of the last century was a natural, free-market progression sprung from Americans’ insatiable hunger to drive. It wasn’t. Instead, the Interstate Highway System was a $425 billion government project pushed by a president who had not only traveled the horrible roads of America in 1919 as part of a transcontinental Army convoy, averaging 5 mph for 3,000 miles, but who had recently toured the German autobahn as the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
Both experiences convinced Eisenhower that America needed better roads, and the small-government Republican pitched highway construction as a necessary military project.
Building the interstate system was the “greatest public works project in the history of a nation,” according to Tom Lewis in his book, “Divided Highways.” Enough concrete was used to build a “wide sidewalk extending from the earth to a point in space five times beyond the distance to the moon.”
Measuring pavement is just one way to relate the magnitude of the effort, as Lewis notes, saying “to build it, tens of thousands of Americans were dispossessed of their land and saw their homes and neighborhoods destroyed.”
As in many other cities, the highway was seen as an engine of “slum clearance,” and road planners used the interstates to eliminate what they saw as blighted neighborhoods. Such thinking led them to build the road through the tight confines of one of Spokane’s poorest neighborhoods.
In other words, it wasn’t just the flat topography of the East Central neighborhood that made it suitable for a wide, high-speed roadway. The low property rates and lack of political influence also played a major role, not to mention that most of Spokane’s African-American citizens lived there.
The choice to build I-90 in the densely populated East Central neighborhood has had repercussions that Wagemann and others at WSDOT contend with today.
On Sept. 13, 1958, The Spokesman-Review ran a front page story headlined, “Freeway Enters Spokane Today.”
The article generally celebrated the freeway. “Soothing to the nerves will be the lack of any stop signs or traffic signals throughout the 13 miles,” it read, noting that motorists would no longer be “bottled up” on Second and Third avenues.
But near the end, the article mentions the interchanges that have become a bane for Wagemann and his engineering kin. It said “the sweeping curves of access roads – which the lay people call ‘cloverleaf’ ” were “missing from the new section.”
“Right of way limitations make a different, tight type of access necessary, featuring long ramps leading onto and off the freeway from Carnahan to Helena,” it read. “The ramps lead into the cross streets of Havana, Freya, Thor and Altamont.”
These “different, tight type of access” roads were built because the state built the freeway through the middle of a neighborhood. The “right-of-way limitations” were homes.
‘Death came to the freeway’
Almost immediately, the state Highway Department, as WSDOT was then called, credited the freeway with easing traffic congestion and decreasing collisions.
In December 1957, the Spokane Daily Chronicle ran an article called, “Accident Decrease Linked to Freeway.”
Citing Donald Stein, the department’s district engineer, the article said the 13-month-old section of freeway “had only 23 accidents and eight injuries during its first full year in use. By way of contrast, accident figures for East Sprague and Trent between the city limits and Pines road in the entire year of 1956 totaled 322 mishaps (114 injuries) and 125 accidents (45 injuries), respectively.”
At the same time, the article said traffic counts were plummeting on East Sprague, from 17,100 at the city limits to 11,900. The traffic on the freeway, however, remained steady at 12,500 at city limits.
None of it would last.
A month later, in January 1958, the freeway saw its first death.
“Death came to the Spokane Valley freeway early today,” the Chronicle reported. “Sixty weeks and more than 4,000,000 cars after the four-lane, limited-access superhighway was opened, the first death was recorded at 12:05 a.m. Ironically, the victim was a pedestrian, struck by a car in a fenced-off area with no facilities for pedestrians.”
Dennis Earl Perkins, 60, of Omak, was traveling eastbound eight miles east of the city near Flora Road. As a passenger, he “apparently decided to return to Spokane,” and hopped out the car. He ran north across the westbound lane. A motorist, Walter Neff, “put on his brakes but the car skidded on the wet pavement and hit the running man, killing him instantly.”
Still, the joy for the new freeway remained unalloyed.
The following year, in a Nov. 19, 1959, article commemorating the two-year anniversary of the freeway, it noted that “average daily traffic loads have nearly doubled.” In its first year, it carried 10,800. Two years in, it carried 20,200.
“Overloaded? Not the freeway – at least not for some years. Highway engineers point out that it was built to handle an average load of 50,000 vehicles,” it read.
The freeway wasn’t the only road seeing growing use. Despite a dip on Sprague and Trent when the freeway first opened, two years later their traffic counts were “climbing steadily.” When the highway opened, the average daily traffic count dropped to a combined 31,000. Two years later, they were back to where they were before, at 44,200.
Doing nothing is not an option
Spokane’s intermodal center is a monument to transportation, and it’s largely vacant.
Built in 1890 directly after the Great Fire of 1889 by the Northern Pacific Railway, it stands today as an Amtrak and Greyhound station. Despite the small police precinct and the handful of buses and trains that trundle through, the station’s empty mostly all day, every day.
But not the third floor. Up an elevator, through a deserted hallway and past a desert of office space, you can find the nerve center for Eastern Washington’s transportation system.
In a room that looks a bit like NASA’s mission control, a wall of monitors show images from more than 100 live-streaming cameras scattered around the region, all pointed at roads. People work in this room 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, looking for collisions, examining conditions and notifying people, like Shane Allen, of trouble spots or stalled cars as they roam the freeways.
This is the Spokane Regional Transportation Management Center, which was created in 1998 in an attempt to break down jurisdictional boundaries and help the flow of traffic because, when it comes to traffic jams, the invisible borders between cities don’t really matter.
“The person on the street isn’t really aware of the boundaries,” said Mike Kress, SRTMC’s operations manager, noting that few people acknowledge the line between Spokane and Spokane Valley as they fly over Havana Street going 60 mph on I-90.
It takes $1.1 million to run the SRTMC each year, half of which comes from grants. Another $90,000 comes from the center’s partner agencies: the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley, WSDOT, Spokane County, the Spokane Transit Authority and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.
The role of the SRTMC is in its name: traffic management. Easier said than done. The only thing harder than herding cats is, surely, herding 100,000 motorists.
SRTMC does this with technology, both high and low. The wall is made of television monitors showing the feeds of all those cameras. Large digital clocks show the time down to the ticking second. Behind the wall of TVs, a room is filled with computer servers and their related cables and wires. As the nerve center, the cameras are hardwired directly to here, their connections meeting in a complex, high-tech knot.
As the server room suggests, these cameras aren’t like your grandfather’s Super 8. Besides feeding the image to mission control, they measure volume and flow of traffic. Soon, they’ll be “smart” cameras that can grab information from passing vehicles.
It’s the way of the future, said Becky Spangle, SRTMC’s electronics manager.
Everyday technology is evermore connected and able to send information out. Even some new refrigerators can scan their interiors and send an order to the grocery store to restock itself.
Cars talk, too. As Spangle points out, some tire gauges send out information, usually to let the car owner know the pressure’s low. On top of that, the phone in nearly every motorist’s pocket talks. The laptop in the bag on the passenger seat talks.
Put simply, the amount of data out there is vast. And it can all be used to help a complex system, like a transportation network, work more efficiently.
“We joke about needing a butterfly net to capture the data we want,” Spangle said. The point of it all, Spangle said, is make the best of the roads we have, but she acknowledged that such data collection may not sit well with everyone.
“There’s no Big Brother,” Spangle said. No identifying information is grabbed and stored by SRTMC, she said.
Asked for specifics of what Spokane should do to avoid the traffic nightmares that have beset Seattle and Portland, Spangle and Kress were blunt, if lacking details.
“If you do nothing, it’s going to be the worst of the worst,” Kress said, noting that SRTMC is trying to “optimize” the roads with design, technology with an eye toward reducing crashes and congestion and increasing traffic flow. “We need to manage and mitigate.”
“There’s really no example of what not to do except to stay close minded,” Spangle said.
“Or do nothing,” said Kress.
Changes coming with north-south freeway
When you’re sitting in stalled traffic, stewing about the lack of movement, it’s easy to think that adding a lane to your congested route would help solve congestion.
Not only would it be a prohibitively costly fix to add lanes on the elevated freeway downtown, but WSDOT policy has moved away from doing such a thing. Earlier this year, the head of WSDOT, Roger Millar, said highway building “isn’t the answer” to congestion, which he called “a symptom of a larger problem – and the problem is we don’t provide affordable housing and transportation solutions.”
Wagemann, the WSDOT engineer, agreed, and said there was still plenty of room on I-90 for the amount of vehicles that use it.
“There is still capacity today on I-90. People say, ‘Oh there’s no capacity.’ But there is,” he said. “I became a traffic engineer in 2006 and that has been my goal of operating what we have better and not adding capacity.”
Referring to an economic theory about induced demand, Wagemann said adding lanes doesn’t help traffic anyway.
“To add capacity to a roadway doesn’t necessarily give you a doubling,” he said. “If you have a one-lane road in one direction and you add another lane, you don’t get two times the amount of traffic you can put on there. You only gain a small portion of that traffic. People fill up the lanes, but it doesn’t really move that many more cars. We have capacity in our facility. We just need to operate it more efficiently to use that capacity we have.”
That’s exactly what WSDOT is trying to do. In addition to the work people like Allen are doing with the Incident Response Team, as well as the SRTMC, WSDOT has other plans in the works to make I-90 work better.
“We don’t have funds to go rebuild it, so those are lower cost solutions that we’re going to be looking at,” Wagemann said.
Those solutions include closing ramps, adding ramp meters and installing signs warning motorists of upcoming congestion or merging.
Just look at the U.S. 195 ramp on to eastbound I-90. Workers have put in what looks like a traffic signal there, but so far its lights are dark. This spring, however, it will alternate red and green, and portion out the cars joining the freeway.
It’s a ramp meter, and in the coming summer five other busy interchanges will get such meters. The on-ramps at Walnut, Monroe, Division and Hamilton for eastbound 90 will all have ramp meters in less than a year.
The meters will help alleviate the “shock wave” caused by a line of cars attempting to merge with an already dense army of vehicles on the freeway.
“That shock wave continues back and it then causes more congestion,” Wagemann said. “But if we meter those cars coming on, it creates a smoother flow and it keeps I-90 flowing better. We still would have congestion, but we’d have higher speeds.”
WSDOT considered closing the Walnut on-ramp, but met stiff resistance from government and business officials, Wagemann said. But something had to be done, because it has the highest number of collisions a year, according to WSDOT and WSP data.
“It has about 20 crashes per year for getting on there,” Wagemann said. “How that operates today is the signal turns green, and 20 cars platoon right up that ramp, and all 20 of those cars are trying to get on at the same time. In a space that’s only going to fit one. And so we need to meter that.”
Overall, Wagemann said the solutions that WSDOT is implementing are a consequence not just of increased traffic, but of the outdated design of his predecessors. But he rejected suggestions that I-90 is dangerous. It just needs some operational tweaks.
“It has crashes like any other roadway would have crashes,” he said. “When you compare other locations with interstates and on-ramps, it has some locations that have what we call excess collisions, where they’re over and above what other roadways of their similar type would have. Those are primarily at the on- and off-ramps.”
In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, design standards and automobiles were different than they are now. “Vehicles traveled slower. Vehicles were equipped different. They accelerated different. They braked different than they do today,” Wagemann said.
Case in point are the interchanges. Nowadays, engineers would place them at least a mile apart. Not so back then. The Walnut, Monroe and Division interchanges on eastbound I-90 show this.
After the mad dash and platooning at Walnut, merging motorists from Monroe appear just 500 feet later. But that on-ramp goes into its own lane on the freeway, which stretches for 3,500 feet before cars can exit on Division.
Today’s engineers would replace all of those interchanges with just one, and let the “local network” of city streets handle more of the load.
A final fix, one that would solve the “weaving” interchanges in East Central, could come with the $1.5 billion North Spokane Corridor, otherwise known as the north-south freeway. The freeway, which has been discussed since 1946, will remake I-90 from the Hamilton to Sprague ramps.
“It’s about 12 years out till it’s completely built out,” Wagemann said of the north-south freeway. “There will be changes made.”
Those changes won’t include any ramps closing. The Altamont exit will stay, allowing people to get on and off the freeway just a half-mile before they can do the same thing at the Freya-Thor exit.
Wagemann did say that WSDOT is considering moving the Freya-Thor interchange further east, near Custer Road, which would give motorists 3,000 feet to accelerate before the lane siphons off to Sprague.
Wagemann acknowledged that 12 years is a long time to wait, especially considering the area has a high incidence of crashes.
“There will be things that we do between now and the next five years to get us to that 12-year point,” he said. “We’re not going to leave it at that same configuration. We have a responsibility to ensure that we’re reducing collisions. There will need to be some low cost things done to those areas, even all the way back to Altamont and Hamilton.”
Finally, though, Wagemann said the number of collisions has less to do with design, and more to do with motorists. According to WSDOT, inclement weather, speeding drivers and motorists following too closely account for 84 percent of the collisions on I-90 in Spokane.
“What we see sometimes is people getting on at Walnut, and they get off at Division,” he said. “Well, Fourth Avenue goes right to Division. Yeah, maybe it takes you a minute longer at the most but the commute is sure a whole lot nicer when you’re not having to deal with all of those movements that are happening at a higher speed. You’re making these decisions at lower speeds and it really isn’t that much impact to you and we’re utilizing the system better.”
Wagemann also had some advice for motorists.
“Relax. Be patient,” he said. “Leave some space for the car in front of you when you come to an off-ramp or an on-ramp so people can pull in. It’s not about people racing up to the front and trying to be cutters. Just leave some space and pay attention.”
It’s just before 4 p.m. on I-90, and Allen is eastbound in the fast lane, his foot heavy on the gas.
His truck pushes 85 mph – flying by the numerous on- and off-ramps for downtown Spokane, and through a stream of cars going the speed limit. He grabs the handheld radio on the dash and pulls it toward his mouth, its coil stretching.
“Are you able to locate anything on camera? West or eastbound at Altamont?” Allen says calmly to an operator at SRTMC’s mission control. “Supposedly a two-car collision.”
Allen touches a button on a center console and the spinning red lights on the truck’s roof are joined by a loping, wailing siren. Too late. At the Division Street exit, the sea of brake lights in front of him all go red. His speedometer flattens, the surrounding motorists showing little inclination to make way.
On his radio, Allen is told the collision looks to be under the Hamilton overpass, with vehicles in the middle of the freeway.
Allen has to get there. He’s on the front line for keeping the freeway moving. The freeway that has suddenly become congested, both on this day and in general.
His siren keeps calling and – one by one – drivers edge their vehicles out of the way. Below the Sherman Street overpass, a small center shoulder grows into a median, and Allen takes to it, gathering speed.
Finally, he arrives, in the center of I-90, directly below the flying off-ramp for Hamilton Street, surrounded by traffic moving slow for a freeway, but fast enough to kill him.
The truck barely fits between the yellow line and concrete barrier wall. Allen keeps his engine running and pops out of the cab. Ahead of him, a Spokane County Sheriff’s patrol car and a sedan sit between the flowing rivers traffic, pinned in the middle of the interstate. They’ve been in a collision of some sort.
Allen talks to the sheriff’s deputy and trots back to his truck.
“So we’re going to stop traffic here,” he says.
Red lights still spinning, he flips his reader board on, directed to the traffic behind him, its simple wording and large lettering easily legible.
“Slow down,” it reads. “Do not pass.”
Traffic roars by, passing him.
Allen begins to edge his truck into traffic. He lays on his horn, and continues forward. He gets to the middle lane, diagonal to traffic and cars nudge by him on both sides. He rolls his window down and throws his arm out, assertively, motioning cars to stop.
“Stop,” he says.
Finally, all three lanes of traffic stop, and now Allen is moored in traffic, a one-man dam to the heaving wave of traffic – a wave growing larger by the second. The battered vehicles cross safely. And just like that, all of 30 seconds later and as if nothing ever happened, I-90 flows again.
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