State Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat who holds the powerful position of majority leader in the Senate, has locked horns with Mayor David Condon, a Republican and the only person in the past 45 years to be re-elected as mayor of the state’s second-largest city.
The issue: bikeways on East Sprague Avenue.
Despite years of planning that included bike facilities on or near the road, a renovation project scheduled for this year has no money set aside for them.
Billig, who helped secure $12 million in state funding for the $15.4 million pedestrian and bicycle bridge that lands on Sprague, isn’t pleased, and now he’s holding up $3 million in state funding for the Sprague rebuild until the city incorporates bikeways into the project.
Billig added language to the Senate’s transportation funding bill, which was unanimously passed Thursday, that says any state funding for the Sprague project “is contingent upon the city developing an infrastructure plan to provide an east-west safe connection for the increased bike traffic volume on Sprague Avenue and identifying funding for these connection improvements. The connection improvements may include a bike-only path reasonably adjacent to Sprague Avenue.”
The state House passed its own transportation bill by a 90-5 vote last month. It included $3 million for the project, which represents the bulk of the $3.1 million needed for the road renovation. Before they become law, the bills – which differ by about $100 million – must be reconciled, a legislative process that could take weeks.
On Tuesday, just two days before the Senate passed its bill, Condon sent a letter to Billig saying he was “disappointed that you added this language to the bill without first notifying me or my staff” and requested the “immediate removal of this language.”
Condon said Billig’s requirement for Sprague bikeways went against the recommendations of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board, Plan Commission and City Council, and said it was “unnecessary and does not take into account the many hours of citizen engagement and planning.” Condon said it was “unfortunate” that Billig “has chosen to ignore these citizens and the City’s elected leaders and staff.”
After listing the city’s various bike paths and trails – including the Ben Burr Trail and bike lanes on Sherman Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way – Condon said the city plans had people riding on streets adjacent to Sprague to “allow for less conflict between cars and bicyclists.”
In his response, emailed on Wednesday, Billig reiterated his frustration that the street didn’t include bike facilities, a concern he relayed to the city beginning last June.
“I have expressed many times over the past year my disappointment in the City’s lack of action to secure a safe East-West connection on the south side of the U-district Bridge,” Billig wrote in his email, noting the state’s investment in the project. “I am further concerned that the planned Sprague Avenue rehabilitation project, which reduces Sprague from two lanes in each direction to one without any provision for safe bicycle passage, will actually make Sprague less safe for cyclists right at the time that bike traffic will dramatically increase due to the new bridge.”
Billig said he had “repeatedly” asked the city to delay the road project, including in a telephone call to Condon “several weeks ago,” until it had “a plan in place for safe bike infrastructure.”
He also pushed back against Condon’s claims that Sprague bikeways weren’t included in the city’s plans. In his email, and in the Senate bill’s language, Billig doesn’t ask specifically for bike lanes on Sprague. Instead, he points to plans for a trail running just south of the railroad tracks, and north of Sprague, that connects with the Ben Burr Trail to the east.
A map of the city’s planned bikeway network shows this trail, and in 2015 the City Council amended the city’s Bike Master Plan to include the trail and noted it was “planned to be built soon.”
In January, Council President Ben Stuckart set aside $100,000 to perform a feasibility study on the trail. He said the trail wouldn’t be built for years considering the generally slow pace of government infrastructure projects.
Billig told Condon that the city could still apply, and be approved, for state grants related to the Sprague project, and that the language he added “only prohibits the release of funds.” He said this would give the city time to “align the bike safety project with the rest of the Sprague rehabilitation project.”
Despite Billig’s repeated warnings that he would hold up funding, the city put the project out to bid last month without any corresponding projects to build bike facilities. This means contractors are currently putting together proposals for the $3.1 million, and currently unfunded, project.
The project also faces questions from some City Council members, who heard for the first time this week at a Spokane Transit Authority meeting that the city will need to purchase or condemn private property for bus stops. Originally, the stops were going to be closer to the street to allow buses to stop in the lane of traffic when picking up or dropping off passengers. The city redesigned the project to have the buses pull to the side, pushing the buses toward buildings and creating the need to acquire property.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm said this information had not been told to the City Council, and suggested the bid had been inappropriately released.
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