As U.S. Highway 2 climbs west from Spokane to intersect the growing city of Airway Heights, it brings with it thousands of daily commuters and an influx of concerns. City leaders have spent years working with the state to find ways to protect pedestrians and motorists alike along this stretch of roadway.
In 2001, midblock pedestrian crossings were established near three of the highway’s intersections. A year later, the crosswalks received a $120,000 boost when pedestrian-activated flashing amber lights were embedded in the roadway, and in 2003 additional signage was added.
Airway Heights Police Chief Lee Bennett said even with the improvements, he has seen several accidents in the crosswalks and elsewhere along the highway since his arrival in 2003.
Bennett said the speed limit on the road was lowered to 35 mph from 45 mph a number of years ago in an effort to lessen the incidents.
“We get 30,000 cars a day through here,” he said. “We’ve had hundreds of near misses, and it’s a wonder we haven’t had more accidents with the volume of traffic we see.”
Now a Washington State Department of Transportation grant for about $250,000 will go toward more improvements for the crosswalks between Russell and Zeigler Streets with overhead signal poles, flashing beacon lights and digital speed indicator signs.
But Airway Heights Mayor Matthew Pedersen said the midblock crosswalks should never have been positioned where they are in the first place. “They’re in the wrong location and not as visible as they should be.”
Bennett agrees that the odd placement of the crosswalks combined with visual distractions along the roadway confuse drivers and play a role in accidents, although he said the most recent updates may be the best hope at this point.
“I probably won’t see overhead bridges in my lifetime; they’re very expensive,” he said, referring to a discarded plan to install three pedestrian overpasses to replace the street-level crossings.
Keith Martin, a programs engineer for WSDOT, said the crosswalks were initially placed after a joint study done by the state, the city and Eastern Washington University. Once installed, another study a year later deemed them to be effective, although Martin said the recent enhancement grant will further improve safety.
Pedersen said there are other Highway 2 concerns on his radar, both east and west of the city. To the east at Flint Road there have been a number of major collisions due to heavy traffic entering the thoroughfare from the Triumph composite systems plant. He said he hopes to see a traffic light to control the flow sometime in the next year.
At the west end of town near Craig Road, Pedersen said the state has been pushing plans for a roundabout to regulate traffic, which is only expected to increase if the Spokane Indian Tribe goes ahead with plans for a casino nearby.
“We as a city have taken a stance against the roundabout,” he said. “We tried to keep an open mind, but they’ve yet to show us a model that proves four lanes of fast-moving highway can work into a roundabout.”
Pedersen said he’s called for a traffic light instead, which would be partially paid for by mitigation-fee money collected from developers in the immediate vicinity.
“Unfortunately, we have no direct control because it’s a state highway. Safety improvements are generally in the hands of the state,” he said.
For its part, WSDOT has been looking at ways to improve the corridor in terms of safety and traffic flow since 2007 as part of a route development plan from I-90 to the Spokane city line. David Dean, an engineer with WSDOT, said he was unable to specify the findings of the plan, but that a first draft will be presented June 4 during an open house at Sunset Elementary in Airway Heights.
WSDOT also collaborated with the city of Airway Heights to form the Highway 2 Revitalization Committee with local businesses and citizen groups in late 2006. After a 2007 survey found residents’ primary wish was to see more green spaces along the highway, a median landscaping project and a campaign to remove obsolete business signs were completed in the spring of 2008 with the dual aim of slowing traffic and increasing aesthetic appeal.
Since then, however, budgetary constraints have postponed the revitalization project, according to city manager Albert Tripp, who said the city is currently looking for funding options to move ahead into further improvements along Highway 2. Until then, the city and the state both say they’ll continue to seek out proposals that can satisfy all involved while keeping the best interests of the citizens at the forefront.
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