For many years in Spokane’s early history as a city, the Howard Street bridges were the only way to get across the Spokane River, not counting wading, swimming or taking a ferry.
Traffic first crossed the three bridges in 1881, and for much of the following century vehicles traveled from the river’s north bank and over the islands before finally crossing under the tall trestles of the elevated Union Pacific rail lines and into downtown Spokane. Factories surrounded the traffic, milling lumber, wheat and power in what is now Riverfront Park.
Of course, traffic hasn’t been on the Howard Street bridges since the industrial yards were swept away in favor of Expo ’74 and the new urban park, but the bridges have deteriorated significantly even though they no longer support the loads of an arterial street.
A recent evaluation of 11 bridges in and near Riverfront Park estimated up to $13.5 million in costs to upgrade or replace the bridges. The costliest fix is for Howard Street South, the bridge nearest the Looff Carrousel. According to KPFF Consulting Engineers, the 83-year-old bridge needs to be completely replaced, including its underwater piers, at a cost of $4.4 million to $5.8 million.
All other bridges in the park need some form of maintenance. The suspension bridges for foot traffic are estimated to cost $2.8 million to mend, and the wooden bridges near the Convention Center need more than $600,000 for various repairs.
The $13.5 million price tag for bridge repairs is much higher than the $2 million city officials estimated when voters in November approved the $60 million bond to renovate the park.
Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder, who initiated the bridge study, attributed the higher-than-anticipated cost of repair to the various types of nontraditional bridges, but he added that the time had come to fix them.
“When I see rusted metal coming out of the bridges, it’s a shock,” he said. “These are extraordinarily difficult bridges to assess. We have a lot of in-house ability in bridge repair and bridge inspection, but it’s all for automobile bridges. … These are really unusual bridges.”
Leroy Eadie, the city’s parks director, said city officials knew the $2 million estimate was low.
“We had put $2 million in for bridges, but we knew that most likely it would be higher than that,” Eadie said. “We were at the same time in talks with utilities, and we knew there was a partnership opportunity there.”
Juliet Sinisterra, the park bond’s project manager, said “things were very fuzzy” at the time, due primarily to discussions between parks and utilities.
“At one point, we were hoping they would pay for half the bridge,” Sinisterra said, referring to Howard Street South. “Now it’s been decided they’ll pay for all the blue trestle bridge.”
The middle bridge of the Howard stretch – known as the blue bridge – is also anticipated to need a full replacement, and Sinisterra said it may cost as much as $5 million. If the city intended to replicate the bridge as it looks today, it would cost $10 million, she said.
Since it won’t share in the cost of the south bridge, the city’s utilities department will pay to replace the blue bridge, as well as the Post Street Bridge to the west of the park, because of the underlying utility infrastructure below them. The Howard bridges have water mains running below them, and the Post Street Bridge supports the city’s main sewer line for much of the South Hill. A comprehensive “type, size and location” study is underway on the Post Street and blue bridges.
Marlene Feist, the utilities department spokeswoman, said it was easier to have the separate departments focus on different bridges because the parks department was ready to work on the south bridge right away and utilities wasn’t quite prepared.
“It made sense to delineate it that way. We have a little more time on the blue bridge,” she said. “Parks has a need to get their bridge under construction.”
An initial meeting to discuss the design of Howard Street South will be held this month, and demolition of the bridge should take place this fall.
Eadie said the park’s new bridges won’t be stylized in any way so they don’t “overly compete with the natural environment.”
“We’re trying to show off the river, the islands and the beauty of Riverfront Park,” he said, adding that Howard Street South might have some artful features on its deck or railings. “It’s going to be low-profile. It may flare out a little bit on the south end, near the Rotary fountain, to direct pedestrian traffic to the middle of the park.”
Sinisterra said the bridge’s design and construction schedule is “expedited.”
“Ideally we were going to push to have it done by Bloomsday next year,” she said. “Realistically, it’ll probably be Hoopfest.”
Sinisterra said securing permits for a new bridge is an “arduous process” and noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Avista, the state Ecology Department and state Fish and Wildlife Department have to approve the project. Local tribes also must sign off.
Though the city projected a far lower cost for bridges, favorable interest rates when the bond was sold likely will free up some extra money. The Spokane Park Board has yet to approve how the money is spent, but Sinisterra said a “good chunk of it” likely will be used to replace the south Howard bridge.
Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, said the original $60 million bond was to be sold with an additional $4.3 million to be used to service the debt of the bond’s life. When the city’s bond sold with a 3.21 percent interest rate, the city still issued a $64.3 million bond but was able to keep more dollars for capital costs without increasing the property tax rate city leaders had promised to voters.
“Without any increase in price to the taxpayers, the lower rate allowed the city to issue more dollars, with the same payback,” Cooley said.
Sinisterra told members of the city’s Public Works Committee that other funds needed for bridge repair would be found through fundraising, partnering with utilities or securing grants.
Snyder said it was important to maintain and repair the bridges, adding that there are many opportunities for funding, including state transportation grants, as well as recreation and conservation grants.
“America is in an infrastructure crisis,” he said. “My job is to make sure Spokane is ahead of the rest of the country.”
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