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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Projects to ease car dependency will stimulate community

If the Legislature manages to get its act together before Thanksgiving, there is good news for Spokane in the transportation budget.

And I’m not talking about the north-south freeway.

Two projects with massive potential for our city are slated to get money in the next biennium: the University District Gateway Bridge, which would connect the U-district campus to East Sprague, and a central city trolley line through the core of the city.

Both projects have attracted their share of naysayers. How fortunate we are that those voices did not carry the day, given the promise these investments hold for accelerating the neighborhood-level revival in Spokane – a revival based largely on dethroning cars as the sole kings of the road. Or at least making that throne a little smaller.

There remains major uncertainty in Olympia, primarily surrounding how lawmakers are going to weasel out of paying for the smaller classes voters sought when they passed Initiative 1351. But the bridge and central line are on a negotiated list of items to be funded by the transportation package, and are considered relatively safe.

The bridge project would receive $8.8 million. That, along with city investments and other funding, should cover the whole cost of the bridge. Call it what you want, but it looks like we’ll be calling it a reality.

The central city line project, meanwhile, would receive $15 million – enough to give Spokane significant matching funds in pursuit of federal grants to cover most of the $72 million cost for getting the line up and running within the hoped-for five years.

It’s a lot of money. But there is every reason to hope for a lot of payoff as well, with the bridge and trolley accelerating the spirit of growth and energy flourishing in the city’s neighborhoods right now.

You see it in South Perry, perhaps the greatest example of a revitalized neighborhood in the city. You see it in Kendall Yards, where developer Jim Frank is growing a lively, diverse neighborhood from scratch. You see it in the wholesale change in atmosphere brought on by the city’s revamping of streets. The roadwork on Monroe between Eighth and 14th has changed the entire nature of those blocks; instead of residents divided by an asphalt river of four-lane speeders, they are now knitted together in a slowed-down, attractive, walkable area.

A great number of these developments share one major characteristic: de-emphasizing cars. They prioritize walking over parking. Density over sprawl. Mixed uses over zoning ghettos. They consider bicyclists. They value the people being driven past as much as those driving past.

Much of this rises out of the smart-growth discussions and decisions that have, for so many years, been the subject of government meetings that felt largely theoretical and bureaucratic. We are not perfect exemplars of smart growth by any means, and critics sometimes fairly call out the city for allowing projects that don’t meet its own zoning regulations. But the spirit of smart growth, of building neighborhoods rather than speedways between malls, is more and more apparent around town, and it’s accompanied in every case that I can see by economic and social vibrancy.

The next part of town poised for a revival is East Sprague. The city is targeting millions in investments there in the next few years. The people who think it’s funny to call this part of town Hookerville may be reflecting only their own reasons for going there. There’s plenty of other positive action there now, whether it’s long-standing businesses like Sonnenberg’s, the Tin Roof or Jones Radiator – or future developments like a new Bennedito’s pizza shop.

The bridge project would connect that neighborhood with thousands of people in the U-District, spanning the railroad tracks that now divide them like the Berlin Wall. The people on campus would benefit from greater access to restaurants and shops and bars, and the business owners and residents of East Sprague would benefit from economic and cultural activity that could grow from that – and which could well help erode illicit activity.

The bridge as planned also includes a dramatic design – targeted by people who object to the project’s costs – that seems destined to become a visual landmark in the city. Great cities tend to have those kinds of things.

Speaking of great cities, it’s interesting how many of them have convenient transit loops downtown. Conveyances that make it easy to move around the core of the city, between major attractions and institutions and neighborhoods, without a car. The central city line is part of the Spokane Transit Authority’s long-term plan for transit here, and it was one part of a sales-tax package that voters narrowly rejected in April.

Critics have cast that vote as a rejection of the entire trolley proposal, but Proposition 1 was much broader than the single project. Susan Meyer, CEO of STA, said the agency polled voters after Prop 1 went down – by less than a percentage point – and found that general opposition to a sales-tax increase, and not specific opposition to the central line, was the reason most cited for voting no.

The $15 million legislative funding will be a big draw in helping STA attract federal funding for the rest of the project. Meyer said the agency received news recently that adds to its drawing power for grants – the line has been given “project development” status, a designation that may not sound like much but which makes it more likely to attract grant funding.

“It is a very, very good sign,” Meyer said.

The central city line is planned as a rubber-tired, zero-emission electric trolley that would run a 6-mile route between Browne’s Addition and Spokane Community College, connecting to the downtown and U-district. It’s set to be in operation by 2020. Part of its mission would be to connect neighborhoods to major destinations; a study commissioned by STA concluded it would add $175 million or more in value to surrounding property.

So, the bridge is looking like a done deal, and the downtown trolley is moving pretty hard in that direction. Let the naysayers neigh. Their voices will fade as the city moves ahead.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509)459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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