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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane officials: Complicated downtown road construction could extend to next year

Workers are running out of time to finish a $3.1 million overhaul of Lincoln and Monroe streets downtown before cold weather sets in and the project must be halted until spring, city officials acknowledged Monday.

City Council members were told there are few options to speed up the remaining 40 to 50 days of the reconstruction project, which has given motorists fits and hurt the bottom lines of some businesses.

But the lessons learned this summer likely will change the way the city moves forward on road improvements funded through a 20-year street levy approved by voters in 2014.

The roadwork that began at the end of May will require cooperative weather throughout the fall to complete by year’s end, said Public Works Director Scott Simmons.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, motivated by the concerns of businesses and pedestrians downtown, called Simmons, members of the Public Works Department overseeing the construction, and representatives of utilities to appear before the council Monday afternoon. He pressed them for possible solutions to ensure construction is completed before the cold weather hits and work becomes impossible. Those proposals included closing entire streets and extending overtime hours.

Kyle Twohig, engineering operations manager for the city, said Spokane workers already had clocked 1,000 hours of overtime on the project. He pointed to a tangled web of gray pipes snaking their way between a utilities vault and manhole pit near First Avenue and Monroe Street on Monday afternoon.

“Believe it or not, this is one of our easier intersections,” Twohig said.

Later, Stuckart asked Twohig if the city was aware how complicated the work would be, given the commitment by Public Works to perform all utility and stormwater work at the same time as resurfacing, part of the push for “integrated” road construction that was used to bolster voter approval of the bond two years ago. Twohig said the city knew it would be working within a tight window to complete work on Lincoln and Monroe, but a snag in obtaining the federal approval for the project delayed the bidding process by several weeks earlier this year.

“That pushed our margin for error pretty tightly there,” Twohig said. “We knew it was going to be very tight.

“We have a shot of making it this year,” Twohig added. “We’re going to go like gangbusters to do so, but there is a chance we’re going to winter over.”

The city would only tear up the western lanes of streets that they know they can replace before winter, Simmons said. Gravel streets will not be left for the cold season, he told City Council members.

Simmons said the city would look at paying additional overtime, but much of the utility work is contingent upon other agencies and contractors that the city can’t compel to work additional hours, in potentially unsafe conditions under floodlights as the daylight hours continue to grow shorter. Also, he said the department would not ask for additional overtime money if it wasn’t clear it would be beneficial to speeding up the project.

“What we don’t want to do is have situations where we’re throwing money at it and not getting a lot of efficiency out of it,” he said.

Fully closing the streets likely wouldn’t yield too much of a benefit at this stage of construction, Twohig said. Most of the utility work was needed on the east side of the streets, where paving is scheduled to begin this weekend. The west lanes of Monroe and Lincoln contain more fixed water and gas mains that should be more straightforward and take less time to complete, he said.

“The big gains we would have gotten from a full closure would have been more impactful earlier in the project,” Twohig said. Public Works did not make the decision to close the streets because downtown businesses wanted access throughout construction, Simmons said.

But Twohig said closing streets entirely to speed work along likely would occur during the city’s next major road projects: the planned work on Division Street next summer and the $7.1 million lane changes and sidewalk improvements planned on Monroe north of Northwest Boulevard, slated to begin in 2018.

Stuckart said Monday’s meeting was “informational” but staff provided few answers about how to speed up construction on the Monroe and Lincoln projects, which have received a lot of attention due to the amount of traffic that flows through downtown.

“I was really hoping for some options about how we could speed it up,” Stuckart said.

Twohig is expected to brief the City Council next week on potential options for speeding construction, after what workers are calling a “pivotal” week in determining how much work remains to be done.

“Whether our use of resources is best spent on adding hours, or really just on supporting businesses, I think both of those warrant discussion,” Twohig said. “I’d really like to see what we can get this week.”