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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: About those giant dirt piles…

City dump trucks unload dirt at a site along Greene St. and Marietta just north of Spokane Community College Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. The growing mound will support the future North-South freeway.  Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
City dump trucks unload dirt at a site along Greene St. and Marietta just north of Spokane Community College Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. The growing mound will support the future North-South freeway. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A pile of dirt just off I-90 west of Altamont has been there so long, it’s become something of a weedy landmark for highway drivers.

Another mountain of material recently rose east of town, near where Cheney-Spokane Road and U.S. Highway 195 meet. There are the many mountains of material on the city’s property on E. North Foothills. Another below the railroad High Bridge just west of the Sunset Boulevard Bridge. In Liberty Park. In front of the McKinley School.

Here, there and everywhere.

We’ve all seen them. The piles come from the city’s massive project to stop sewage from entering the Spokane River, but the work is having an impact on traffic, in ways both good and bad. In recent years, the city has built and buried 14 holding tanks that will capture sewage so that it can be properly treated instead of released untreated into the river. Another ten combined sewer overflow tanks, known as CSO tanks, are under construction.

Try, just try, driving between downtown and Browne’s Addition, or down Riverside in the Sprague Union District in East Central, or by City Hall on Spokane Falls Boulevard, and you’ll notice the gaping holes in the way of everything. Knowing that the river will soon be free of sewage, when just two decades ago 570 million gallons of it spilled in every year, may quell your road rage.

The good news is that the powers that be have found a way to turn the dirt into gold. When the North Spokane Corridor opens in a little more than a decade, part of its foundation will be made from dirt moved to store your sewage.

Last year, as work was well underway to build the tanks, the city realized it had a lot of dirt and didn’t know what to do with it all. So much dirt, in fact, it’s hard to fathom. When complete, the tanks will have a maximum capacity of over 16.6 million gallons. That means the tanks alone, at a minimum, will displace almost 82,500 cubic yards.

A cubic yard of dry dirt weighs approximately one ton, or 2,000 pounds. In other words, the dirt moved for the city’s project weighs almost 164 million pounds. At least.

Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the Public Works and Utilities Department, said the city will ultimately move much more dirt than that.

“A lot of it goes back to the site,” she said, estimating that anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 cubic yards of dirt will be moved by the city by the time it’s done with the project in 2019.

As the tanks are built, the dirt has to be stored somewhere. For the tank near KHQ-TV’s station, dirt is being stockpiled at the site of the future fire station at Highway 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road. Most will be returned to the site as backfill, but some material will remain to raise the grade for the fire station.

For the tank being built just north of the downtown library, which has completely blocked a section of Spokane Falls Boulevard for a year and another year awaits, 8,000 cubic yards of dirt are stored below the BNSF bridge on the Sunset Highway and will be returned to site as backfill. Any remaining material will be disposed of in the West Plains.

The piles on I-90 that turn commuter heads came from the tank being built in Liberty Park, and will be returned to the park to shape the site.

Other piles, like in front of the McKinley School on Napa, by the Zip’s at Riverside and Lee, and off T.J. Meenach, were dug up on site and will remain there.

So the city was drowning in dirt, which prompted the utilities department to ask the Washington state Department of Transportation if it wanted some.

Easy question. The portion of the North Spokane Corridor being built north of Carlisle alone needs 300,000 cubic yards of dirt. The transportation department was buying all that dirt before the city came along, for $10 a cubic yard. Now, it’s getting some for free.

But not all dirt is created equally. Al Gilson, spokesman for the transportation department, said the state’s highway project requires high-quality “material. We don’t call it dirt.” They test it for contaminates, heavy metals, PCBs and other toxic compounds. It can’t contain wood, which degrades and damages the structural integrity of anything built on top of it.

Feist said most of the city’s material is good. While the city has grappled with contaminated sites during its sewage project, including a really old landfill location that was regularly lit on fire whenever its piles grew too high, most of the sites are clean.

And with the city’s need to offload dirt, and the state’s need for material, Gilson called the dirt deal a “win-win.” So far, the city’s utilities department has brought in about 50,000 cubic yards, according to Gilson. Another 18,000 cubic yards are on the way.

Turns out the saying was right. Dirt don’t hurt, at least when transportation planners get involved.

Have a transportation question you want answered? Write

In the city

Speaking of CSO tanks, the intersection of Helena and Front will be closed all week in relation to the construction of two tanks, a 200,000 gallon tank and a 1.5 million gallon tank, the $15.8 million combined project. The intersection of Riverside and Magnolia will also be closed until Friday. Access to local businesses and residences should remain intact.

Expect lane closures Tuesday for paint striping on Spokane Falls Boulevard and Lincoln in relation to work on the sewage tank near the downtown library.

Motorists can also expect delays or obstructions on Assembly from Nine Mile Road to Winston Court for work on the street curbs.

Studded tires are back

Motorists can begin using studded tires Nov. 1, according to state law, but the state transportation department encourages the use of stud-free traction tires because the studded versions are so harmful.

The Washington state Department of Transportation estimates studded tires cause between $20 million and $29 million in damage, combined, to state-owned asphalt and concrete roadways each year.

Washington best state for bikes

For the ninth year running, Washington state was named the most bicycle-friendly state in the nation, a position its held since the League of American Bicyclists began the ranking in 2008.

The league credited the state’s top ranking to its the $20 billion “Connecting Washington” transportation program, a 16-year funding package that includes more than $20 million per year for bicycling and walking projects. The league also noted the state’s transportation department’s new Active Transportation Division as another reason why the state has retained its top spot.

This year, Washington was followed by Minnesota, California, Massachusetts and Oregon in the top five. Along with the Evergreen state, Minnesota and Oregon regularly rank near the top. Nebraska, Hawaii and South Dakota hold the bottom spots.

Each state is ranked based on its score in five categories: infrastructure and funding; education and encouragement; legislation and enforcement; policies and programs; and evaluation and planning.

Regional transportation council seeks advisory members

The Spokane Regional Transportation Council is seeking members for its Transportation Advisory Committee, a citizen’s advisory group that provides a community perspective to the transportation planning process.

SRTC is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for Spokane County, and is tasked with ensuring a cooperative and comprehensive planning process. Federal funds for transportation projects and programs are channeled through this process.

The TAC advises the SRTC Board regarding plans, programs and activities to determine consistency with policies and serves as a conduit for information between the board and the public.

Committee members will serve three year terms, starting in January 2018 through 2020.

Applications are available online at or by calling 509-343-3670. Applications are due by 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6.

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