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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Knezovich warns North Monroe road project would impede evacuation of downtown Spokane during emergencies

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich crosses Monroe Street during a walk around Spokane on Friday, August 4, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich crosses Monroe Street during a walk around Spokane on Friday, August 4, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich waded into a contentious discussion about street design earlier this month by officially coming out against the planned street renovation on North Monroe, saying its redesign will “decrease the public safety for the entire region.”

In a letter to Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan, Knezovich said the $7.1 million project to make the road safer for pedestrians will hinder the ability to evacuate downtown Spokane in the event of an emergency.

“It seems that those in favor of this project have forgotten the major events which take place in our community: Hoopfest, Bloomsday and the Torchlight Parade to name some,” he wrote. “These events occupy both sides of the Spokane River and should it become necessary to quickly evacuate those areas, North Monroe will again play a major role in that evacuation.”

Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the public works and utilities department, said the city has heard Knezovich’s concerns before, but the city’s police and fire departments don’t share them.

“You don’t design infrastructure for evacuation purposes. You design evacuation processes around infrastructure,” Feist said. “The lanes are sufficient to accommodate big red fire trucks along with public safety vehicles.”

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said his department’s prevention division was “involved and consulted” during the project’s planning.

“I have faith in our public process and have not seen data regarding evacuation concerns resulting from the new design,” Schaeffer said.

In an interview, Knezovich said Monroe has long acted as an emergency route used by his agency, the Spokane Police Department and American Medical Response, the region’s ambulance service.

“Monroe is a main arterial that connects North Spokane to the interstate,” said Knezovich, who is also the county’s director of emergency management. “Division is already a very, very crowded roadway. The most logical place is to send people north on Monroe. It’s designed for that. It’s one of the major evacuation routes.”

Any number of things could prompt an evacuation, Knezovich said.

“You have all kinds of different scenarios. A chlorine gas leak to a shooter situation at a major event,” he said. “Explosions. The Boston Marathon type of incident. We’re not immune to that.”

Attempts to reach Police Chief Craig Meidl and Paul Priest, AMR’s regional director for central and eastern Washington, were unsuccessful.

Knezovich’s letter is dated the day after a student at Freeman High School shot and killed a classmate and wounded three others, but Knezovich said the timing is “coincidental.”

Fagan asked Knezovich to write a letter listing his concerns a week or more before it was written. The sheriff wrote a draft and sent it back to Fagan, “asking if it covered the points he wanted covered.” Knezovich’s secretary typed up the letter, with Fagan’s comments, the day after the Freeman shooting.

Fagan is currently crafting a City Council resolution against the project and to reject the grant money, an award it previously approved. Councilwoman Karen Stratton said recently she doesn’t believe such a resolution would pass. Fagan is no stranger to seeing his resolutions fail by a 6-1 vote.

Knezovich also said he “had no idea” that a legal challenge to the road work would be filed by a business association eight days after his letter was written.

Last week, the Monroe Street Business Association, which was registered with the state in June by Skipper’s owner Gary Jarvis, filed a $15 million tort claim against the city, citing “significant revenue losses” during the city’s planned renovation of the street.

“All the events that you just mentioned just happened to be coincidental,” Knezovich said of the letter, Freeman shooting and legal claim. “I did not have time.”

The North Monroe Corridor project will reduce the number of lanes from five to three, construct more visible crosswalks and make the business center’s sidewalks wider with more trees and benches. The city plans to complete the project in seven months, between April and October 2018.

Feist said the city had considered putting concrete curbed pedestrian islands at some intersections, but decided instead to install crossing lights activated by walkers in order to keep the street clear for police and fire vehicles.

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