Money collected from Spokane motorists for their car tabs will be used to pave a 900-foot stretch of dirt road leading to a cluster of homes in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, if the City Council approves a contract on Monday.
Laying asphalt down Falls Avenue to what’s known as the Lower Crossing neighborhood will give firefighters better access to a blaze-prone area and limit polluted runoff from streaming down a ruddy road into the Spokane River, said City Councilwoman Karen Stratton. She pushed for inclusion of the paving on the city’s six-year plan for street improvements, a project expected to cost $330,000, including design and construction expenses.
But a citizens board tasked with overseeing use of the car tab money did not endorse the work, questioning whether it was a proper use of the fund and that other measures should be tried to reduce the runoff.
Stratton initially started working with former City Councilman Jon Snyder in 2015 to get Falls Avenue paved. She’s heard from multiple residents who say the road is impassable in the winter when rain and snowmelt get into the crevices of the steep road, which dips about 110 feet in elevation over its 900-foot length.
“You’ve got people living down there that only have one way out,” Stratton said.
Two of those people are Mardis Nenno and Stephanie Swan, friends and across-the-street neighbors in the close-knit area at the bottom of the dusty hill. The pair watched in the noonday heat Friday as a motorist with out-of-state plates drove down the road, kicking up dust before turning around when they realized there was no river access.
“We’ve had to fight for everything down here,” said Swan, who moved into the neighborhood in 1974 and has watched as the water runoff issues and concerns about negligent campfires have grown.
“This is a surprise,” said Nenno of the road paving. She’s a relatively new transplant – snatching up her property in 1996 – and applauded the city and Stratton for listening to the neighborhood’s request for what she called “an easy fix.”
Stratton said the threat of fire was one the city should take seriously and is a main reason she pushed for paving of the road to allow firetrucks to roll down the hill without getting stuck. Swan and Nenno said trucks already had been to the neighborhood four times this week to deal with illegal campfires. Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the area should “receive a priority for attention in the form of engineering and asphalt” in an email to her that was shared with members of the Citizen’s Transportation Advisory Board, a volunteer panel tasked with overseeing spending of funds collected through local car tab fees.
Stratton and neighborhood residents approached that panel in spring 2017 to ask whether they would consider paving the road in the latest long-term plan for road improvements. Members reached for comment Friday did not respond. However, meeting minutes show that there was resistance to the idea, which would be paid for out of fees collected from motorists citywide.
A $20 tab fee was established by the Spokane City Council in 2011 and has generated more than $16 million in the past six years that is intended to pay for projects that improve safety and preserve the city’s transportation system, according to city law. That has included repairing existing asphalt roads, not paving new ones.
Transportation board members said they believed if there were drainage issues, it should be taken up with the developers of Kendall Yards, the new residential and commercial development at the top of the hill.
Nenno, who lives in a remodeled 1905 single-story home at the base of the hill, said the water streaming down the hill was especially bad in winter 2017, when more than 5 feet of snow fell in Spokane.
“All the water from Kendall Yards comes pouring down here,” she said.
Jim Frank, developer of the project for Greenstone Homes, said his firm put in an additional catch basin at the top of the hill and offered to share the cost of paving the road to alleviate the drainage problems. He said the neighborhood declined.
“Their problems are not coming from Kendall Yards,” he said. He blamed the rutting and runoff in 2017 on snow being piled on top of the catch basins.
There also was concern among panel members that paving one dirt road with the car tab money would open the advisory board to approving other projects for all of the 60 lane miles of unpaved roads that remain in Spokane.
Nenno and Stratton said they didn’t buy that argument.
“That’s a logic that just doesn’t hold up,” Nenno said. “Not every dirt road is the same.”
The surrounding property is owned by the city of Spokane as conservation land, which rules out the usual paving process where surrounding private owners pool their money to pay for the work. The road is also a bottleneck as the only access point for a pumping station next to the Spokane River. Nenno and Swan also pointed out the fire danger posed by nearby illegal campsites.
The board chose not to include the paving project in its recommendations to the Spokane City Council. But lawmakers unanimously added it back on the list in November of last year, and bidding went out for the project this summer. Red Diamond Construction, one of the firms working on the lane-reduction project on North Monroe Street, submitted the low bid for the paving work this month, at an anticipated cost of $184,578. The council is scheduled to consider the contract at its afternoon meeting Monday, when no public testimony will be taken.
Marlene Feist, strategic development director for the city’s public works division, said the city has added to the money available for residential street projects. As part of a shifting of the city’s reserve funds approved by the City Council earlier this summer, an additional $2 million was added to neighborhood street projects in the budgets for this year and the next.
That’s in addition to the road maintenance work that already has been funded by the car tab fees, which has totaled about $12 million to date. The city sets aside 10 percent of that fund for sidewalk work.
“Maybe we target some of those dollars to tick away at those unpaved streets questions,” Feist said. But the amount available won’t be enough to pave all the streets that remain dirt roads within six years, she warned.
“How we decide, that’s another question,” she said.
Nenno, Swan and their neighbors are preparing for the three weeks of construction that will close vehicle access to their homes during daytime hours. It’s taken several years to get the city to pay attention to the neighborhood’s plight, they said, but they credit officials for listening.
“It’s still a city that’s responsive,” Nenno said. “You just have to be persistent.”
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