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Sunday, September 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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U-District’s $15.4 million bridge finished, but controversy over delays and bike landing continue

The University District Gateway Bridge is being used, but discussion over delays and a proper bike landing overshadow opening. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The University District Gateway Bridge is being used, but discussion over delays and a proper bike landing overshadow opening. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Three months late, and on the chilly cusp of winter, the bicycle and pedestrian bridge in Spokane’s University District is finally open.

Any plans to throw a party for the 120-foot-tall bridge were squelched by the mid-December unveiling, which was done with little fanfare on the city’s Twitter feed. It promised a spring “celebration for this new Spokane landmark!”

It’s an unfortunate not-coming-out party for the $15.4 million bridge, which has been lauded as a necessary connection between East Sprague Avenue and the University District. Now, as questions linger about the delay and more are raised about the lack of bike infrastructure on its south landing, the bridge that began with controversy is threatened to remain mired in it.

The bridge’s public life began with an unfortunate moniker coined by a curmudgeonly regular at a Spokane City Council meeting who called it the “Bridge to Hookerville.” Backers of the bridge quickly moved beyond the name, thanks in part to the City Council banning the epithet from its meetings in 2015, and the span seemed to sail to completion.

But in the last few months, the bridge project sputtered to the finish line.

The anticipated September completion was largely delayed by a lack of steel on the international market, a shortfall in supply driven by President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs that led to a conflict between the city of Spokane and Garco Construction, which built the structure. While Garco’s project manager said steel supply was to blame, city officials tried to point to other problems with the bridge as the reason for delay, such as the tension of the cables on the cable-stayed arch.

The sore point has led Garco to filter media calls through a spokeswoman, Andrea Frye, who would only to respond to questions via email.

Marlene Feist, a spokeswoman with the city, said she couldn’t speak to any effect the tariffs may have had on the bridge, but acknowledged that the “back-ordered” steel railing caused difficulty.

“I don’t know enough about tariffs,” she said, noting that “a lot of smaller things” contributed to the delay. “There was a number of things. Some things took longer to get in, the railing in particular was back-ordered and we couldn’t open that bridge without proper safety railing.”

And though “hookerville” has been left behind, for the cyclists who take the bridge one name may stick: the bridge to nowhere. Despite plans for a major renovation of East Sprague Avenue at the bridge’s south landing this spring, the city will not include bicycle infrastructure on the rebuilt road.

Instead, Sprague will remain as a street with a “shared use designation,” meaning if cyclists want to take the road, they’ll be in the lane with vehicular traffic.

State Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat who helped secure state funding for the bridge and is now the Senate majority leader, isn’t pleased.

In emails from June to October, Billig pushed Katherine Miller, the city’s director of integrated capital, to rework the street plan to include bike lanes, noting that the number of cyclists on the street will increase with the bridge’s opening and its related development.

“The state made a significant investment in the U-District Bridge and we have an interest in seeing that there are safe and effective connections for pedestrians and cyclists that use the bridge,” Billig wrote in an email to Miller, which was also sent to City Council President Ben Stuckart, council members Lori Kinnear and Breean Beggs, and University District Executive Director Lars Gilbert.

Billig said bike infrastructure was necessary on Sprague “because of the significant state, city and U-district investment in the bike and pedestrian bridge and the increased number of cyclists we know will be traveling in the area as a result of that investment.”

He suggested the city was prioritizing motorists in an area where it shouldn’t.

“Let’s flip the too frequent traditional view that ‘We’ll build for cars and take care of safety for cyclists if there is money left over’ and instead declare, ‘we’ll start with the mode of transportation that is cheapest, healthiest, best for the environment and ties in with this large bridge investment first and build for cars as well where it makes sense,’ ” he wrote.

In her reply, Miller said the city’s Bike Master Plan was created in 2009 and updated in 2017, and it envisioned bicycle traffic “to parallel Sprague on Pacific and First avenues.”

“In many cases, the Bike Master Plan identifies streets adjacent to major arterials as the bike corridor to allow for less conflict between cars and bicycles,” she wrote. “That’s true on Hamilton, where the parallel greenway on Cincinnati will be the major bike facility. It’s also true on Monroe Street, where adjacent streets are identified as the bike route over the busy Monroe business corridor.”

Miller also listed the other bike routes that run to or near the bridge, including Sherman Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Main Avenue.

The emails generally show Billig asking for more detail on bicycle infrastructure on Sprague or near the bridge, and Miller describing the limitations the city has in building bikeways on some streets.

For his part, Stuckart sided with Miller.

“Sprague has never been on the master bike plan, when they developed it, when they updated it,” he said, adding that recent surveys done by the city show no appetite for adding bike lanes on the road. “The street is only so wide. Everybody agreed to narrow it from four lanes to three, but everybody agreed they needed a center turning lane. Parking on the street was really important to the businesses and neighbors.”

Stuckart said there was still the “feeder” of Southeast Boulevard bringing cyclists from the south, but acknowledged the lack of east-west connections. He said he was trying to find funds to pay for a study that could lead to an off-street path running between the railroad tracks and behind the buildings on Sprague.

Such a path would connect with the Ben Burr Trail not too far from the Centennial Trail, but it is years away with no identified funding.

Stuckart said the study, design and right-of-way acquisition would be “well over a million dollars” and would be done, at the earliest, in two years.

“I think within two years,” he said. “I hope so. I hope so.”

One source of funding, Stuckart said, was the state.

“I’m hoping that Sen. Billig, who is such a champion of this, he’ll help me out with this as Senate majority leader,” he said.

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