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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: McGrath says it’s a nice bridge, but…

It is, George McGrath acknowledges, a very nice bridge – this span that he has pugnaciously insisted on calling the Bridge to Hookerville.

But he still thinks it was a huge boondoggle.

“What a waste of $30 million,” he said this week, as we met on the East Sprague side of the newly opened University District Gateway Bridge.

Thirty million is an ample, McGrathian exaggeration. The city puts the cost of construction and design at $15.4 million. But the idea that the new bridge connecting the U-District and East Sprague is a massive waste of taxpayer money is not surprising from McGrath, who has railed against the project since it was first proposed.

“I don’t think there should be a bridge here at all, because there’s no reason for it,” he said.

But here the bridge is, looking bold and dramatic and useful, connecting the U-District with East Sprague in ways that we can reasonably hope will pay off for the campus and for the East Sprague neighborhood and the city at large. It strikes me as a great investment, and particularly because it harnessed state and federal funding to cover a lot of the bill.

It opened a couple of weeks ago, and lots of people have made their way over to it to admire it, take selfies, ride their bikes across and see what how it affects transportation and views in that part of the city. But no grand opening of the bridge would have been complete, it seemed to me, without an assessment from McGrath, and when I invited him to walk it together last week, he was game.

“The last time, I think, that I was kicked out of a City Council meeting was for using the term Hookerville,” McGrath said.

Indeed, for a while, it was that word, more than the bridge itself, that had people fired up in council chambers. McGrath used the term insistently, and many people found the words insulting to the neighborhood and callous toward some of the actual, real-life problems associated with the history of prostitution in that neighborhood.

It’s not so amusing, for example, to think about the way serial killer Robert Yates preyed on women working there. Or the lives of those women that brought them to those streets in the first place.

But when the council attempted to ban the term as offensive in 2015, it became a short-lived free speech battle and, whatever you think of the name itself, the council was on the wrong side of it. McGrath and his fellow travelers feasted on the subject for weeks; one man used up his comment period to just repeat the word over and over.

McGrath remains unbowed: He deployed the term “Hookerville” at last Monday night’s council meeting.

McGrath, 82, is surely the most frequent commenter at the meetings, a regular opponent of government spending in virtually all forms, who blithely and regularly demonizes council members as wasteful or blind or silly or idiotic. He’s chief curmudgeon of the comment period, and most of his views come from as far to the right as you can see on the map. While he can be blustery and harsh and rude, he also can display the occasional sense of humor and good-natured gesture.

He began regularly attending council meetings during the mayoral term of Sheri Barnard in the early 1990s, and the subject that got him riled up was a bit of infrastructure work: a median strip being added to 29th Avenue at Pittsburg. The meeting he attended included the presentation of a petition opposing that median strip signed by hundreds of people, he said, but the council went ahead.

“I sat and listened and said, ‘These are our elected leaders, and this is how they treat the people of Spokane?’ That got me going,” he said.

He used to regularly show up in an Elmo sweater. Even as he has sometimes been in conflict with Council President Ben Stuckart – who wields the gavel and sets the boundaries for the discourse – you get the sense that McGrath is as much bemused as disgusted. It would be hard to call much of what he contributes specifically useful or even relevant, sometimes, but he’s certainly exercising his rights.

Is he having fun during his regularly allotted three minutes of council commentary?

“It’s interesting to me to just go and listen to how they are going to waste taxpayer money,” he said.

To McGrath’s way of thinking, there is very little that any government can or should accomplish.

“Government is a totally nonproductive entity,” he said. “Government is a parasite. It can only live on what it takes from the people.”

OK, then. It’s hard to make much of a case for a bridge – any bridge, anywhere, over anything – if that’s your basic presumption. McGrath also thinks that the bridge was too expensive and extravagant, and that it was primarily sold as a safer alternative for allowing people to get between the campus and downtown Spokane.

My sense of the bridge was not that it was pitched on that basis – it doesn’t make sense on those terms – but more from the benefits it would provide to both the campus and the neighborhood. I like it for those reasons, and McGrath allowed that perhaps it could succeed on that basis.

“It may prove to be that,” he said. “It may prove to be a very good investment.”

He’s doubtful, though. To say the least.

McGrath met me on the East Sprague side of the bridge Wednesday morning, wearing a red Christmas cap – with “Ho, Ho, Ho!” on the front – and a flag pin on the lapel of his jacket. As he has always been whenever I’ve spoken to him, he was perfectly friendly and engaging, even as we differed over the utility and worth of the bridge.

Maybe it will work and eventually be a good thing, he allowed.

“But if that doesn’t happen, ‘Oh, well, we tried,’ ” he said. “How many millions went down the tube? ‘Oh we don’t discuss that.’ ”

I think it’s safe to say that, as long as McGrath is around, we will definitely discuss that.

As for the bridge itself, and whatever names it’s been called, McGrath and I had a very pleasant walk across it, taking in the views of the U-District and the city, noting the passing of trains beneath it, gazing up at the large arch and the thick cables, and greeting those few passers-by whom we encountered.

“I think it looks great. It looks great, yeah,” he said, seeming to soften toward the bridge for a second. “Except … ”

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