Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Monroe ‘road diet’ gets first contract approval ahead of planned construction this spring

Monroe is a go.

The Spokane City Council approved the first of two contracts Monday for work on a 1.1-mile stretch of North Monroe Street that will reconfigure the arterial – the choice of some 17,000 motorists traveling downtown daily – from four lanes of traffic down to two. Council members approved the first contract Monday afternoon on a 6 to 1 vote, with only City Councilman Mike Fagan voting against.

Two Spokane firms – Red Diamond Construction, Inc., and Murphy Brothers, Inc. – submitted low bids for the road work. The combined value of the contracts is $8.75 million, including $800,000 obtained through a grant with the state Department of Ecology to build stormwater retention improvements on the west side of the street heading up the hill away from downtown.

The project sparked political controversy in last fall’s Spokane City Council races due to a vocal group of business people worried about traffic snarls and a lost summer of business due to the road work. Other businesses, including several that have recently set up shop along the corridor, instead worked through an existing nonprofit business association to welcome the work and envision a future for Monroe not unlike the bustling Perry District and, more recently, the East Sprague business corridor with walkable store fronts and slower traffic.

Work on Monroe will begin in early April and last until the end of the construction season in October, said Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the public works and utilities department. When finished, sidewalks outside of businesses along the street will widen by up to 7 feet in areas, wider on-street parking will be available throughout the corridor, and three crosswalk areas with lighted beacons will be added at key intersections to alert drivers to pedestrians.

Upgrades to the street were included in the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council’s future planning document, which was accepted by the Spokane City Council in 2014. The goal of the lane reduction is to reduce crashes involving pedestrians by slowing car speeds. A five-year-old girl was killed crossing the street outside of a crosswalk in October 2013.

Still, the plans sparked some uproar from what supporters called a vocal minority who believed the so-called “road diet” would choke traffic and shutter legacy businesses. A group of 16 restaurants, shops, taverns and auto repair centers sent a $15 million tort claim to City Hall in September, citing the upcoming loss of customers during the road construction. That claim was the first step toward filing a lawsuit, but as of Monday no additional legal action has been taken, said Bob Dunn, an attorney representing those businesses.

In an effort to speed the construction, which includes $4.6 million in funding through state and federal grants, city officials chose to break up the work into two chunks with complete closure of four-block areas as the work is done, Feist said. Red Diamond will begin work on the north end of the project, beginning at Kiernan Avenue and heading south to Dalton Avenue, while Murphy Brothers begins work on the street from Carlisle to Chelan avenues.

When that work is done, the closures will move south. Post Street will serve as the main detour during the work. A single cross-street will remain open in the middle of each section of the work, at Cora, Fairview, York and Knox avenues, allowing local motorists to cross Monroe during construction.

“We want to maintain access for residents and businesses there as much as we can, in the places it makes sense,” Feist said.

Any traffic disruptions this year for nearby residents will be worth it when the road reopens with wider lanes and safer paths for pedestrians, said E.J. Iannelli, former chairman of the Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council who helped develop the road work plan and has worked with the city on implementing it.

“I think it’s a necessary consequence of the work,” Iannelli said. “The real nice thing about this project is that they’ve learned from the shortcomings of other road work.”

Dunn, a local attorney who’s been successful in litigation against the city in the past, said the decision to split up the work between two contracts and hasten completion of the project has lessened the appetite for legal action.

“I think the urgency of filing anything has passed,” Dunn said. “I think whether or not there’s any litigation will be dependent on the city keeping the promises they made to the businesses.”

The city will place signs along Post Street advertising businesses that will remain open during construction, as they did during the rebuild of East Sprague Avenue completed last year.

The Spokane City Council is also expected to set aside $150,000 that can be used by businesses along Monroe for improvements to their storefronts that could coincide with the road construction, and the city has partnered with Washington State University’s Small Business Development Center to provide assistance to firms along the corridor to weather the street closures during construction.

After an initial false start that put some business owners on edge, City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said the city has taken positive steps to improve the relationship between entrepreneurs and City Hall. That has included hiring a construction liaison that will hold weekly meetings with the neighborhood and be based along the corridor throughout construction.

“For the most part, we’re all to the point where this is going to happen,” Stratton said. “I think the city is doing a really good job of communicating.”

But Fagan, who attempted some legislative wrangling late last year to get the city to abandon its lane-reduction project for the street, again voted Monday against funding for the project. He was dubious about the city’s offers of assistance and voted no to “stay consistent,” he said.

“As I’ve seen, in some of my previous government experience, that will just placate the people that will be hurt the worst,” Fagan said.

City Councilwoman Candace Mumm was the target of political attacks last fall tying her to the project despite Monday’s vote being the first formal action taken by city lawmakers. The councilwoman said she believed the project’s hiccups will be forgotten when the work is completed and more visitors opt to stop, get out of their cars and frequent the businesses along the corridor.

“I think the city learned a lot,” Mumm said. “And I think, once it’s done, the proof will be in the pudding.”