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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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PIRG calls North Spokane Corridor a ‘boondoggle’

July 3, 2018 Updated Tue., July 3, 2018 at 2:41 p.m.

The Fred Meyer store at Third Avenue and Thor Street in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. Empty blocks around are for the interchange with the north-south freeway. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Fred Meyer store at Third Avenue and Thor Street in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. Empty blocks around are for the interchange with the north-south freeway. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

First, we called it the north-south freeway. Then it became the North Spokane Corridor. A new report from two left-leaning nonprofit organizations has another name for the highway: boondoggle.

The north-south freeway is one of nine highway projects featured in “Highway Boondoggles 4,” a report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group issued in June.

“A proposed highway will slice through a historic Spokane neighborhood and take money from other transportation priorities in order to take just minutes off the drive to low-density suburbs north of the city,” read the report, the fourth of its kind since 2014.

Along with projects in Maryland, Louisiana, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia, the $1.5 billion North Spokane Corridor will “do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and 21st century transportation priorities.”

The report lambastes all new highways, noting that expanding or building new highways does nothing to address the nation’s $500 billion in backlogged road and bridge repairs. Between 2008 and 2015, debt for new highways held by state transportation agencies almost doubled, from $111 billion to $217 billion, according to the report.

In a statement, the Washington State Department of Transportation pushed back against characterizing the freeway as wasteful or pointless.

“The North Spokane Corridor project improves overall mobility by allowing motorists and freight to move north and south through metropolitan Spokane, from I-90 to U.S. 395 at Wandermere,” the department said through spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe. “Once complete, the NSC will decrease travel time, fuel usage and congestion in the area. This multimodal corridor also will improve safety by removing large trucks from local arterial roads, reducing collisions on local arterials and creating a safe bicycle/pedestrian trail connecting to the Centennial Trail as well as several trail systems. All of these benefits were recognized by the Legislature when they included final funding for the corridor in the Connecting Washington funding package.”

While the report wrapped Spokane’s project into the national picture, it did so using outdated data.

Citing a U.S. Department of Transportation and WSDOT study from 1997, it states that the highway’s construction will result in “500 homes being displaced.” Since that report was released 20 years ago, the highway’s design has changed, and the footprint of its interchange with I-90 has shrunk. Still, 606 properties have been purchased and 533 structures demolished by WSDOT. According to the state agency, 119 properties remain in the freeway’s path.

The report also states that “just minutes” will be shaved off the commute time. In a footnote, the report says that a current drive from Wandermere Golf Course to I-90 takes 24 minutes, and the highway project’s website estimates that a similar trip will take 12 minutes when the highway’s complete, a 50 percent reduction in commute time.

Regardless, the larger point the report makes stands: Highways are expensive to build, destructive to neighborhoods in their path, and the congestion they are trying to solve usually isn’t solved.

The $1.5 billion Spokane freeway is being paid for largely by the state’s gas tax. But the report notes that in 2015, Washington had $8.5 billion in highway debt, nine times more than it did in 2000. In 2014, the state spent $457 million on debt servicing in 2014, triple what it did in 2000.

Large swaths of Spokane’s East Central neighborhood have been demolished for the highway, a neighborhood that has been disproportionately affected by highway building, including for the historic Sunset Highway but more notably when I-90 was constructed through its center. The report doesn’t mention East Central, but instead the “historic community of Hillyard.”

Also, the report points to what it calls the “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion.” The so-called law is a twist on an economic theory called “induced demand,” which describes the phenomenon of how increasing supply of something leads people to want more of it. More demand puts pressure to increase the supply, and so on.

In transportation planning, that phenomenon was once called “traffic generation” and has long been recognized as an argument against adding lanes to congested freeways.

In previous reports, the groups have looked into other Washington projects, including the Puget Sound Gateway and Alaskan Way Viaduct.

U.S. PIRG was originally called Public Interest Research Groups, and was founded by Ralph Nader in 1971. The Frontier Group is a research arm of the group.

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