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

Getting There: Hamilton Street on-ramp closure just a blip in bridge’s uneven history

The Hamilton St. on-ramp to I-90, above, will close for for most of the summer starting Monday, July 9, 2018. Shown Thursday, July 5, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

If you’re one of the 5,200 people who rely on the Hamilton Street bridge’s westbound on-ramp to I-90 on a daily basis, you’ll need to find a detour for the next 84 days. At least.

The westbound ramp of Liberty Park Interchange was closed today to repair two bridge decks, a $3.5 million project led by the Washington State Department of Transportation. It’s expected to be open again some time in October, which seems like a long time, but is nothing compared to how long Spokanite motorists in the 1970s and ‘80s had to wait.

Which is to say, it could be so much worse, because that bridge had quite a troubled birth.

In 1970, the bridge didn’t exist and Hamilton saw about 14,400 cars a day. That year also saw the release of the Spokane Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, which recommended a highway be built literally on Hamilton. The plan had been discussed for decades, and the WSDOT clearly took it for granted that the north-south highway would be built because it had already built the on- and off-ramps for the highway on I-90.

But after opposition stopped the highway from running up the Hamilton-Nevada-Helena corridor, the ramps stayed in place and northside traffic remained heavily congested, particularly on North Division.

The north-south freeway was dead, the ramps remained and traffic engineers had an idea: build a bridge connecting Hamilton to the interstate’s ramps to nowhere. An article in the Spokesman-Review acknowledged the highway was being swapped for a city road, calling the bridge a “surrogate for Spokane’s much-discussed but never-built north-south freeway.”

Margaret Hurley, the same woman who fought the north-south freeway’s route through the city’s neighborhoods, signed on to the idea, and brought it to Olympia as a state legislator representing Spokane.

“I made certain that it would only be four-lane to correspond with the carrying capacity of Hamilton Street,” Hurley said to the Spokane Daily Chronicle, wrongly noting that the bridge would “obviate” the need for the freeway in the future.

In 1977, Hurley and Sen. R.H. Lewis sponsored companion measures in the House and Senate to put Hamilton street in the state highway system, the first step in building the bridge. They were successful, allowing the state to seek Federal Aid Municipal funding. At the time, the bridge’s construction cost was estimated at $4 million.

In 1978, state transportation officials said that the idea was sound, construction would begin in 1981 and that it’d done by 1983.

In March 1979, three Spokane senators proposed naming the span after their ailing colleague, James E. Keefe, a Spokane Democratic senator who had been fighting prostate gland malignancy for a decade. Keefe, who was 71 at the time, had represented the Third Legislative District as a senator since 1949. Before his death, the Senate voted 43-0 to name the Hamilton bridge after him.

Two months later, in May 1979, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray signed into law a $1.1 billion transportation budget for 1979-81, which included $10 million to build the bridge, and $1.6 million to acquire property in the bridge’s path.

Original designs for the bridge included a path for pedestrians and bicycles. “The biker-walker lane will be separated from the auto lanes and depressed so air blasts from trucks will not knock riders down,” the Spokesman reported in June 1979.

But 1979 would prove to be a turning point for the bridge. At that moment, the bridge seemed assured an easy path, but it wasn’t so.

A study done WSDOT that year found that the bridge wouldn’t relieve congestion on Division as was originally predicted and promised. Even with an anticipated 32,400 vehicles using the bridge when it was expected to open in 1983, WSDOT said North Division would continue to see average daily traffic counts of tens of thousands of vehicles. They anticipated no relief.

By early 1981, the Keefe bridge had been downgraded to the lowest priority level for state projects, and King County Assessor Harley Hoppe mounted an initiative to repeal an increase in the state’s gas tax to fund a $1.1 billion package of transportation projects that included the bridge.

With the mounting troubles, state planners predicted there would be no money to construct the bridge until 1987, but WSDOT engineers began drawing plans for the it anyway. A Spokesman article looking into the likelihood of the bridge’s construction said “it appears Spokane will be lucky to get the Keefe bridge, much less the north-south freeway.”

The white flag had been flown.

In July 1981, Hoppe’s initiative failed to get enough signatures to appear on the ballot, and state transportation planners changed course, saying construction would begin as early as the following spring. In August 1981, WSDOT gave final approval for the bridge, now estimated at $15.5 million.

Sure enough, in the spring of 1982, work began. So did more trouble.

Construction errors, including the pouring of a large concrete pier in the wrong spot, drove the cost of the span up by an estimated $1 million and delayed the project by four months.

Among the troubles included a survey error that led to 150 feet of curbing being installed in the wrong location. Piers were driven 120 feet beneath the riverbed, but even that wasn’t deep enough, and the piers failed after being infiltrated by groundwater. Borings didn’t detect car-size boulders on an old railroad right-of-way, where a bridge pier was to be. At another pier site, the borings missed a underground storage tank filled with crude oil, an abandoned remnant of the former Spokane Gas Co. that had been listed in the state’s paperwork – listed but overlooked by the construction company.

The cost overruns spurred the Legislative Budget Committee, the financial watchdog of the Legislature, to hold hearings, which led to a staff audit of the project. News articles began describing the bridge project as “beleaguered.”

Finally, the bridge opened in November 1984, but it overshadowed by the audit, which came out three months before and was “tempered with a generous portion of mercy for the state Department of Transportation,” according to an editorial in the Spokesman. When all was said and done, the bridge’s construction came to $10.3 million, about $930,000 above the bid award, and not counting the cost for property acquisition.

Sure enough, the predictions of traffic congestion were right. The bridge did little to blunt the unrelenting traffic on North Division. In 1970, Division saw about 28,000 cars a day. In 1985, it had 31,000. Three years later, in 1988, Division saw more than 35,000. In 2017, WSDOT estimated North Division sees upwards of 45,000 cars a day.

Hamilton saw similarly rising counts, from 14,400 in 1970, to 29,400 in 1985, to 32,200 in 1988. Hamilton’s traffic counts remain at around 33,000.

As far as Hurley’s prediction that the Hamilton bridge would do away with the need for the north-south freeway, she was wrong. The $1.5 billion North Spokane Corridor is projected to be complete in 2029.

In the city

The second phase of the sewage tank project in Spokane’s Peaceful Valley neighborhood has started, closing Main Avenue from Monroe to Cedar Street. This adds to the already closed roads of Cedar from Main to Water Avenue, and Water from Cedar to Ash.

Other combined sewer overflow projects continue to have major impacts on Spokane roadways. The Adams Street project has snarled up the west end of downtown, but connections remain for dogged travelers.

Work continues on a two-million gallon sewage tank, impacting traffic on Fifth Avenue from Arthur Street to Perry Street, as well to Denver Street and Celesta Avenue.

Spokane Falls Boulevard remains closed by the downtown Spokane Public Library, as crews work to build a 2.2-million gallon tank. On the east-end of the site, near City Hall, crews intermittently stop traffic to allow access for concrete trucks. The next wall pour is scheduled for Friday, July 13 beginning at 6 a.m., when traffic heading toward the Monroe Street Bridge will be occasionally blocked for concrete trucks.

Cables are being attached to the University District Gateway Bridge, and Martin Luther King Jr. Way remains closed expect for University District traffic. Further east, work to extend MLK Way continues with the construction of a roundabout at its eventual intersection with Trent Avenue.

Crews will be painting and performing routine maintenance on the Maple Street Bridge.

Southeast Boulevard will see grind and overlay maintenance work between 29th Avenue and Regal Street.

High Drive between 21st and 29th remains closed for sewer work. If you must take neighborhood streets, slow down and know how to use uncontrolled intersections.

Residential chip seal projects begein today on D Street between 17th and 21st avenues, and in the Arrowhead area and the Broad-Wabash area.

The southbound west lane of Stevens Avenue between Second and Third avenues, and the south lane of Third between Stevens and Pittsburg will be closed beginning today until August 15.

Former Oklahoma City mayor to speak on transportation funding

Mick Cornett, the former mayor of Oklahoma City and current candidate for governor of the Sooner State, will be in Spokane to speak about transportation and infrastructure investments that can be done at a regional level, during this era of dwindling investments from the federal government.

During his time in the mayor’s office, Cornett helped deliver a $777 million infrastructure program for Oklahoma City that included a downtown park, streetcar system, convention center and wellness centers. He also oversaw a $140 million redesign of streets and sidewalks.

Cornett will discuss how Spokane can implement similar investments through civic engagement, inventive public policy and smart urban design.

Cornett’s talk is free and open to the public. It takes place Tuesday, July 10, from 6 p.m to 8 p.m. in the Wolff Auditorium at Jepson Center at Gonzaga University, 502 E. Boone Ave. His presentation will be followed by a question and answer opportunity.