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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There: Washington state gets a C on infrastructure from civil engineers group

Vehicles headed north on Freya at Hartson avoid a stretch of potholes on the east side of the street, Feb. 17, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Vehicles headed north on Freya at Hartson avoid a stretch of potholes on the east side of the street, Feb. 17, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Earlier this month, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its latest report card on Washington state’s infrastructure. It graded not only roads, bridges and transit, but also dams, water and sewage systems.

The verdict: a C.

Let’s hope there’s no grading curve. Because that’s not good.

Take some solace in knowing that Washington beat the nation, which scored at D+ in 2017 when the ASCE last scored our country’s infrastructure. But that really doesn’t feel any better, knowing that our country is falling apart due to a negligent lack of funding.

“Reliable and safe infrastructure requires sufficient investment, thoughtful planning, and preparation for the future,” wrote Richard Fernandez, an engineer for the city of Seattle who chaired the evaluation committee and helped write the report. “For a long time, underinvestment at all levels of government threatened our competitive advantage and the health, safety, and welfare of our residents.”

Though Fernandez argues that the state and local governments have started to fund infrastructure creation and maintenance, the report illustrates just how far we have to go.

Our roads and transit systems are below average. Our bridges aren’t much better. Our stormwater systems are near failing – on the grading scale, if not in practice.

The state’s 80,400 miles of roadway were ranked a decidedly poor C-.

Of all this right-of-way, about 50 percent is under county jurisdiction, 22 percent is run by cities, 11 percent is federal and 9 percent is state-controlled. The remaining belongs to townships and other small entities.

According to the report, about 70 percent of the state system is situated in rural areas that do not suffer from capacity issues. The rest is in the state’s urban areas: Seattle, Spokane and Vancouver. That’s where things get bad, according to the report’s metrics.

Seattle, no surprise, was ranked as having the third worst rush-hour traffic by the Texas Transportation Institute in 2015, and the Vancouver-Portland area came in at seventh. Spokane, the relatively empty burg to the east, ranked 54th.

The report also notes that the Washington State Department of Transportation has done a good job maintaining its pavement, with 92 percent of roads rating in fair or better condition.

So why the below average grade? Because the report sees the state becoming more populated, and our roads just can’t handle all the newcomers. Among its solutions to avoid an even lower grade next time around include finding ways to reduce congestion, and increasing the use of public transit by providing “transit-only lanes and improve the availability of public transit (buses, light rail lines, separated bike lanes) to decrease congestion and increase roadway safety.”

Side note: The definition of public transit that includes separated bike lanes is approved by this column.

Speaking of transit, the report gave the state a grade of C-. Transit is described in the report as “a vital solution” to the state’s challenges stemming from “population growth, regional geographic and geologic hazards, transit safety, limited funding, and equitable access.”

Aside from discussion about the Seattle area’s transit systems, where there is nation-leading growth in transit ridership, the report doesn’t have much to say. Sure, there’s a long way to go in Spokane, but nowhere does the report mention the expanded service provided by Spokane Transit Authority or its plan to bring a bus rapid transit line to the city core.

Which brings us to our own grade of this report card. It severely lacks in Spokane-specific examples and suggestions. One could be forgiven if he or she thought the state was wholly occupied by Seattle, and the 500,000 people who live in Spokane County were actually residents of Idaho.

It’s probably just as well. As the report notes, if a rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone occurs, Seattle would suffer in unimaginable ways. The 3.5 million people living in the Puget Sound metropolitan area who depend on the degraded infrastructure will be up a creek without a paddle. So maybe this report will encourage those on the West Side to prepare for that inevitable and major earthquake.

Here on the east side, though, things are fine. But where’s our light rail?

Talk to the city about Riverside redo

Riverside Avenue, once a vibrant downtown road that’s now wide and vacant, is getting a major renovation between Monroe Street and Division Street beginning as early as 2021.

On Feb. 7, the public can hear more about what the city plans to do with the road at an open house being held at the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza.

The open house follows two online surveys done by the city that sought input about what people wanted for the road.

The first survey established that people wanted bikeways, fewer travel lanes and parking. The second survey drilled down on those preferences and found that the survey’s respondents wanted a protected bike lane, also called a cycle track, on Riverside.

The city says the surveys showed people want three lanes for vehicle traffic, which includes a turn lane, more bikeways and a maximization of parking. A news release says the city is trying to find “the balance between parking and traffic flow” and “how bicycle facilities fit with the parking options.”

The open house will take place Thursday, Feb. 7, on the second floor of the STA Plaza from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Get off your phone

Listen up, distracted drivers of Washington, if you’re paying attention: You’ve improved.

For the motorists in Spokane, you got worse.

According to the Washington Safety Traffic Commission, distracted driving is down statewide. A survey done by the commission in June 2018 found that the driver distraction rate was 8.2 percent in 2018 – down from 9.2 percent in both 2016 and 2017.

Most surprisingly, perhaps, is that there was a decrease in the percent of motorists holding a cellphone while behind the wheel. In 2017, 5.7 percent of observed drivers were holding or manipulating cellphones.

Last year, this number fell to 3.4 percent of drivers.

That’s good news, but cellphones still make up a sizable proportion of distractions for motorists. The survey found that, in 2018, drivers holding a cellphone made up 41.6 percent of all distractions, and holding a phone to the ear accounted for 13.7 percent.

The situation is much different in Spokane County, where the distracted driver rate increased to 11.6 percent in 2018. That’s a sizable increase from 5.9 percent in 2017 and 7.2 percent in 2016.

Take your hands off the wheel and give yourself a slow clap. Because it really won’t impact your diminished, distracted ability to drive.

But why the statewide change? The reports suggests it comes from the 2017 passage of stricter distracted driving laws, which became effective on July 23, 2017. Full enforcement of the laws began in January 2018 after a majority of law enforcement agencies delayed handing out tickets while the public was educated about the laws.

For the last six months of 2017, during this educational “warning” period, about 7,000 tickets were issued statewide. In the first six months of 2018, over 20,000 tickets were issued under the new laws.

Just maybe not in Spokane.

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