A Spokane Valley developer is pushing against plans to build a $25 million roundabout where Barker Road, Trent Avenue and Wellesley Avenue intersect.
The three-legged, four-lane roundabout has been fully funded with a mix of federal, state and local dollars, but it doesn’t connect to Highland Estates, a 100-home subdivision directly to its north.
“It’s a tremendous health and safety hazard, without giving us access to our neighborhood,” said Jack Kestell, a real estate agent who developed Highland Estates, which has room for nearly 100 additional homes. “Our only access point is 1,000 feet from the roundabout. Nobody wants to listen to me. But I feel it’s necessary.”
Kestell said the roundabout has been designed without a northern “fourth leg” connecting to his development, and wants the Valley to incorporate it into the designs.
The main goal of the project is to replace a BNSF railroad crossing on Barker with an overpass, separating vehicular traffic from trains at the busy rail juncture. The city of Spokane Valley, which is leading the project, said the overpass will eliminate the wait time for motorists where, on average, traffic is blocked by passing trains for 162 minutes a day. The Valley also anticipates that the project will open up 600 acres of commercial and industrial property for development, creating $2 billion in economic output and generating $12 million in new taxes for the city.
Both the Valley and Washington State Department of Transportation reject Kestell’s request for a fourth leg, saying the project has been fully funded and designed to the point where connecting to Kestell’s development is out of the picture, at least for the time being.
“This project has already been locked in and funded,” said Jeff Kleingartner, spokesman for Spokane Valley, adding that a “fourth leg concept” to connect to Highland Estates “has not been part of the scope of the project or what we got funded for.”
Mike Gribner, administrator for WSDOT’s eastern region, said the department got involved with the Valley project when the initial designs were “too big.”
“It was going to be very challenging for them to fund it,” Gribner said.
The original price tag for the project, which included the overpass and a signalized intersection, was $45 million to $50 million, Gribner said.
Kestell said he’s been involved with discussions about the Trent-Barker intersection since 2002, when he first began developing Highland Estates. He said he has long approved of the project, and has lobbied for federal and state funding. He flew to the nation’s capital in 2015 to meet with Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and pressed them to approve federal funding, he said. He’s been to Olympia eight to 10 times to lobby for the project, he said.
The project lost his support when the signal-controlled intersection was replaced with a roundabout, a design finalized by Spokane Valley in March 2018.
WSDOT has been building roundabouts since 1998, but their increased presence in the Spokane area since 2018 has been a point of fury for some drivers. When the multilane roundabouts opened last year in Airway Heights near the Spokane Tribal Casino, by the North Side Costco, and on Trent at Martin Luther King Jr. Way, some drivers were initially confused. The situation changed as motorists grew comfortable with the circular intersections, but the distaste for them remains among some commuters.
Don’t expect WSDOT to backtrack on its proclivity for roundabouts. Crashes that cause injury are reduced by 75% at intersections that swap stop signs or signals for roundabouts, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Fatal collisions are reduced by 90%. WSDOT also says roundabouts reduce travel time and are less expensive to maintain than signalized intersections.
Gribner, with WSDOT, said Eastern Washington is “slower to embrace change” than the West Side of the state, which explains why it took 20 years before large roundabouts really appeared in Spokane. But what’s behind their appearance is how well they work, Gribner said.
“What’s really driving them is the efficiency and safety standards,” he said of the proliferating roundabouts.
Kestell, the developer, said it would “be ideal” if the Valley and WSDOT scrapped the roundabout, but he acknowledges that probably won’t happen.
“I don’t see that ever happening,” he said. Instead, he wants the roundabout to be built with a fourth “leg” to connect to Highland Estates. “I think this roundabout would be fine, if they give us access to the intersection.”
Kestell said a traffic and safety analysis that the transportation planning group Fehr and Peers completed for the city in July 2018 supported his argument for the fourth leg.
The analysis examined six design options, many of which considered the implications for Del Rey Drive, the only road to Highland Estates. The design option the Valley chose will create “some traffic operations impacts to the Del Rey Drive/Trent Avenue intersection,” the report said, which would cause the intersection to fail both Valley and WSDOT level-of-service standards.
However, the traffic report says that if Del Rey were repainted to “include a separate southbound left turn lane,” the intersection would meet those standards.
Kleingartner, with the Valley, said a fourth leg may be built “for a future stage,” but the Valley’s not paying for it. The county paid $54,000 to do a conceptual design of the fourth leg and determined it would cost $760,000 to construct.
“That fourth leg will be the responsibility of the developer,” he said. “The project has already passed through several of DOT’s processes. We’ve secured the funding and are not looking to add another element to this project.”
The proposed roundabout, whose construction is expected to begin as early as next year and be complete within 18 to 24 months, has faced resistance before. In 2018, state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, introduced an amendment to the Senate budget that would have prevented the city from receiving state grant funds, citing safety concerns with the roundabout. After the City Council agreed to allow additional public input on the roundabout’s design, legislators removed the amendment. The city held three meetings in March 2018 to discuss the project’s history and six design alternatives.
Most residents and members of the business community testified in favor of the roundabout at those meetings.
A meeting this week, organized by Kestell, will discuss the roundabout. In an email sent to nearby homeowners, Kestell said the roundabout would cause “multiple accidents, injuries and deaths.” The meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at CenterPlace Regional Event Center, 2426 N. Discover Place, Spokane Valley.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Wednesday, July 24, 2019 to show that Spokane County paid for a conceptual design of the roundabout’s fourth leg.
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