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Dale Stedman, advocate of north-south freeway and local AAA leader, dies at 92

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 19, 2019

Dale and Marilyn Stedman in May 1957. Dale Stedman, a longtime road advocate in Spokane, has died at 91.
Dale and Marilyn Stedman in May 1957. Dale Stedman, a longtime road advocate in Spokane, has died at 91.

Dale Stedman, a longtime leader of the local AAA and outspoken advocate of the north-south freeway, died on Nov. 12 at his home on Spokane’s South Hill. He was 92.

From his post leading what was originally called the Inland Automobile Association of America for nearly three decades, Stedman influenced the route and construction of Interstate 90, which continues to define Spokane. The north-south freeway, officially called the North Spokane Corridor, was first conceived in 1946 and dogged Stedman for decades as he pushed for its construction, which finally began in 2001, thanks in part to his lobbying.

His daughter, Cydney Brown, said he died in the arms of his son, Bruce Stedman, a week before the 70th anniversary of his wedding. Marilyn Stedman preceded him in death in 2018.

During his career, Stedman was appointed to the Washington State Transportation Commission, served on the board of directors for the Washington State Department of Transportation and was a member of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

Beyond transportation, Stedman volunteered with the Citizen’s League of Spokane, Spokane Rotary Club and YMCA of the Inland Empire. He was also chairman of the board for the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce.

“He was just very busy,” Brown said. “He was a civic promoter and he loved Spokane. He made sure Spokane became and remained the best it could be.”

Stedman was born in Eugene, but spent much of his childhood in Tumwater, Washington, before graduating from Olympia High School in 1945. After serving in the Navy for a couple of years, he attended Washington State College, graduating in 1949 with a degree in journalism.

His first job was for McKesson & Robbins. He was based in Wenatchee. For two years, he drove around central and Eastern Washington “selling plastic gloves and pharmaceuticals,” Brown said.

In 1951, he was hired to do public relations for the Inland Automobile Association of America, but quickly moved up the ranks. In 1961, he was named general manager and, in 1967, became president and CEO – a position he held until 1994 when he retired. Over the years, he served on six national committees at AAA, including the budget, highway and traffic safety committees.

In 1952, he joined the local Good Roads Association, which was founded in 1903. Beginning in the early 1970s, he led the association for decades.

“He was executive director of Good Roads for 35 years. Out of the 116 years the organization has been around, he was there for a third of it,” said Joe Tortorelli, who took over the group after Stedman in 2007. “He was Mr. Roads for Spokane for a long time. We relied on him.”

From these two positions, Stedman had a front seat to the changing nature of transportation in Spokane, which had only just abandoned a vast electric streetcar network and was still expanding the paved roadway network, as was the rest of the nation.

In December 1965, Stedman organized the aluminum-ribbon cutting ceremony for the 9-mile section of I-90 between Spokane and Four Lakes, where he was joined by then-Gov. Dan Evans and Spokane Mayor Neal Fosseen. The freeway had begun construction in the Spokane region in 1956 as part of the Eisenhower-era interstate highway system, and was officially completed in 1974. Today, I-90 carries on average more than 120,000 vehicles every day in Spokane.

Though Stedman didn’t live to see the completion of the north-south freeway, his lobbying on its behalf delivered its first funding, which in turn led to the North Spokane Corridor being promised the full $1.5 billion it needed to be built by the Legislature in 2015. The freeway is anticipated to open in 2029, but lawmakers now warn of its delay following this month’s approval of Initiative 976 by voters.

In 1973, Stedman was among the leaders of the Citizens for North-South Freeway, a group encouraging city voters to approve the highway’s path up the Hamilton-Nevada corridor – a route that faced opposition from Logan Neighborhood residents that its backers never overcame. The WSDOT formally abandoned the route up the Hamilton-Nevada corridor in 1991.

Despite the setbacks, Stedman kept up his advocacy work for the freeway. As board chairman of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Rotary Club, he had influence with the area’s decision-makers.

“He didn’t twist arms,” said Tortorelli. “He gently encouraged.”

When WSDOT dropped its plans to run the highway through the Logan Neighborhood, it said a north-south route was still needed, and estimated the cost to build the north-south freeway east of the city at $651 million. Stedman got to work, which paid off in 1999 and 2000, when the Legislature allocated $3.9 million for design work and $19 million for purchasing right-of-way for the freeway.

On Aug. 22, 2001, the official groundbreaking took place on the freeway’s first major section, from Hawthorne to Farwell roads.

Stedman, though retired, was there to celebrate. “It’s the old adage,” he said ahead of the groundbreaking. “You can only get a road built when you start one.”

In 2007, he left his professional transportation work behind, but was quoted in The Spokesman-Review one last time, still urging completion of the freeway.

“We don’t want to be Seattle,” he said. “Spokane is in the enviable position of getting it done before the demands are greater. The longer we wait, the greater the problem, and the greater the cost to correct it.”

Stedman is survived by his two children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Nov. 19 to reflect Stedman’s age when he died, and the year his wife died.

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