After decades of choosing between using a frequently congested bridge or driving to spans in other nearby cities to cross I-90, Liberty Lake residents in the next couple of years should have two bridges to choose from when crossing the interstate.
Liberty Lake, incorporated in 2001, consists entirely of county and developer-built roads. The Henry Road overpass will be the first road project the young city has built, and is one of several traffic improvement projects the state Legislature funded this year to improve traffic flow in Liberty Lake and the surrounding area. The new road and bridge will connect Mission Avenue and Country Vista Drive.
Liberty Lake City Administrator Katy Allen said the project will help connect the estimated 7,500 jobs along Appleway Avenue and students at the planned high school on the south side of the interstate with the new middle school, commercial developments and residential neighborhoods on the north side.
“This provides the circulation we don’t have today,” she said.
Allen said traffic using the city’s current bridge, Harvard Road, can sometimes back up for about a mile. She said backups during peak times slow down emergency responders, including Liberty Lake police officers and Spokane Valley firefighters, which serve both Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley. Traffic through the city is also expected to increase once the city’s two new schools open. Selkirk Middle School opens today and construction on Ridgeline High School is underway.
Liberty Lake leaders hoped to have the last piece of the project, an easement over a small section of right of way owned by Spokane County, approved on Tuesday, but will have to wait 30 additional days to design the overpass.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the city’s plan could jeopardize future high-capacity transit for the region, and asked other commissioners to wait until he could find additional funding to pay for a taller bridge, or other ways to preserve the right of way for high-capacity transit.
French said the small strip of county right of way, purchased in the 1980s, runs parallel to I-90 and could someday be a corridor for light rail or rapid bus transit. French said the overpass needs to be taller, or there needs to be an area dug out that runs beside the sewer line.
“Commissioners have protected that right of way for four decades,” French said. “(That could be) gone, because someone wants to build a ramp and do it on the cheap.”
He hopes to take his case to the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, which he chairs, to obtain about $2 million of its unallocated money for the project.
The vice chair of the transportation council is Liberty Lake Mayor Steve Peterson. Peterson did not respond to a request for comment, and the transportation council’s meeting is on Sept. 12.
Commissioners Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns said they support the project, and plan to approve the agreement at the end of September even if French isn’t able to find the funds to pay for changes in design. Kerns said the region’s legislators worked hard to win bipartisan support in the Legislature to fund several projects to improve connectivity in Liberty Lake.
“I’m perfectly comfortable letting them build across it today,” Kerns said.
Kuney said it’s difficult for Liberty Lake to design a project officials need now when they don’t yet know what high-capacity transit might look like in the future. She said with two new schools, it will be even more important for police and fire to have multiple ways to get across the city quickly and important for residents to be able to get across their own community as the area grows. She said other cities have built the projects they need and engineers have found ways to alter them when they need to accommodate transit.
“We’ve done everything we can to make sure high capacity’s a viable option for the future,” Kuney said. “I know there are engineering solutions we can do in the future, because that’s happening on the West Side right now.”
Allen said the agreement Liberty Lake has proposed to the county allows them to alter what they need to when high-capacity transit is an option. That agreement will be before county commissioners at the end of the month.
While French estimates changing the project could cost about $2 million, Allen estimates it will be closer to $3 million. The city of Liberty Lake doesn’t have $3 million more to spend on the project, which is already budgeted to cost $14.5 million.
Liberty Lake City Councilman Dan Dunne said he wants high-capacity transit in Liberty Lake eventually, but that it doesn’t appear there is political will or funding for such a project anytime soon.
“I personally want it to happen, I’m an advocate for mass transit,” Dunne said. “But I, in the current climate and the ability and the capacity of spending for the people of Spokane County, don’t foresee that.”
Dunne said the city’s already built a pedestrian bridge to help people get across the “river of cars,” but the city hopes to have the Henry Road bridge built before students start school at the planned Ridgeline High School in south Liberty Lake.
The bridge is one of many projects that will be built over the next several years intended to improve connectivity in Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake. The city is also designing a plan to widen the Harvard Bridge, Liberty Lake’s only existing bridge, and plans to add a third lane to the westbound on-ramp to I-90 from Harvard Road.
Spokane Valley will design the Barker Northside Ramp Terminal, which likely will be a roundabout intended to reduce congestion in that area. Altogether, those projects are budgeted to cost more than $12 million.
Allen said if commissioners approve the easement at the Sept. 24 meeting, Liberty Lake will start designing the project in October and perhaps start construction in 2021. The Washington Department of Transportation is in charge of constructing the bridge, and Allen hopes people will be able to drive on Henry Road across I-90 in 2022.
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