Let’s leave the muddled, dispiriting present for a moment and take a trip to an idyllic vision of the near future, as Spokane-area transit planners might imagine it.
The North Spokane Corridor is complete, ferrying cars and trucks above and around the city’s streetscape at high speed, unimpeded by stoplights and signs. That streetscape, in turn, is less crowded with freight-hauling semis and impatient drivers just trying to get around Spokane on their way elsewhere.
A less busy Division Street is not only no longer a highway lined with large parking lots, but it also no longer only serves gas-powered vehicles. Instead, it’s an attractive, more densely urbanized corridor with bike paths and walking trails, with landscaped sidewalks, safer intersections and businesses built closer to the street.
And every 7 1/2 minutes, the electric buses of a new rapid transit line run up and down the street, joining up with the by-then 13-year-old City Line at Main and Riverside avenues, creating an axis of high-speed transit that serves as the foundation for the rest of the city’s public transportation system.
Oh, and the coronavirus pandemic is a distant memory. The idea that people used to keep 6 feet of social distance from everyone else is a bit of historical trivia.
That vision may seem a long way off – and it is – but work is underway to make it someday, eventually, a reality.
It won’t be easy, of course.
For one thing, here in the muddled, dispiriting present, the coronavirus is very much not a distant memory, and social distancing is very much the law of the land. And the Washington State Department of Transportation, which has been working to build the NSC for 19 years, is abiding by it, which means progress on the project has stalled once again.
That may not be a surprise for a project that was first envisioned in 1946 and is only halfway complete, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a frustration.
Last year, work on the NSC was interrupted due to the passage of Initiative 976, which limited the cost of car tabs and jeopardized the state’s transportation budget. But almost as soon as Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new transportation bill and lifted a temporary pause on the NSC and some other WSDOT work around the state, he signed his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that banned gatherings and closed nonessential businesses, including construction.
While some entities, including the city of Spokane, have determined to pursue at least some infrastructure work while Inslee’s order is in effect, WSDOT has stopped almost all of its projects to comply and to keep crews safe.
Mike Gribner, administrator of WSDOT’s Eastern Region, said it’s not clear whether that will jeopardize the NSC’s target completion date in 2029. But he acknowledged it might.
“If this goes on for a year, it’s going to impact the schedule,” Gribner said. “If this thing clears in April, maybe not.”
On Thursday, Inslee extended the order to May 4.
Meanwhile, though, area transportation planners are pushing forward with what’s known as Division Connects, a two-year, $1 million study that aims to gather community input and come up with a plan for remaking the street.
Jason Lien, principal planner for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, said he and his counterparts from the Spokane Transit Authority, the city of Spokane, WSDOT and Spokane County are going into the study process with open minds about what that plan will ultimately look like – with one major exception: bus rapid transit, or BRT, is already in the mix.
STA has been aiming to add such a line to Division since about 2011, said Brandon Rapez-Betty, STA’s director of communications and customer service.
The reasons, he said, are many: “There’s multiple lanes. It’s a high ridership corridor. The frequency is already there, and the ridership demonstrates it’s a good use of that frequency.”
“It’s just a very busy corridor,” he said, “and that’s a great use of BRT.”
While STA is committed to making rapid transit happen, the agency is seeking input about its route and the location of its stops and stations.
“That’s a wide open discussion with the community in terms of how they want to see it function,” Rapez-Betty said.
And once a locally preferred alternative, as such a vision is officially known, is decided upon, Rapez-Betty said STA will take the lessons it learned successfully raising the $92.2 million needed for the City Line to go after funding for a Division line.
By the end of this year, Lien said planners hope to have that rapid transit vision nailed down and to have amassed ideas about other elements of the corridor’s redesign. In 2021, they will turn to other issues like “improvements for active transportation” and “How does land use fit into the equation?”
“Land-use planning” is a broad term that refers to the way governments can use zoning and other regulations to promote certain outcomes. And Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman, said “there’s a lot that could be done” on Division to make it “have more of a neighborhood feel.”
Pointing to big corridor projects on North Monroe and East Sprague as possible sources of inspiration or repulsion, Feist said she hopes the Division Connects projects will help answer whether increased density and other changes are “the kinds of things we’d like to see on the corridor or is there something else we’d like to see on the corridor?”
The process of determining what people want to see will be complicated, at least in the near term, by social distancing mandates that make public meetings and other conventional methods of gathering community input off-limits.
Instead, Lien said, planners are “trying to do our best to use our electronic tools.”
That web-based effort should begin later this week when a public survey about the corridor is expected to go live on the study’s website, divisionconnects.org.
But Lien said: “We’re also conscientious that having a web-based platform is not the only way to go. We’ve talked about some strategies of having like a telephone town hall-type event where people can call in just to make sure there are opportunities for people who don’t necessarily have internet access.”
“We have a lot of opportunity to rethink how the Division corridor can function,” Rapez-Betty said, “and we want to hear from everybody about that.”
The study will end in early 2022, at which point the project partners will begin the hard part: finding funding to implement whatever vision is drawn up.
And who knows? Maybe someday – maybe in 2035; maybe sooner or later – that vision will be a reality.
Work to watch for
While WSDOT has stopped work on its projects, the city of Spokane and STA are both planning to move ahead with at least some of their construction season work.
Rapez-Betty said STA is “doing an assessment of which of our projects are essential” and comply with Inslee’s stay-home order. He said work on the agency’s more immediate BRT line will move forward.
“We do plan to move ahead with City Line construction as planned,” he said, noting that crews will wear personal protective equipment and adhere to social distancing while working.
“The plan is to start late April or early May,” he said.
This week STA bus stop work will lead to some interruptions of street traffic:
- The southbound curb lane of Division Street at Nora Avenue will remain closed until Tuesday.
- The eastbound curb lane of Indiana Avenue will be closed at Division Street until Saturday.
- The westbound curb lane of Indiana will be closed at Division Street from Tuesday through Sunday.
- The northbound curb lane of Division Street will be closed at Empire Avenue from Thursday to April 14.
- The eastbound lane of Wellesley Avenue will be closed at Division Street from Friday to April 15.
- The northbound curb lane of Division Street will be closed at Central Avenue from April 14 to April 16.
- The southbound curb lane of Division Street at Rhoades Avenue will be closed April 14 to April 16.
Feist said the city is also “working through” the question of how to comply with Inslee’s order while also continuing work slated for this year’s construction season. In the meantime, she said, “Right now is when we’re bidding stuff, so we don’t really have anything that’s supposed to be working on today that’s not.”
But some work will continue around Spokane this week, including:
- The Mission Avenue railroad crossing will be closed with flaggers in place from Wednesday to Monday for Union Pacific Railroad work.
- The Ralph Street railroad crossing will be closed from Wednesday to Friday, and flaggers will be in place from Friday to Monday for Union Pacific Railroad work.
- The Fancher Road railroad crossing will be closed from Thursday to Saturday, and flaggers will be in place from Saturday to Monday for Union Pacific Railroad work.
- Sharp Avenue between Dakota and Hamilton streets will have traffic restrictions until April 17 for Avista work.
- The south curbside lane of Second Avenue between Cedar and Adams streets will be closed from Tuesday to May 7 for Avista work.
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