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Getting There: County pushes forward with work on Bigelow Gulch Urban Connector

Community members gather for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Bigelow Gulch-Forker Road interchange in this March 2018 photo. That project was completed later the same year. This summer, Spokane County is working east of the interchange site, on other pieces of the Bigelow Gulch Urban Connector Project. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

One day a widened and redesigned Bigelow Gulch Road will smooth and speed traffic from north Spokane to the northeast side of Spokane Valley, passing through what’s now the mostly rolling agricultural land of Orchard Prairie.

But for now the road is a mishmash of two- and four-lane sections – some wide and divided like a highway; others narrow and winding – that comes to a dead end at Forker Road, if you’re driving east from Spokane and, on the other end, near the intersection of Forker and Progress roads, if you’re heading north from Spokane Valley.

In between those points is a mile-or-so-long construction site on Forker Hill, where crews are remaking the latest section of the Bigelow Gulch Urban Connector Project.

That project has been planned since the late 1990s and has been underway since 2008. In that time, work on the 8.2-mile, $68 million corridor has proceeded in fits and starts – and despite opposition from neighbors who view what Spokane County calls “improvements” as a major interruption to their rural way of life.

Late last year, the owners of a cattle ranch along Bigelow Gulch Road won a $132,500 jury verdict against Spokane County in compensation for land taken to accommodate the widened road.

While Chad Coles, county engineer for Spokane County, acknowledges the pushback from those who live along the road, he said this week that “there’s beginning to be an acceptance of it.”

“The folks that drive it, love it,” he added. “All I get is, ‘When are you going to finish it?’ ”

Officially, the answer to that question is 2022.

Practically, however, the answer appears less clear.

The county finished a key piece of the project in October 2018, when a new $9.4 million interchange at Forker and Bigelow Gulch was completed. The interchange project straightened and widened Bigelow Gulch Road, adding two lanes as well as an overpass to eliminate a blind intersection at Bigelow Gulch and Forker.

Last year, work continued on two projects.

The county spent almost $13 million to widen the stretch of Bigelow Gulch that runs from the new interchange west to Argonne Road.

Crews also started work on the far more complex stretch that will ultimately result in a newly aligned and divided four-lane road stretching from the Forker-Bigelow Gulch interchange to the intersection of Sullivan Road and Wellesley Avenue in Spokane Valley.

That $23 million project has been broken down into three sections.

The northernmost section is the one the county is working on now. It starts just east of the new Forker-Bigelow interchange and extends south to the middle project section, which the county started last year.

Work on the middle section involved severing and rerouting Forker Road, which formerly curled to the southwest and now shoots off to the southeast.

The third section involves connecting that new shoot of Forker Road to Sullivan Road, which currently dead ends just north of East Valley High School and will soon curl off to the northwest to meet Forker.

The county has been working with the idea that all of that work will be complete by the end of this year, but Coles acknowledged that might not happen.

While work on the northern section of Forker Hill is underway and on track, the job of connecting Forker to Sullivan faces some major hurdles.

For one thing, the county is still trying to work with the East Valley School District on acquiring right of way for a piece of road that will cross district property between the district’s middle and high schools. Doing so, Coles said, means “getting to the right number” – that is, agreeing on the property’s value.

For another thing, the project still needs to go out to bid. And that likely won’t happen until later this summer or early this fall, Coles said.

Then there’s the job of improving the Sullivan-Wellesley intersection, which will have to close “for a period of time” and will have stoplights added, Coles said.

Considering those uncertainties and challenges, Coles said it may not be until the end of next year that the southernmost stretch of the corridor project is actually finished.

And even when it is, the Bigelow Gulch Urban Connector Project will still be far from finished.

In 2021 and 2022, the county plans to do work on the two final stretches of Bigelow Gulch Road, both of which lie west of Argonne Road and which are expected to cost another $20 million total.

And Coles said the county’s designs for the corridor don’t end there.

He said Spokane County is working “really closely” with the city of Spokane Valley to extend the project’s reach south of the Sullivan-Wellesley intersection, to the Trent Avenue interchange.

To make that happen and to “fill some gaps in funding for the rest” of the Bigelow Gulch Urban Connector Project, Coles said the county and Spokane Valley have applied for a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to “finish the whole thing.”

When and if that happens, Coles says drivers will have a safer, faster way to get around.

This construction season, though, those navigating between northeast Spokane, Spokane Valley and Orchard Prairie will have to find an alternate route.

Idaho allows food trucks at rest stops

The food-truck scene has reached a market no one – or at least no one at the Idaho Transportation Department – ever expected it to reach: rest stops in the state.

But then, of course, a global pandemic started, life was upended and most restaurants closed or shifted to takeout-only service.

So ITD issued an emergency exemption last week to allow permitted food trucks to set up at rest areas and offer hot meals to truck drivers and other travelers.

“We heard truck drivers were having difficulties finding hot meals with the restrictions placed on nonessential businesses during the stay-at-home order,” Nestor Fernandez, ITD’s mobility services engineer, said in a news release. “Our goal is to support them as best as we can during this pandemic, especially long-haul drivers delivering goods across the U.S.”

Up to two vendors are allowed at each rest area, except those that already offer these services and are under public-private management.

But the good times won’t last. Once the stay-at-home order is lifted and restrictions on nonessential businesses are eased, food trucks will no longer be permitted at Idaho rest areas. It will be another sign that life is returning to normal.

Work to watch for

The city of Spokane has started work on a grind and overlay project on Northwest Boulevard, from Monroe to Maple Street, that will result in lane closures today and tomorrow.

Northbound and southbound traffic will both be closed from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Also happening this week:

Division Street will be reduced to one lane in each direction at the Wellesley Avenue intersection. Detours will be in place for both eastbound and westbound Wellesley traffic. This work will be from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. from today through May 8 for Avista work.

The north curbside lane of Third Avenue between Jefferson and Lincoln streets will be closed Tuesday for Quanta work.

The northbound lane of Lincoln Street/Way between Osprey Heights and Anton Court will be closed through Wednesday for Saunders Cable work.

The east curbside lane of Ruby between North River Drive and Desmet Avenue will be closed until Friday for Avista work.

The southbound lane of Perry Street between Garland and Empire avenues will be flagged through Friday for CenturyLink work.

Fifth Avenue between Haven and Fiske streets will be flagged in both directions until April 28 for Quanta work.

The westbound curb lane of Sharp Avenue between Astor and Cincinnati streets will be flagged from today through May 1 for Avista work.

The eastbound curb lane of Sharp Avenue between Division and Pearl streets will be closed from today through May 1 for Avista work.

The westbound curb lane of Francis Avenue between Ash and Elgin streets will be closed from today through May 4 for Quanta work.

The south curbside lane of Second Avenue between Jefferson and Cedar streets will be closed until May 7 for Avista work.

First Avenue between Washington and Bernard streets will remain reduced to one lane until May 7 for Avista work.

The south curbside lane of Second Avenue between Cedar and Adams streets will be closed until May 7 for Avista work.

The westbound curb lane of Boone Avenue between Howard and Atlantic streets is closed until May 8 for Quanta work.

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