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Getting There: After glacial progress, East Central braces for effects of North Spokane Corridor’s eventual arrival at I-90

Characterizing progress on the North South Corridor as “glacial” is apt on two counts.

For one, it has been extremely slow. Since it was first envisioned way back in 1946, transportation planners have been trying to add a highway that will connect Interstate 90 to the northern suburbs of Spokane along the east side of the city. It took six decades just to get shovels in the ground for an August 2001 groundbreaking that signaled, at last, the start of construction. And now, 19 years later, the Washington State Department of Transportation has set an end date that’s another nine years away.

“Glacial” fits, too, because, like a glacier, the NSC has upended and altered seemingly everything in its 10 1/2-mile path. Railroads, streets and hundreds of properties and buildings have been rerouted or removed to make way for the freeway, which is now about halfway complete, with the multiuse Children of the Sun Trail set alongside the route that exists so far.

On Tuesday night, a legion of WSDOT officials were at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in East Central to talk about what will be final leg of the NSC’s very long journey south from Highways 2 and 395 to its eventual intersection with I-90 in that neighborhood – and about the impacts it will have.

Planners have long known that the connection’s effect on East Central will be major. But those plans have changed.

For 20 years, beginning in the mid-1990s, WSDOT pushed toward a plan that would have connected the current and under-construction freeways with what’s known as a “collector-distributor.” That design would have consolidated traffic in wide lanes on either side of I-90 and would have involved reconstruction of I-90 between the Liberty Park and Sprague Avenue exits to straighten the roadway in an area where a curve tends to slow traffic down.

Those plans would have required a huge concrete footprint. And to make way for that footprint, WSDOT removed vast stretches of the East Central neighborhood between East Sprague Avenue and Interstate 90.

But that project was cut due to budget constraints about five years ago, according to Terrence Lynch, assistant project engineer for WSDOT’s design office.

Since that time, the Department of Transportation has been pursuing something “completely different than that,” Bob Hilmes, the engineer overseeing NSC’s design, told the audience gathered in East Central on Thursday night.

The new plan is a simpler, smaller and, yes, cheaper plan for creating the NSC/I-90 interchange, though it will still cost between $200 million and $250 million. That “practical solution,” as WSDOT calls it, would involve adding numerous bridges and a series of new roadways and ramps, tying the local road network, the interstate and the NSC all together.

The revised plan for the interchange has been rolled out gradually over the years, Lynch said, and at Thursday’s meeting WSDOT shared revised, but still not finalized, plans focused on the southwest section of the nearly 3-mile stretch of I-90 that will be affected as the NSC connects to it.

Lynch said the “biggest change” outlined in the preliminary plans for that area will come where Hamilton Street currently connects to I-90.

There, on the ramp that curls up from I-90 to Hamilton, drivers who want to go north on the new freeway would have to begin their move to the NSC northbound, exiting the Hamilton ramp for another ramp about a mile-and-a-half long that will run along I-90 before curling up to the NSC.

The addition of that ramp to the design has necessitated another change: drivers heading south on Hamilton Street would no longer be able to directly connect to I-90. Instead, they would head down a ramp that would place them on East Third Street. They would then travel through the Altamont Street intersection and head up another ramp that would connect to the eastbound interstate.

If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The maps of the proposed interchange arrangement look like a circuit board and are about as hard to decipher.

What is clear, though, is that the interchange as now designed would have a much smaller footprint than the long-pursued collector-distributor design. And that means WSDOT has “quite a bit less property demand,” Hilmes said. According to Lynch, the amount of property required is about 30% less than expected under the old interchange model.

“But we already bought the property,” Hilmes said. “So what do we do now?”

Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who lives in the East Central area, said she has one answer: replace some of the housing that WSDOT removed.

“I see that land as housing, because they took out so much of it for the initial plan,” Wilkerson said. “So we already have those lots with infrastructure to build, so we can get some low-income housing for people. … That would be great land for housing. It will be accessible. It will be somewhere on STA (the Spokane Transit Authority) so they can get places. That would be great.”

Lynch said new housing is a possibility, but likely not on the land cleared to make way for the abandoned collector-distributor.

“Replacing the houses displaced by the acquisition is always an opportunity,” Lynch said. “If there are some areas that are suitable for housing, I’m certain that would be a consideration.”

He noted, though, that the new design being pursued “still uses up most of that space.”

“It’s not like … we’re going to have all this vacant land near this interchange,” Lynch said. “It’s not going to be enough to build an apartment complex or a duplex.”

Instead, Lynch and Hilmes say, WSDOT’s focus will be on “placemaking.” That’s the process of gathering community input and combining it with the expertise of professional planners to decide how to develop land around the NSC for the public good. The department has had success doing that on the northern stretch of the road, Hilmes said, and aims to repeat that success in East Central.

Wilkerson said she hopes what “they will continue to engage on is that community-engagement piece. They said it out loud, so I think we should hold them to that.”

She said it’s vital that the project’s potential be harnessed in an area that has been affected so heavily by a road project that hasn’t even arrived yet, and that she predicted “is the next neighborhood to pop.”

“I regret that they (the neighborhood buildings) were torn down,” she said. “But I think that we should embrace somehow trying to rebuild.”

And she wants to be sure the NSC doesn’t undermine East Central’s potential by pushing more traffic into the neighborhood without giving people a reason to stop.

“I’m worried about traffic,” Wilkerson said. “I’m worried about traffic that just drives through. So that’s a concern.”

She’s hopeful, though, that WSDOT’s plan will improve the interstate connections enough that fewer cars will pass through East Central in a hurry to get elsewhere.

“If beefing those up would keep the traffic out of the neighborhood, if that’s the endgame, then I have to go for it,” Wilkerson said.

Hilmes said the flow of traffic on I-90 is a major concern of his department as they continue the work of designing the NSC’s connection. As they model how things will look in 2029, when the new freeway is supposed to finally be completed, Hilmes said WSDOT has a goal that’s about as modest as it is ambitious: “Prove I-90 wouldn’t work any worse than it does today, with those connections.”

By “those connections,” Hilmes meant the complex web of on-ramps, off-ramps and bridges that will join the increasingly clogged interstate to the new NSC. And he said the design will help by pulling cars off I-90 before they get to the crowded corridor between Liberty Park and Sprague and sending them to the NSC on long ramps alongside I-90.

The braided ramp design, as it’s known, will allow designers to “take traffic off I-90 before you put traffic onto I-90,” Lynch said.

“Today, all the traffic is coming on and getting off,” Lynch said. “They’re fighting for the same space.”

And that, he said, leads to congestion. The new design, Lynch and Hilmes said, should lessen it.

“It actually improves the operation of I-90,” Hilmes said. “Does it fix it? No. But it improves it.”

What do you think of basalt rock?

Have strong feelings about the basalt rock sitting in the median of I-90 west of Spokane in the Four Lakes and Tyler areas? If so, you may want to let WSDOT know.

The transportation department is planning to regrade the median in the area and has identified 10 segments where basalt rock and tree removal could affect views along the highway. So WSDOT is considering two options: installing barriers with a guardrail or removing the rock and trees altogether.

You can offer your thoughts on which route the department should take online at surveymonkey.com/r/S2Z53WX. You can also attend an “online open house” at engage.wsdot.wa.gov/i-90-four-lakes-tyler/.

Ongoing STA input

If you ride the bus, you’ve seen the fliers. The Spokane Transit Authority wants your input on the big changes planned for routes in North Spokane, Spokane Valley and Airway Heights.

Some of the potential changes were covered in a column earlier this month, and STA still wants your input atsta-servicechanges.participate.online/.

The transit agency also opened an online survey last week for its planned revamping of the Cheney Line. You can offer your input at surveymonkey.com/r/cheneyline, by emailing nhanson@spokanetransit.com or by mailing comments to Spokane Transit, 1230 W. Boone Ave, Spokane, WA, 99201, Attention: Cheney Line Project.

Work to watch for

Normandie Street will be closed between Central and Dalke avenues from today through Friday for work on the Central Avenue well.

The north curb lane of Third Avenue between Division and Cowley streets will be closed through Wednesday due to CenturyLink work.

The northbound curb lane of Monroe Street will be closed between Kiernan and Garland avenues through Friday for Quanta work. 

The southbound lane of Bernard Street between 29th and 31st avenues will be closed until Friday for Avista work, but two-way traffic will be maintained. 

The southbound lane of Lincoln Street between 20th and 21st avenues will be closed and traffic will be flagged from today through Feb. 28 for Avista work. 

Northbound Howard Street will have a lane shift between Cataldo and Boone avenues, and Cataldo will be completely closed between Howard and Washington streets through March 6 for Quanta work. 

The southbound curb lane of Northwest Boulevard between Buckeye and Grace is closed until March 9 for Sounders Cable work.