Disagreements between the Washington State Department of Transportation and the city of Spokane over explosive growth along U.S. Highway 195 and that growth’s impact on the roadway came to a head Feb. 13.
That’s the day Mike Gribner, administrator of WSDOT’s Eastern Region, presented Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs with a letter asking the council to “adopt a development moratorium for the U.S. 195 traffic shed area” until it deals with the “crisis in management of safety within the corridor.”
While WSDOT cannot make the city pause development in the area, Gribner’s letter outlines measures the state agency could take in an effort to force the city’s hand.
“In the absence of a temporary moratorium on development and a plan put forth to address it in the very near future, WSDOT will be forced to take safety and traffic control measures to address the safety of our facility,” Gribner wrote.
“These measures would include removing breaks in the median that allow for unprotected left turns in and out of intersecting roads, such as Hatch, Meadowlane, and 16th,” Gribner continued. “This will make it more difficult for area residents to reach destinations within the City of Spokane.”
Gribner wrote that a ramp meter located on the Highway 195 on-ramp to Interstate 90 also “will be adjusted as necessary to protect the operations of I-90 which will create significant delays for anybody trying to access I-90 from U.S. 195.”
Gribner’s letter notes, too, that the city will continue to present concerns about development proposals during the environmental review process. The department also is “exploring” whether it can involve the city in civil suits naming WSDOT as a result of what it calls “the City’s failure to follow through with commitments to create an appropriate local access network and the failure to engage in responsible growth management.”
As of Friday afternoon, the city had not responded to Gribner’s letter. But in interviews with The Spokesman-Review both Beggs and Scott Simmons, the city’s public works director, said they are sympathetic to Gribner’s concerns about traffic and safety in the U.S. 195 corridor, though they differ with WSDOT on how best to solve them and still are working to formulate their responses to his letter.
“I would say in general we’re still reading through, processing,” Simmons said. “There was a lot of information that was sent over.”
The information WSDOT sent the city on a flash drive accompanying the letter pertains to a history of growth and traffic issues that stretches back some 40 years, to at least 1981, when the city annexed land in the area. A crucial moment in that tangled history came in the early 1990s, when WSDOT allowed the city to extend sewer infrastructure in the department’s right of way to boost the possibilities for development. It worked.
By the end of the decade, the Eagle Ridge development was underway and the city was working with WSDOT to formulate a plan for improving the local roadways to head off future problems. The result was a 1999 study that proposed adding interchanges at Hatch, Meadowlane, Thorpe and Cheney-Spokane roads and building two new frontage roads to take pressure off U.S. 195.
But with the exception of a new Cheney-Spokane interchange, those plans have largely remained just that: plans.
Earlier this month, WSDOT and the city joined with other local partners – Spokane County, the Spokane Transit Authority and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council – to pursue a new study of what can and should be done in the area.
While Gribner vowed that WSDOT is committed to working with the new administration in City Hall on that study, he said in an interview that his letter was an effort to “raise the alarm” on problems that just keep getting worse.
“The reason we’re acting on this is because we’re getting really worried about where we are,” Gribner said. “This is not a new conversation. We need some help from them.”
Simmons said he and other city officials “share the concerns of safety,” acknowledge that the city has “certainly been working with WSDOT on this for a long period” and agree that collaboration is necessary.
“There’s only so much the city is able to do on WSDOT’s facility,” Simmons said. “We can ask and request things, but we don’t have the overall authority. But we’ve been very clear and supportive all along of doing things that make the right economic and safety sense for the community because at the end of the day, these are citizen dollars, taxpayer dollars, so we’ve got to make sure they’re smart and wise.”
As for what those sensible solutions might look like, Simmons acknowledged that a “philosophical divide” exists between the city and the state Department of Transportation.
In his letter to Beggs, Gribner urged him to “Please keep in mind that U.S. 195 is designated as a Highway of National Significance and is a T2 Freight Route which is second only to I-90 in the Spokane area. The preservation of safety and movement of freight and goods on this corridor is a priority for WSDOT.”
But Simmons said he doesn’t know why WSDOT is so committed to those highway designations and to creating a limited-access corridor, and he wondered whether those approaches “still bear relevance today.”
“I don’t know what the significance is of protecting it for those reasons are,” Simmons said. “We have to evolve and change our historical thinking, much as we’ve done when we take roads that were programmed a certain way 20 years ago and now we see the needs of the community and the desires have changed, and we program it to a different look and feel. I think that’s just adaptability that our community asks us to do.”
“We recognize it’s a highway, but there’s different ways to program a highway,” Simmons added. “We just want to make sure that all affordable options are on the table. I don’t think the community should have to choose between a $450 million new (I-90) bridge or a $1 million or $2 million intersection improvement for signals or roundabouts.”
Beggs also acknowledged the need for something to be done to improve the highway.
“We have certainly heard from our constituents that the transportation network on 195 is too dangerous,” Beggs said.
He also noted that solving those problems could come through improvements to U.S. 195 and the I-90 interchange or through the creation of a new network of city streets running parallel to U.S. 195. Both, he said, “will take a lot of money.”
But while expanding and improving the local road network is the cheaper of the two expensive options, Beggs said the “city doesn’t have the funds” to do even that and could only implement that solution if the state “is willing to pay for it.”
Gribner, however, said the question of finding funds for a fix will have to be answered collaboratively. While WSDOT will work with the city to secure funding, Gribner said in an interview that doing so also will take public and political support as well as a firm plan that can be brought to Legislature and can win lawmakers’ support.
“This has been a priority of the agency,” Gribner said of WSDOT. “But the mechanisms that would yield funding” – namely, a solid, specific plan – “were not in place.”
And as of now, Gribner said, “We’re not even in agreement on what a plan would look like.”
As for what it will take to avoid WSDOT removing median breaks, altering the I-90 ramp meter and pursuing other measures to force a temporary development moratorium, Beggs said he believes the department’s request was dependent on coming to a decision about a solution rather than actually implementing one.
“My sense is the request is only a moratorium if we don’t reach an agreement on a solution,” Beggs said.
Gribner did not indicate he saw eye-to-eye with Beggs about what it would take to for his agency to back off its request for a pause on building.
“At this point, there’s nothing, so I don’t know what it looks like to be somewhere yet,” Gribner said.
Meanwhile, though, there are no signs that the push for more development in the area will slow.
“There are quite a few desired plans and plats that are actively being considered and circulated by developers that we’re aware of,” Simmons said.
And if everything is built that could be built in the area, Gribner estimates about 50,000 cars would use U.S. 195 each day, compared to the current 22,000, further gumming up the highway, making it even more unsafe and increasing the Department of Transportation’s liability in the event of crashes.
Pointing to a recent city hearing examiner’s decision that a proposed new development in the Eagle Ridge area can only include 20 homes instead of the desired 98 until WSDOT improves U.S. 195, Simmons said the city is already working to condition proposed new development on what the transportation department wants to see.
But Simmons said Gribner’s request for a break in development is not a reasonable option.
“We know the housing shortage is a critical issue for our community,” Simmons said. “So to just say, ‘No more building,’ is not a solution. We’ve got a shortage of homes. We’ve got a shortage of different types of price ranges of homes. And we need to keep finding ways to provide homes. So we need to do that and also, at the same time, address the safety concerns that are out there.”
Gribner acknowledged city planners are in a tough spot with a housing shortage to deal with and the expensive prospect of dealing with traffic problems that have largely gone unaddressed for decades.
“We’re trying to get them to the table,” Gribner said. “What we’re really sharing with them is the plan if we’re forced into it.”
But Gribner said he, like Beggs and Simmons, hopes fixes will be found and that the department won’t feel pressed to take drastic measures like cutting off access from the highway.
“We have been partners with the city for a long time, and we will be partners on the other side of this,” Gribner said. “But this is a problem we need to solve, and that’s really what we’re asking here.”
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