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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Barker interchange project set to start but WSDOT revenue woes may jeopardize related Liberty Lake work

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

The first in a series of projects aimed at decreasing congestion and improving safety in rapidly growing Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake was supposed to get going Monday. But the start date has been pushed back a week, because the contractor wasn’t quite ready.

If that’s the last of the delays on the three projects planned to take place over the next two years between Barker to Harvard roads along Interstate 90, officials at the Washington State Department of Transportation in Liberty Lake and in Spokane Valley will be relieved.

Last month, the state released its legally mandated transportation revenue forecast, and the outlook it depicted wasn’t exactly sunny.

Among its “key conclusions”: transportation revenues for WSDOT’s current two-year planning period, which started last year and ends next year, will drop “sharply” by about $482 million, or almost 8%. That expected drop is attributed to impacts of Initiative 976, which will reduce the cost of car tabs and also the size of WSDOT’s coffers, and of COVID-19, which led to fewer cars on the road and less revenue for the department from gas taxes.

The report’s authors also anticipate a “slow recovery from the COVID-19 shutdowns” that will lead to a 3.5% drop in revenue over the next 10 years.

So what does that mean for not only the Barker- to-Harvard project, but also the North Spokane Corridor and all the other planned and potential transportation work in Eastern Washington?

“We just don’t know,” Beth Bousley, a spokeswoman for WSDOT’s Eastern Region, said this week.

The answer, she said, will have to be hashed out in Olympia, where Gov. Jay Inslee and state legislators will have “big conversations” about what, if any, projects will be delayed or axed altogether.

In the meantime, though, “We’re still moving forward as if nothing were to happen,” said Tom Brasch, the WSDOT project engineer overseeing construction in the Barker-to-Harvard corridor.

If nothing were to happen, crews would replace the traffic signals at the top of the Barker interchange ramps with a roundabout this summer, widen the Harvard Road overpass and improve the Harvard westbound on-ramps this fall, and next summer construct a new Henry Road connection over I-90 from Mission Avenue on the north to Country Vista Drive to the south.

The almost $4.5 million Barker piece seems certain to happen. When it gets underway, Brasch said crews will work “around the clock” six days a week to get much of it done – and out of the way – by Labor Day.

That fast timeline was set to ensure the project didn’t disrupt the Central Valley School District’s nearby bus barn on Cataldo Avenue just when schools are slated for what is now a highly uncertain start.

But the quick pace of construction will mean some major disruptions for drivers over two 10-day periods when first the north and then the south intersections of Barker and the interstate ramps are closed completely. During those periods, drivers also won’t be able to cross the interstate on Barker, meaning they will be detoured all the way to Flora Road to the west and Harvard Road to the east to travel north or south.

In mid-September, when the Barker project should be mostly complete, WSDOT’s focus will shift, if nothing changes, to Liberty Lake.

First up on the schedule is the $6 million Harvard Road interchange project, which is slated to go to bid this week.

There, Brasch said, drivers heading north from Liberty Lake currently have to merge from two lanes to one before crossing I-90, which “really bogs down” traffic in the area, especially during peak times. To improve the flow of traffic, the road will be widened to two northbound lanes over I-90.

The westbound on-ramp will also be improved. During construction, Brasch said, “the plan is to keep the majority of the roads open.”

The last and largest piece of the puzzle is the new Henry Road extension and overpass, which is supposed to begin next summer and end a year later, in mid-2022.

While Brasch said “so far as we know, nothing is stopping” the project from moving forward as planned, Katy Allen, city administrator of Liberty Lake, is less sure that the Harvard and Henry projects in her city will happen on the existing timeline.

“I’ll be honest with you,” she said last week, “construction funding for these projects is up in the air.”

That uncertainty has Allen concerned. She said creating a new north-south link via Henry Road is crucial for the growing city, which “literally goes into meltdown” and “gridlock” when traffic is impeded on the stretch of I-90 that splits Liberty Lake’s north and south sections. Currently, Harvard Road is the only way across – and it sees about 22,000 average daily trips.

With a new middle school opened last fall and a new high school slated to open at the start of the 2021 school year, Allen said the need for the Henry Road connection is only more urgent.

“What Henry Road provides is redundancy, so we can get some circulation going,” Allen said. “You just open a lot of options when you put in this link.”

To help get the $15 million project funded, Allen said the city of Liberty Lake is contributing $6 million of its own money for design and right-of-way work, while Spokane County pitches in another $1.5 million or so. The $8.5 million in construction costs will come from the state’s Connection Washington program.

While she acknowledges “it’s still up to WSDOT” whether the work moves forward, Allen said that “because we have skin in the game, if there’s funding that’s going to be cut back, we hope that the fact that we’re bringing money to the table will help give us an advantage.”

“Our strategy,” she continued, “is to stay the course and keep moving and be ready when we get the nod for the funding. … But I guarantee you this, if we aren’t ready, we won’t get the nod. So we’re doing everything we can to stay funded and on budget.

“We just want to be ready to go.”

Work to watch for

Crews will be pouring the concrete deck for a new overpass at the Medical Lake/I-90 interchange this week. That means eastbound lanes of I-90 will be closed Monday at 9 p.m. until Tuesday at 5 a.m. Westbound lanes will close Wednesday from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Traffic will be routed off the interstate, up the exit ramps and back onto I-90.

Ted McDermott can be reached at (509) 459-5405 or at tedm@spokesman.com

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