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Getting There: Survey says 82% support Centennial Trail project in West Central; some question city’s engagement process

The Centennial Trail runs along Summit Boulevard on the rim of the Spokane River gorge, shown Friday, Jan. 24. While some neighbors in the historic neighborhood feel the street is too narrow to accommodate an expanded trail, an overwhelming number of people who responded to a recent city survey supported the project. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A $1.5 million roundabout at the intersection of Freya Street and the Palouse Highway.

A $500,000 pedestrian and bike pathway along Garland Avenue, from Shaw Middle School to Market Street.

A $600,000 project to construct an arterial on, and an extension of, 12th Avenue between Deer Heights Road and Flint Road, near where Spokane becomes Airway Heights.

A $2.1 million project to replace left turns with J-turns at Meadow Lane Road and U.S. 195.

These are a few of the nine projects the city of Spokane plans to add to what sounds like a bland technical document, but is actually an important guide for what transportation projects will become a reality in the near future.

While the city has a long list of visions, ideas and plans it hopes to pursue, the Six Year Comprehensive Street Program is where projects go when the city intends to see them through and has at least some of the funding in hand to make that happen.

“Effectively, once it gets in to the (six-year) program, the focus and the intent is to accomplish them,” said Katherine Miller, the city’s director of integrated capital management.

But some observers have raised questions about how projects make it to this list – and whether the process of doing so is sufficiently transparent.

“As far as the process goes, it is a frustrating process, because this is a critical program and process for how the city prioritizes what street projects they’re going to fund,” said Jessica Engelman, chair of SpokAT, a local active transportation group. “But it is pretty opaque. It’s a long process and they do a lot of outreach, but most of the outreach is to established groups.”

Sue Etter is among those who have found themselves frustrated by how the city prioritizes and publicizes projects.

Etter belongs to a group of West Central residents who banded together, formed a website and have pushed back on a city plan to use a $2.5 million federal grant to replace a series of sidewalks along the neighborhood’s western edge and fill a crucial missing link in the Centennial Trail, between Kendall Yards and Doomsday Hill.

That project went into the city’s six-year program in June 2017, after almost a decade of working its way through other parts of the city’s transportation-planning process.

“The route appears in City plans dating back a decade, when it was included in the 2009 Bike Plan as a shared route. It also is included in a 2015 Bike Plan update and in a 2017 Comprehensive Plan update,” Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the city’s Public Works department, said by email.

And after the project was included in the six-year program, in 2018, the City Council received a briefing from city staff on plans to pursue grant funding for the project.

Despite the long timeline and multiple opportunities for public comment, Etter and others say they were blindsided when the city started holding meetings in the neighborhood late last year about its intention to move forward with the trail project.

The city always takes a number of public steps before putting a project like the Summit gap trail extension on the six-year plan and tries its best to keep residents engaged, Feist said. But she also acknowledged the city can “do better, of course we can.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has complicated or precluded many of the city’s usual strategies for outreach, Feist said it also has offered opportunities to try new tactics.

“What we’ve learned the last few weeks is that we might be able to engage more digitally,” Feist said.

One way the city has done so is with unscientific online surveys on a number of topics, including the city’s approach to reopening its economy and the Summit gap project.

The city released the result of the Summit survey last week, and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of the city moving forward, with 82% of respondents indicating support.

While the project is almost certain to become a reality now – the only remaining hurdle is a City Council vote on whether to approve a construction contract, likely later this summer – the odds of it becoming a reality already were quite high back in June of 2017, when the project made it on the six-year program.

And Engelman, the SpokAT chair, thinks that earlier point – when projects are on the brink of being added to the program – is the time for better engagement from the city and conversation with the public.

Despite being highly engaged in local transportation issues, Engelman said she didn’t know about this year’s six-year program until May 28, when the city’s official Twitter account provided a link and a request for public comments.

That comment period, though, only lasted a couple of weeks, from May 22 until June 4. And the link, Engelman said, takes “you to a nearly 160-page document that’s really overwhelming to most people.”

Engelman said the city could be doing “a lot better” not only publicizing its annual proposals for the six-year program but also involving people earlier in the process, as decisions about which projects to include are being made.

Take, for example, the Summit gap project. While Engelman supports the project, she said it wouldn’t be her first choice “if I was going to a fill a gap on the bicycling network,” which she said has bigger needs.

That leads her to wonder, she said, “Why are we doing it? And why are we doing it this way? … How did this end up getting to be a priority?”

“I think it would be good to start reaching out to people outside the system earlier, for sure,” Engelman said. “One of the biggest things they could do is say, ‘Here are all the projects we’re considering,’ so we can see the pot and we can see what they are they pulling from the pot. … I want to know what is not even on their radar, and what is on their radar and was not judged to be critical.”

Engelman, admittedly, is not like the average citizen when it comes to transportation projects. She attends lots of meetings, started her own community group, is highly informed about transportation policy and says she “would love to go through each (six-year program project) with a fine-tooth comb.” But she also thinks everyone cares about the roads they drive on, the trails they bike on and the sidewalks they use. And she argues “people would be engaged” if “proper outreach was conducted.”

Last week, with input from other SpokAT members, she sent city staff a letter (with footnotes), urging them to “re-evaluate” the six-year program project list, as well as the process by which it was created.

Next up, she plans to send a letter to City Council to say, “Hey, for one, we’re potentially facing some austerity measures (due to the pandemic) and is this actually what we want to be funding? And two, from just everything going on in the world right now, is this actually what we want to be funding?”

While she acknowledges it’s unlikely council members will pause the six-year program process and throw the city’s “entire maintenance plan into chaos,” she thinks that’s part of the problem.

“If City Council says, ‘No, this list isn’t good enough,’ it disrupts the entire project,” Engelman said. “I think they do set this up in a too-big-to-fail way.”

The council is slated to consider adopting the plan at its June 22 meeting.

If they vote to do so, Feist said it won’t be the end of the public-engagement process, as the projects on the six-year program are yet to be designed.

“These things aren’t baked,” Feist said, noting that there will be “a lot” of opportunity for changes and modifications as projects move toward construction.

So if you have thoughts about the new path along Garland, that roundabout on Freya or new J-turns on U.S. 195, stay tuned.

Work to watch for

The Washington State Department of Transportation is set to resume work Monday on a major project at the Medical Lake interchange on Interstate 90.

The project involves replacing intersections at the tops of the eastbound and westbound ramps with roundabouts and replacing the intersection of State Highway 902 and Geiger Boulevard with a roundabout. Crews also will build a new bridge parallel to the existing overpass at I-90 and make a new connection to the Spokane Transit Authority’s West Plains Transit Center.

WSDOT crews also will continue work this week to grind and overlay pavement on a stretch of I-90 starting at the Salnave Road exit and continuing west about 4 miles. The work will result in some day and night closures through June 12, and a reduced speed limit from 70 mph to 60 mph.

Lincoln Street will be closed between Spokane Falls Boulevard and Main Avenue starting Monday until September, due to ongoing work on a sewer overflow tank.

City crews will continue work at the intersection of Foothills Drive and Cincinnati Street, installing catch basins, bump-outs and an island as a part of Spokane’s first greenway project. Expect lane closures on Foothills and sidewalk work on Cincinnati at various locations between Mission and Euclid avenues.

Fourth Avenue will be completely closed between Madelia and Magnolia streets from Monday through June 19 for Avista utility work.

Pittsburg Street will also be closed through June 19 for Avista work between Third and Fifth avenues.

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