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Getting There: West Plains transit infrastructure is in the middle of a makeover. But will more be needed?

Airway Heights, shown in this March 2020 photo, is experiencing an explosion of housing and commercial development on the West Plains of Spokane driven by housing prices, the expansion of gaming and entertainment at tribal casinos and businesses like the new Amazon warehouse.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
Airway Heights, shown in this March 2020 photo, is experiencing an explosion of housing and commercial development on the West Plains of Spokane driven by housing prices, the expansion of gaming and entertainment at tribal casinos and businesses like the new Amazon warehouse.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Ted McDermott The Spokesman-Review

But will it be enough?

That question sits somewhere in the back of Mark Allen’s mind, even as he helps oversee the Washington State Department of Transportation’s efforts to expand and improve a pair of Interstate 90 interchanges to accommodate what everyone expects will be explosive growth in the already booming West Plains.

Plans to increase capacity at the Medical Lake/S.R. 902 and Geiger/Grove Road interchanges have been in the works for at least five years, said Allen, a WSDOT project engineer.

Even back then, commercial and residential growth was pushing the limits of what the area’s transportation infrastructure could handle, with traffic backed up at on-ramps, safety becoming an issue and “a lot of pressure” being applied to the road system, Allen said.

The legislature allocated $26.6 million to help WSDOT alleviate those issues in 2015, as part of its $16 billion Connecting Washington package. And a host of local agencies – including Spokane County, the Spokane Transit Authority, the city of Spokane and S3R3 Solutions, formerly the West Plains Public Development Authority – as well as the federal government have also pitched in to help fund projects in the area.

STA pushed forward with a long-planned new transit center at the Medical Lake interchange, and the county took the lead on a plan to widen and rebuild Geiger Boulevard between the two interchanges slated for improvement.

As those various projects were taking shape, planners got wind of a complicating factor: In July 2018, Amazon confirmed its long-rumored plans to open a fulfillment center on Geiger Boulevard, between the Medical Lake and Geiger interchanges.

At the time, STA was on the brink of opening its new West Plains Transit Center and WSDOT was “right in the middle of design on the Medical Lake interchange,” Allen said.

That sent Allen and his colleagues back to the drawing board, where they rethought their plans for single-lane roundabouts at the tops of the interchanges’ ramps and at each interchange’s nearby connection to Geiger Boulevard. They decided to go bigger and make all but one – the one at the top of the eastbound ramps at Grove Road – a two-lane roundabout.

Work began last year on the expanded WSDOT plan at the Medical Lake interchange and on the county’s Geiger Boulevard project, and that work recently ramped up again after some coronavirus-caused delays this construction season.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s $181 million, 640,000-square-foot, 2,000-employee fulfillment center officially opened June 7.

As those new employees begin reporting for work, they and everyone else passing through the area will have to navigate around the ongoing road work.

Tonight through Friday, WSDOT will close I-90 entirely between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. at the Medical Lake interchange, while crews work to construct a second overpass. Drivers will be directed to go up and down the interchange’s exit ramps to get around the work zone.

Work on the new overpass will continue, albeit less intrusively, through this construction season, as will work on the interchange at the top of the eastbound ramps. There, WSDOT is building one of its many multi-lane roundabouts, which will include a spoke devoted to STA buses coming in and out of the West Plains Transit Center.

Those buses will include those running on Route 63, which STA added “in anticipation of Amazon’s opening and also in response to customer feedback to finish the connectivity of the West Plains via the transit center,” according to Karl Otterstrom, STA’s director of planning and development. And for the next 18 months or so, while work continues in the area, STA will supplement the 63 with a recently added shuttle – Route 633 – that is scheduled around Amazon work shifts.

The county will spend this construction season finishing up $3.8 million worth of work west of the Amazon facility, on Geiger between Hayford and Soda roads, and will begin a $6.2 million, two-year project east of the facility, between Soda and Grove roads, that is slated to be complete next year.

WSDOT’s work on the Geiger/Grove interchange is expected to start and end next year.

When all is said and done, the transportation infrastructure in the West Plains will be transformed, with new interchanges, new roundabouts, a repaved and three-lane Geiger Boulevard, an extra overpass and a new, 14-foot-wide shared-use path that will start at the two-year-old transit center, run along Geiger Boulevard and tie into Grove.

But will the more than $51 million worth of work – including $16.3 million in improvements on Geiger, the $9 million transit center and more than $26 million of WSDOT improvements – be enough?

Allen said he’s not so sure.

“Let’s say another Amazon showed up,” he said, raising the very real – perhaps inevitable – prospect of another major development on the West Plains.

If that happens, he said, the area could require an even bigger intervention to deal with traffic, perhaps even a whole new interchange.

While WSDOT “tried to accommodate (the area’s needs) for 20 years,” Allen noted that “the area out there is developing so rapidly that the life cycle on these roundabouts might be” less than that.

And if Amazon and other commercial and residential developments “generate the volumes of traffic that are expected, this could be a shorter solution than we hoped,” he said.

“It’s almost an interim fix, to get us by.”

STA to resume fares, express service

STA suspended fares and implemented rear-door boarding on March 26 to protect drivers from contracting the coronavirus, but the agency plans to undo those measures on July 1.

By that time, though, the agency hopes to have a new means of protecting its operators in place: barriers.

According to a news release, STA recently began installing and testing barriers on 10 buses. The aim is to install them fleet-wide in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, STA will get back to its full non-school-day service levels starting today, when it reinstates express service that was temporarily suspended during the state’s now-expired Stay Home, Stay Healthy emergency order.

Express routes to be reinstated are Route 124 (North Express), Route 144 (South Express), Route 172 (Liberty Lake Express), Route 173 (Valley Transit Center Express) and Route 190 (Valley Express).

Work to watch for

The long-awaited $18.5 million Post Street Bridge replacement project will start Wednesday.

The bridge, which currently only carries pedestrian and bicycle traffic, will be closed for the next two years. Parking will be limited on Post Street, and the Riverfront Park parking lot on Post just south of the bridge will be closed, along with half of the parking lot at Lincoln and Summit Boulevard on the north side of the bridge.

Mission Avenue will be closed this week between Greene Street and Trent Avenue for a federally funded $1.4 million grind and overlay project that will also update curb ramps for ADA compliance. Trent Avenue will serve as the detour route.

29th Avenue between Rebecca and Freya Street will be closed today from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. as crews repair a water leak.

Crews will be performing an evening dig Tuesday on Broadway Avenue and Jefferson Street, in front of the Spokane County Superior Court. Westbound traffic will be shifted to the center of the street.

Havana Street from Second to Third avenues will be paved this week.

Crew will start a water main replacement at the intersection of Stevens Street and 13th Avenue today. Access will be limited.