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Getting There: With work about to begin on city’s first greenway, active transportation advocate pushes for more

Jessica Engelman, founder of SpokAT, gives a thumbs up before crossing at Mission and Cincinnati Street in Spokane on Thursday, Feb 27, 2020. SpokAT is a community group advocating for non-motorized transit. She's pushing for more greenways, and the city is putting in its first greenway along Cincinnati Street, near Gonzaga University, this spring. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The displacement of low-income families in Spokane’s tight housing market. Rising fatality rates for pedestrians and bicyclists hit by cars. The threat of climate change.

Jessica Engelman, who recently founded the grassroots advocacy group Spokane Active Transportation, has a long list of big issues she hopes to combat by advocating for alternative modes of transportation in Spokane.

She’s starting with what she calls “the easy thing,” the practical thing, the more immediately achievable thing, the cost-effective thing: greenways.

Greenways are basically just bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets, roads that are open to cars but prioritize non-motorized modes of transportation. They are relatively low-cost, noncontroversial and light on infrastructure compared to other interventions that encourage alternative transportation, like buffered bike lanes, according to Engelman.

“If we prioritize this,” Engelman said, “we could have a really solid greenway system in the next five years.”

It would be a stretch to say the city of Spokane is prioritizing greenways, but more than four years after first allocating $500,000 for the project, the city is on the brink of breaking ground on its first.

Crews are expected to start work March 23 on Cincinnati Street from Spokane Falls Boulevard to Euclid Avenue, widening sidewalks, installing Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps, painting so-called “sharrows” for bikes and installing a rapid flashing beacon at North Foothills, among other changes, so “it looks and operates with a more bicycle and pedestrian feel to the street,” said Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the city’s Public Works Department.

Those aren’t the only major changes coming to Cincinnati Street. The bus rapid transit City Line will also move north and south – and stop at a pair of stations – along the street, beginning in 2022, if all goes according to plan.

While a greenway that also incorporates rapid transit is something Engelman said she “would never recommend,” she’s hoping Cincinnati will prove to be the first piece in a much larger greenway puzzle.

To find the rest of the pieces, Engelman has been “running around to all the neighborhood councils that would have me.”

From Hillyard to Whitman to Logan to Emerson-Garfield, among others, Engelman has brought those councils information about what greenways are and what benefits they offer. She’s also brought them information about a seemingly technical change in the way the city of Spokane awards grants to neighborhood councils for traffic-calming projects like greenways.

The city has long asked neighborhood councils to apply for specific solutions to local traffic issues. But with the man on the street not typically being a street engineer or urban planner, that proved to be a tall order.

Neighborhood councils would send in proposals that “might look good on paper but they probably weren’t looking good to city staff,” so the city was “turning down applications a lot,” said Councilwoman Kate Burke, who represents District 1 in northeast Spokane.

To help improve the success rates of those applications and make the process more efficient, Burke suggested a change: “Why don’t you (neighborhood councils) send in where the problem areas are, and the city staff can send back options for what can be done there?”

Engelman hopes that change in the application process, along with her ongoing informational campaign, will help neighborhoods access money to calm traffic and promote alternative means of transportation.

Greenways aren’t the only option, and she’s adamant that she’s “not trying to shoehorn” them in everywhere, but she does tout their benefits, thinks “they can work well here” and believes they are “a good way to get a good bang for your buck.”

And so far, Engelman said, the “response has been way more positive than even I expected.”

Engelman started an active transportation advocacy group called SpokAT early last year, soon after moving to the Lilac City from Portland.

The group’s goal is not to get rid of cars, only to make driving safer and to boost opportunities for people to walk, bike and take the bus.

Engelman said Spokane already has “really good bones” for a robust alternative-transportation infrastructure, including a “really good transit system,” an expansive grid system and a large population of people who are already finding ways to get around without a car.

Even some of the city’s least friendly features for alternative transportation could be used for good, Engelman said. Take, for example, the city’s downtown streets. Engelman said they are all “overbuilt” one-ways that could provide “almost a blank canvas” for bus lanes, bike lanes, parklets and other features.

While she acknowledges greenways won’t solve all of the issues that come along with reliance on cars in Spokane, much less the world, Engelman said that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t make a difference.

“It’s more than a Band-Aid,” Engelman said. “It’s a stitch – and we have a gaping wound.”

Bridge replacements to close lanes on I-90

Work began last Monday to replace aging Interstate 90 bridges over Pennsylvania Avenue near the exit for Sherman Avenue on the east side of Coeur d’Alene.

While work continues, traffic will be reduced to one lane in each direction and crossed over to the westbound lanes, as the eastbound structure will be closed and rebuilt first.

Once the eastbound structure is complete, the westbound structure will be rebuilt, and two lanes of traffic will be shifted to the opposite side.

In addition, Pennsylvania Avenue will be closed underneath the bridges for the duration of the project, with traffic detoured to Elm Street.

Work on both bridges is expected to be completed in October.

East Trent Bridge to close mid-April for replacement

The East Trent Bridge has spanned the Spokane River since 1910, but it will begin to be removed in mid-April. By the end of 2022, the Washington State Department of Transportation hopes to reopen its replacement, which will have added bike lanes in both directions of travel, as well as a wide shared-use path on the south side of the bridge and a sidewalk for pedestrians on the north side.

While demolition is a month off, crews will begin closing the bridge intermittently starting today to install netting around the bridge. Those closures will last through Friday and will take place between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on March 9, 2020 to correct the spelling of Jessica Engelman.

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