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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Effort underway to connect Fish Lake Trail to the lake and the Centennial Trail

UPDATED: Thu., May 21, 2020

Liz Morley, n front, and Michele Faus  rollerblade down the Fish Lake Trail on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. The city is hatching plans to connect the Fish Lake Trail to the lake it’s named for, and to the Centennial Trail. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Liz Morley, n front, and Michele Faus rollerblade down the Fish Lake Trail on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. The city is hatching plans to connect the Fish Lake Trail to the lake it’s named for, and to the Centennial Trail. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated work is set to begin this week on a project to reconstruct and widen Barker Road. That project has not yet gone out to bid.

Fish Lake Trail is, at least for now, a misnomer.

And the name isn’t the only thing giving the false impression that the paved path will take you from its starting point off South Lindeke Street, just north of the intersection of Interstate 90 and U.S. 195, all the way to the lake it’s named for, northeast of Cheney.

There are also the maps dotted along the way, showing a red line that suggests the trail extends to the lake.

But if you walk or bike the paved former rail bed out of Spokane, through the woods, between a pair of active railroad lines and past Queen Lucas Lake, you’ll come to a chain-link fence that marks the trail’s dead end.

You’ll have gone 9 1/2 miles, though you’ll still be about a mile and a half from Fish Lake, with no good way to get there.

But a pair of efforts are underway to make the Fish Lake Trail reach the lake and the Columbia Plateau State Park Trail on one end, and to connect the current trailhead to the Centennial Trail on the other.

The Columbia Plateau trail includes paved and gravel sections, but is mostly an undeveloped path linking Cheney to Pasco. The Centennial Trail is a heavily used, nearly 65-mile-long paved path stretching from Nine Mile Falls to Coeur d’Alene.

If the separate but related Fish Lake Trail projects come together, bicyclists, walkers and other nonmotorized users will be able to go from downtown Spokane to downtown Cheney – and well beyond – without having to significantly interact with traffic.

That would allow students to commute to Eastern Washington University by bike or allow someone living in an apartment in downtown Spokane to have “a completely different experience” at Fish Lake without getting in their car, noted Garrett Jones, director of Spokane Parks and Recreation.

“We have the opportunities here in Spokane that a lot of cities don’t have,” Jones said, referring to the Lilac City’s setting among mountains, rivers, lakes and other natural features.

A completed and extended Fish Lake Trail, Jones added, would create new opportunities to “create interactions between different neighborhoods, different communities.”

But the work of completing the trail won’t be easy, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic saps the budgets of seemingly every agency that might fund construction.

The city, county and other stakeholders have spent some 15 years trying to extend the trail from its dead end to the shores of Fish Lake, Jones said.

Those efforts have been stymied by the need to cross a pair of active rail lines, one just past the current chain-link fence that marks the trail’s hopefully temporary end and the other close to the lake, near Myers Park Road.

Dan Schaffer, a retired physician, has been using what’s now Fish Lake Trail since before it was an official trail and has long advocated for its completion.

“It’s going to happen at some point,” he said last week. “It’s just a matter of getting the politicians motivated.”

Schaffer has some experience doing just that.

After first attempting to ride the ballast-rock rail bed back in 1999, he formed a citizens group in 2006 that helped the city obtain money to pave much of the existing portion of Fish Lake Trail.

After that work was completed in 2009, he said, the city contracted with a firm to design a pair of bridges over the existing rail lines and reach Fish Lake. But that $6 million project never became a reality.

So in November, Schaffer met with Jones, Spokane County Commissioner Al French and others to kick-start the effort to complete the trail.

While COVID-19 interrupted plans for further meetings, Jones said he and other officials are committed to renewing the push to get the work done.

But before they go forward, Jones said they’re going back to review existing plans and options, to ensure they have the needed property and to “come up with a road map of what missing pieces” need to be puzzled together to connect the trail to Fish Lake.

“We’re at the point now of staff looking at what has already been done, because we don’t want to do anything twice,” he said. “And then (we’ll) identify funding to bring a team on to move forward with all the stakeholders.”

Jones said he expects the project to involve a “regional approach,” with officials from the cities of Spokane and Cheney, Spokane County and the state working together to come up with solutions. He said he’s open-minded about what those solutions will look like.

That means taking a hard look at whether bridges, which are expensive both upfront and to maintain, are the most cost-effective way to move people past the rail crossings. Instead, he said, at-grade crossings or tunnels will be considered, so long as they’re safe.

While no timeline exists for finishing the trail, Jones said he and others are committed to reviewing the old plans, coming up with ideas for some new ones, gathering public input and making it happen.

Meanwhile, the city of Spokane is making progress at the other end of the trail, where it starts in a parking lot near the intersection of Lindeke and West 9th Avenue.

Planners have spent the past couple of years drawing up three options for connecting the trailhead to the Russ Sandifur Bridge, which crosses the Spokane River in People’s Park and leads to the Centennial Trail on the river’s north bank.

The simplest option would run a trail along Government Way to Riverside Avenue and end at the Sandifur Bridge. But it has a major drawback, Schaffer said.

“I don’t like that, because I’d like to keep the trail away from the street,” he said.

The other two options would satisfy that desire. Both would involve building a trail around the interstate and down toward Latah Creek.

In one alternative, the trail would pass through High Bridge Park, on the west side of the creek, before crossing the creek on Riverside Avenue.

In the other, it would cross to the east side of the creek via the 11th Avenue bridge and continue along an existing unpaved path toward People’s Park.

The city is finalizing a contract with a consultant who will help decide which option to select and how to design it, said Inga Note, senior traffic planning engineer for the city.

Note said a grant will help the trail get to the “30% design level, with the idea we’ll get to know what route we want and what it will cost to build it, and then we’d go and apply for a construction grant.”

But by the time the city gets through the public involvement process, picks a path and starts to design it, a year and a half likely will have passed, Note said. And it will likely be another two to four years “before anything was on the ground.”

That means it likely will be “another six years or so” before the Fish Lake-Centennial Trail link is complete, according to Note. As for getting the Fish Lake Trail to Fish Lake, Jones wasn’t able to venture a guess at the timeline.

For Schaffer – and likely lots of others who might want to ride or run or walk from downtown Spokane to an out-of-town lake without dealing with traffic – that means a long wait.

“My frustrations are that agencies move with the speed of a glacier,” Schaffer said. That can be good, he said, because “things don’t get done in a heated rush. But sometimes they don’t get done.”

STA service changes

The Spokane Transit Service made a number changes as of Sunday to its bus schedules as part of its triannual shifts in service.

Among the routes affected are the 20 SFCC, 22 Northwest Blvd, 25 Division, 32 Trent/Montgomery, 33 Wellesley, 60 Airport via Browne’s Addition, 61 Highway 2 via Browne’s Addition, 62 Medical Lake, 64 Cheney/West Plains, 66 EWU, 90 Sprague, 97 South Valley and 633 Geiger Shuttle.

Meanwhile, the entire system is operating under some different rules due to COVID-19.

For one thing, riders don’t have to pay fares, to reduce interactions between drivers and passengers. For another, buses are operating without express service due to declining ridership during the pandemic.

Gold Star Memorial Highway proposal

The Eastern Washington Veterans Task Force is pushing a proposal to rename state Route 902 the “Gold Star Memorial Highway” from mile marker 0 to 12, honoring area service members who lost their lives in service to their country.

A formal proposal has been submitted to the Washington State Transportation Commission, which is expected to reconvene as COVID-19 phase restrictions allow. The commission has requested public comment; you can offer yours by emailing sr902namingproposal@gmail.com.

Work to watch for

On Monday, city crews will begin a $1.4 million grind and overlay project on Mission Avenue between Greene Street and Trent Avenue. One lane will be open in each direction. The federally funded project also will update curb ramps for ADA compliance.

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