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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: As Barker roundabout and overpass move ahead, Spokane Valley pursues similar improvements at Pines Road

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 28, 2020

Sixty-two BNSF trains pass through Spokane Valley on the average day.

And each time they pass at street level, they cause cars to wait about 3½-to-4 minutes for them to pass, according to Adam Jackson, the planning and grants engineer for the city, in a recent presentation to the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.

“That adds up to about four hours a day where users are stopped, effectively arms-down, gates-down time,” Jackson said. “That’s a big impact to freight and commerce through the region and really hinders the prosperity of a user and of the community.”

That impact is expected to increase, Jackson said. Next year, BNSF plans to expand its main line through the Inland Northwest.

By 2040, Spokane Valley planners expect more than 100 trains a day to pass through Spokane Valley and the rest of the region. BNSF, however, has disputed that prediction. 

In a letter to the editor of this newspaper in 2018, Courtney Wallace, BNSF’s regional director for public affairs, wrote that such estimates “make assumptions about growth, but are not actual predictions of when and where growth will occur.” According to Wallace, the expanded mainline is meant to manage current train volumes, not accommodate future train traffic. 

It’s not just rail traffic that Spokane Valley planners believe will increase, though. More cars and trucks are bound to fill Spokane Valley roadways over the coming decades, assuming the area continues its pattern of booming growth, as expected.

Which brings us to a pair of projects in Spokane Valley that will aim to unclog a couple of intersections complicated by at-grade rail crossings: one where Barker Road meets Trent and Wellesley avenues, and a second at the intersection of Trent and Pines Road.

The Barker project has been underway since at least 2017, when Spokane Valley engineers began designing options for how to separate the rail crossing from the road and to improve the connection where Barker, Trent and Wellesley come together.

Despite some pushback, the Spokane Valley City Council approved a plan earlier this year that will allow for the construction of a roundabout where the streets meet and an overpass for cars over the rail line on Barker just south of the intersection.

And now the city is on the brink of putting the $25 million project out to bid, according to Gloria Mantz, engineering manager for the city of Spokane Valley.

Mantz said bids will likely open up by mid- December, and that construction could begin by the spring. If so, the new overpass and roundabout will be in use by late 2022.

The changes, Mantz said, will led to improvements not only in congestion but also in “safety, emergency access, traffic volumes and quality of life.”

While that project is on the brink of becoming a reality, the city is also pushing hard on a plan to make similar improvements at the rail line’s crossing on Pines Road and at the nearby intersection of Trent and Pines, through which some 35,000 vehicles pass per day.

Jackson said the junction is such a hindrance to traffic that it has “pushed away development,” including on 230 acres of nearby undeveloped mixed-use, commercial and industrial land primarily accessible via Pines Road.

In an effort to unjam the repeated daily rail blockages and open the flow of cars and growth, Spokane Valley is pursuing a $29 million project to replace the existing at-grade BNSF crossing on Pines Road with an underpass for traffic, and to redesign the Pines-Trent intersection with a roundabout instead of the existing stoplights.

Plans also call for new sidewalks and bike lanes, in part to boost safety for kids getting to nearby Trent Elementary School.

And Mantz said city planners aren’t done tinkering with traffic along Trent.

She and her colleagues plan to “start looking” next at the meeting of Trent and Sullivan Road, where there’s already a highway- style interchange that passes over the rail line.

So far, engineers are only “looking at different options” and will present those to the public soon. For now, however, she said it’s “too premature” to bring them forward.

Comment on regional transit planning

The Pines Road project is one of 69 included in the latest annual update of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s Transportation Improvement Program.

The TIP, as it’s known to those in the know, is where transit projects that received federal funding go to get formally included in the regional planning process for the next four years.

This year’s update currently includes $714 million of work aimed at the maintenance and preservation of existing roads, the construction of new roads, public transit improvements, bicycle and pedestrian facilities and bridge replacement projects, among other work.

The SRTC Board of Directors will be asked to approve the TIP, available at srtc.org, at their October meeting. Before they do so, though, they’re asking for public comment through the end of this month. To do so, email contact.srtc@srtc.org; send mail to SRTC 421 W. Riverside Ave., Ste. 500, Spokane, Washington 99201; or call at (509) 343-6370.

How do you want Division to change?

The effort to decide how to reimagine and potentially remake Division Street with bus rapid transit and other amenities is moving along.

After launching the study and a survey this spring, planners recently launched the first of three planned interactive maps, where anyone and everyone can drops virtual pins, offer insight about how they use the corridor currently and suggest ideas for how it might be altered. The map is available at the project website, divisionconnects.org.

STA service changes

As of last week, the Spokane Transit Authority implemented its tri- annual service adjustments. Among the most notable changes are added trips on Route 633 to better meet the shift patterns at the Amazon Fulfillment Center and adjustments to Route 12, the medical shuttle.

Riders on the shuttle can now transfer between 12, 90, 26, 28 and 29 buses at the University District Gateway Bridge stops. The move is intended to help connect medical students and patients between WSU Spokane and the teaching clinic on campus to the medical centers on the South Hill, according to STA.

Other routes affected include the 4, 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 39, 45, 61, 63, 64, 66, 67, 76, 94, 98, 124, 144, 172 and 190. Information can be found at spokanetransit.com/change.

Work to watch for

Crews are expected to start work Monday on new Ben Burr Trail crossings at Second and Third avenues and Perry Street. As a result, Perry will have lane restrictions from Second to Third, while Liberty Park Place will be closed to traffic between Third Avenue and Madelia Street. The $363,000 project includes crosswalk safety enhancements.

Crews will be removing and replacing ADA sidewalk ramps at 46th Avenue and installing a bus stop north of 53rd Avenue as part of an ongoing grind-and-overlay project on Bernard Street between High Drive and 29th Avenue. Traffic control is in place allowing one lane of traffic each direction.

Beginning Friday at 7 p.m., crews working on the SR 902/Medical Lake interchange improvement project will be closing the Interstate 90 eastbound off-ramp to the Medical Lake/SR 902 interchange. The closure will last through the weekend and reopen at 5 a.m. on Oct. 5. Eastbound I-90 travelers needing to use the Medical Lake/SR 902 interchange will be detoured off the interstate at exit 270.

During the full ramp closure, there will also be a single lane closure of eastbound I-90 within the project limits on Saturday from 3:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Editor’s note: This story has been update to note that while Spokane Valley planners expect BNSF rail traffic to increase, the company has not made such a prediction. The company has said it is adding capacity to meet existing demand, not future growth.

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