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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: How should Spokane County’s transportation system grow?

Construction is ongoing on multiple bridges over Wellesley Avenue on the route of the North Spokane Corridor through Hillyard, shown in April. The bridges are for auto and rail traffic over Wellesley Avenue, which closed through the construction of the realignment of the corridor. At far right is Market Street and the Hillyard business district.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Construction is ongoing on multiple bridges over Wellesley Avenue on the route of the North Spokane Corridor through Hillyard, shown in April. The bridges are for auto and rail traffic over Wellesley Avenue, which closed through the construction of the realignment of the corridor. At far right is Market Street and the Hillyard business district. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Some of the smartest biological minds view 2045 as the year when we will reach the singularity, when computers will become smarter than humans, when humanity “will multiply our effective intelligence a billion fold by merging with the intelligence we have created,” as Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, told the website Futurism.

The Spokane Regional Transportation Council is in the process of making its own predictions about that year, based on some less revolutionary premises about the fate of our species.

First, Spokane County’s population will grow by another 100,000 people, according to Mike Ulrich, a principal transportation planner with SRTC who is helping draft the long-range transportation plan known as Horizon 2045.

Second, in “rough numbers,” the combined amount of money coming in from federal, state and local sources to accommodate the movement of all those extra people, plus maintaining the existing system, will be about $10.6 billion, Ulrich said.

Third, that the money won’t be sufficient to meet the needs of the some 625,000 people expected to live here.

“$10.6 (billion) sounds like a lot,” Ulrich said. “But it’s not enough.”

Setting aside the possibility that computers will eventually make the decision for us, SRTC is asking the public for insight about how to stretch those dollars to meet the region’s needs.

The council’s 14-question online survey, available at surveymonkey.com/r/horizon2045, does suggest the agency is open to the possibility of some technological solutions.

“When you think about a complete and reliable transportation system in the future,” the first question asks, “what are your priorities?”

Most of the options are pretty humdrum – “Safe rural roads and bridges” and “Freight deliveries are fast and secure” are among the possible answers – but one isn’t: “Prepare for autonomous vehicles and other advanced technology.”

But before regional transportation planners can prepare for such a future, Ulrich said they are already facing mounting obstacles with the past.

“Folks, rightly so, want to talk about the next big project in Spokane,” Ulrich said. “But I would encourage folks to also think about how do we maintain what we have? How do we find the money to do that?”

He said maintenance and preservation is “probably the biggest question mark in terms of the financial plan that we have.”

The cost of maintaining and preserving the system only increases as the system grows, Ulrich said.

“It’s not just the price tag to get to the ribbon-cutting,” Ulrich said. “It’s what is the cost to preserve it over time?”

Even getting to the ribbon-cutting, though, can be an arduous process.

There are number of “regionally significant projects” – a technical term with a four-part definition stipulated by the federal government – that have been identified but “have not been fully funded,” Ulrich said.

To take one notable example, SRTC included a “full corridor redesign” of U.S. Highway 195 from Hatch Road to Interstate 90 the last time it updated its long-range plan four years ago, on the timeline mandated by the federal government.

But that $73 million project isn’t just not yet funded, it’s the subject of an ongoing study.

Ulrich said projects like this one, which are in the current long-range plan but aren’t funded, “will be moved into Horizon 2045.”

Of the 30 projects included in the previous long-range plan, five are focused on something other than motor vehicles. Of those, two are near completion: the Spokane Transit Authority’s City Line bus rapid transit project, and STA’s West Plains Transit Center.

STA has three other projects on the list as well.

One would construct a new park-and-ride on Argonne Road in Spokane Valley. Another project, already being planned, would create a second bus rapid transit project on Division Street. And a third would add public transit along the North Spokane Corridor.

As SRTC looks forward, Ulrich said the intent is to consider projects intended for a range of transportation modes, including public transit, freight and active transit.

“We’re obviously not just talking about single-occupancy-vehicle trips,” Ulrich said.

But what kinds of projects SRTC is talking about, exactly, remains to be determined. And Ulrich said the community conversation will be important to making those decisions.

“What we’d like to do is understand trends around challenges and barriers around the regional network,” Ulrich said.

While filing out an online survey is a chore and it can be hard to be excited about a bureaucratic plan for a future we can’t even imagine, the stakes are high.

SRTC doesn’t build anything and only controls about 3% of the region’s transportation funds, but the council’s board of directors, who represent a range of local jurisdictions and agencies, play a major role in deciding what gets built.

The only way for a project to be eligible for federal funding, Ulrich said, is for it to be designated “regionally significant” by that board.

“And if they weren’t eligible for federal dollars, they would have to find the funding from somewhere else,” Ulrich said. “And that would be difficult.”

Competition for inclusion is, therefore, high. As is the process for funding those projects that do make the list.

“The difference between the need and the expected revenue,” Ulrich said, is “massively unbalanced. We are projecting far more need than we have available revenue.”

Then there’s the “huge gap” in funding for maintaining what we do have.

Squaring all of that, while also addressing the imperative of climate change, will be hard, at least until our intelligence is multiplied a billionfold. So Ulrich said SRTC will have to rely on good old-fashioned human decision-making.

“It’s a series of tradeoffs,” Ulrich said. “That’s what it boils down to.”

Work to watch for

Just days after reopening following repairs, the Keller ferry was once again closed Saturday evening due to “a mechanical issue.”

Ferry users traveling across the Columbia River on state Route 21 will need to find an alternate route, according to a news release from the Washington Department of Transportation. There is no estimated time for the vessel to return to service, the agency said.

Travelers who use the Geiger/Grove intersection just north of I-90 will experience extended detours beginning Monday due to construction of the third and final roundabout for an interchange-improvement project. The roundabout will be constructed at the Geiger Boulevard and Grove Road intersection just north of I-90. Work will continue through September.

A stretch of Forker Road approximately one-half mile south of State Road 206 in north Spokane County will be closed beginning Monday through the end of the month. County crews will be replacing the old 6-foot-wide culvert and installing a 35-foot long modular steel bridge that will be supported by structural earth walls.

Chip seal work will be underway starting Monday on Post Street between Cleveland and Maxwell avenues; starting Tuesday at Wellesley Avenue between Milton and Ash streets; starting Wednesday at Freya Street between Wellesley Avenue and Upriver Drive; starting Thursday at Freya Street between 37th Avenue and Palouse Highway; and starting Friday at Southeast Boulevard between Perry Street and 29th Avenue.

Work on the Spokane Transit Authority’s City Line will lead to the following changes:

  • Mission Avenue traffic will be shifted and reduced to a single lane in each direction between Smith and Cook streets starting Friday.
  • Cook Street will be closed at Mission Avenue on both sides of Mission Avenue. Construction signage and detours will be in place.

Work not to watch for

The city of Spokane’s plans to replace the deck and perhaps add a turn lane to the Hatch Road bridge have been put on hold.

As previously reported, work was slated to begin this spring. When asked for an update, Marlene Feist, the city’s public works director, said the project has been rescheduled until 2022 due to “some redesign.”

That redesign involved use of a heavier pre-cast deck, which required engineers to reevaluate the structure. It also required the city to seek more money for the project, which also took time.

Feist said she expects the project to go out to bid in late August.

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