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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

South Gorge Trail on track for completion with scaled-down connection

The South Gorge Trail is a puzzle city officials have been working to put together since 2013. While the final piece isn’t the size or shape city officials expected, they appear at last to have it in hand.

And that, says Kyle Twohig, director of engineering services for the city of Spokane, is the important part.

“This was feasible and not kicked down the road for a decade or two while we tried to secure grant funding,” Twohig said. “This is something that we can deliver.”

The “something” is a relatively small section of ramp that will bring pedestrians and bicyclists down from the northwest corner of Main Avenue and Monroe Street, under the Monroe Street Bridge, and then connect them to what is currently the dead end of the ramps in A Place of Truths Plaza, which recently opened across Spokane Falls Boulevard from the downtown public library.

That new link will officially complete the South Gorge Trail, which, in turn, will make possible a new loop of shared-use paths and dedicated sidewalks extending on both sides of the river from People’s Park in Peaceful Valley to the Post Street bridge on the western edge of Riverfront Park.

The idea for a downtown pedestrian loop was first hatched back in 1908, when it was included in an early master plan for the city park system, and officials have been working to make the South Gorge section a reality since 2013.

For much of the last eight years, the idea was to build a path below the Spokane Club, from Glover Field to the eastern side of the Monroe Street Bridge.

While Twohig said the Spokane Club was open to working with the city to make that a reality, the city’s ambition to build along the steep riverbank met with sobering funding realities last year, when a grant that would have funded the trail section didn’t gain any traction.

That sent designers back to the drawing board, where they came up with a new plan. Rather than build a new trail along the river, they would use an already widened sidewalk that runs along the north side of Main Avenue to get users from Glover Field to Monroe. They would then construct – at a cost of about $1.2 million, or one-third the price of the previous plan – the connective ramp beneath the Monroe Street Bridge.

The cheaper alternative would also have a higher likelihood of being built quickly, Twohig said.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll have it open within three years. I think it’s something that is a priority for the city and it’s a solvable problem that I think we’ll solve,” Twohig said. “And after that I think we just need a season to design it and a season to build it and then we’ll have it.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the South Gorge Trail is already built or is slated to be completed during this year’s construction season.

Twohig predicted the entire project will be finished by the end of 2024.

An early step toward meeting that timeline will come up at Monday’s City Council meeting, when members will be asked to accept an easement from the Spokane Club that will allow the ramp connection to be built on, and pass through, its property.

Council President Breean Beggs said he expects the body to approve the measure and move forward. And while he said he’s “really excited” to see the project finally have a path toward completion, he allowed that he also felt “a little bit of disappointment” that the original vision of a trail below the club and along the river isn’t in the cards. At least for now.

“At this point, I think we’ll take it,” he said. “It’s just the original vision was a little better. But reality set in.”

Beggs didn’t discount, though, the possibility that the original vision could be pursued in the future.

John O’Connor, the Spokane Club’s general manager, said the club was happy to help the city and provide the easement.

“We always try to find ways to be good stewards and good partners where we can,” O’Connor said. “This presented us a great opportunity as the Spokane Club to demonstrate that.”

He also said it would present great opportunities for those who use the ramps to “see this glorious river and these vistas from a different angle.”

Loreen McFaul, executive director of the Friends of the Centennial Trail, said the easement and the hope for speedy completion of the project was “fantastic news in capital letters.”

“That’s a really important juncture for not only the South Gorge Trail but also the Centennial Trail,” she added.

Twohig said the connection below the bridge will put a cap on a long process of improving the Spokane River’s health and accessibility.

“We’ve been piecing together this trail for many years now and we’ve been making investments around our river, and this is kind of the final piece,” he said. “Everything else is kind of completed or in motion. This is the final link.”

When everything’s in place, Twohig said the South Gorge Trail and the loop it enables will help show off the city’s “amazing natural resources,” which were long hidden in plain sight.

“It’s exciting to be this close to having the loop complete and having another asset that separates Spokane and celebrates what a magnificent city we have,” Twohig said.