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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: With climate getting hotter, gas power can’t cool us down

UPDATED: Mon., July 5, 2021

Pavement buckled on U.S. Highway 195 north of Colfax on Tuesday due to extremely hot temperatures.  (Washington State Department of Transportation )
Pavement buckled on U.S. Highway 195 north of Colfax on Tuesday due to extremely hot temperatures. (Washington State Department of Transportation )

If you’re looking for evidence that our dominant means of getting around is incompatible with our urgent need to combat climate change, look no further than East Stoneman Road.

It got so hot on Wednesday – 104 degrees – that Spokane County officials had to close the street after the asphalt started to peel and crack.

The day before, Spokane experienced a record high of 109 degrees and U.S. Highway 195 near Colfax buckled and pavement started peeling off Route 20 east of Colville.

There’s no single source of the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet, and there’s no definitive way to tie the Pacific Northwest’s recent heat wave to those gases. But ample evidence indicates Spokane is getting hotter and drier, and that gas-guzzling vehicles are a major source of carbon emissions in our area.

Forty-six percent, to be exact.

That’s according to a new document being drafted by the Spokane City Council’s Sustainability Action Subcommittee.

The document, known as the Sustainability Action Plan, recommends about 200 actions designed to drive carbon emissions down by 95% in Spokane over the next 30 years.

That’s an ambitious goal, of course. To get there, the plan as it exists currently envisions an elimination of emissions from passenger vehicles by 2050.

As of 2016, the plan states transportation accounted for about a million tons, or 46%, of Spokane’s total carbon emissions, making it the second-highest producer after energy from buildings, which accounted for 48% of emissions.

Of the total transportation emissions, 44% came from passenger vehicles and motorcycles, 18% from light-duty trucks, 11% from railroads, 10% from heavy-duty vehicles, 16% from airports and 1% from public transportation.

Many of the plan’s strategies for reducing emissions from vehicles relate to land use. After all, the denser a city, the less its residents have to drive.

But it also advocates for increased investment in the elements of the city’s transportation network that allow people to get around without getting in their cars at all, such as boosting Spokane Transit Authority bus service, improving the city’s bicycle infrastructure and adding amenities for pedestrians.

Some of that work is already complete or underway.

The city of Spokane’s construction program is relatively light on new road projects, which account for $10.1 million of work on East Sprague Avenue, the Maple/Wellesley intersection and some chip seal and grind and overlay projects, according to Kirstin Davis, a city spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, the city is spending $6.9 million of its 2021 budget on nonmotorized transportation projects, including building a new section of the Centennial Trail along Summit Avenue and continuing the South Gorge Trail through Peaceful Valley.

That work will add to the 73 miles of new bike and pedestrian facilities the city has built over the past decade.

The city is still far from where it wants to get, but when you consider it only had 25 miles of such bike and pedestrian infrastructure before 2010, it is making progress.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Transportation has tried to include multimodal elements with “almost every” one of its road projects around the region, according to Ryan Overton, a department spokesman.

That said, the Eastern Region’s investment in such elements is dwarfed by the amount it has sunk into new road projects.

Consider the $1.5 billion North Spokane Corridor. WSDOT is constructing the Children of the Sun Trail alongside the new highway, and the current WSDOT budget includes $15 million for building the trail between Columbia Avenue and the Spokane River. Meanwhile, a new stretch of elevated highway from Ermina to Mission avenues is slated to cost $28.5 million.

That’s one indication of how much further transportation money can go, per mile, when it’s spent on infrastructure for nonmotorized methods of travel instead of for vehicles with motors.

Not, of course, that motors are going anywhere. They’re just increasingly becoming electric.

For that reason, automobile manufacturers will play a central role in deciding whether carbon emissions from vehicles decline. And they have signaled they intend to do so, with a number of companies self-imposing deadlines to sell exclusively electric vehicles.

To make that possible, though, utilities, governments and other entities will have to boost the vehicle-charging infrastructure. Some of that work is underway, but much more will be required.

Public transit, too, will have to end its reliance on gas for Spokane to get to carbon neutrality.

STA has begun the process of converting its fleet, beginning with the coaches that will comprise the coming bus rapid transit City Line as well as those on the Monroe-Regal high-frequency bus route.

And the transit agency could be on the brink of a significant expansion of the city’s electrified public transit infrastructure.

A flood of new federal funds combined with savings STA has set aside and an influx of better-than-expected sales tax revenues that fund the agency mean the transit agency will have an estimated $120 million to $125 million more than expected to invest in its system, according to Brandon Rapez-Betty, the agency’s communications and customer services director.

That represents a “scale of the opportunity” that could be on par with the STA Moving Forward plan.

Funded with a voter-approved sales tax hike in 2016, that plan charted a 10-year course for the agency that’s still underway. It has made possible some 25 projects, including new routes, more high-frequency service, four new and expanded transit centers and the City Line, which is slated to open early next year.

But while STA is only halfway through that plan’s timeline, Rapez-Betty said its board of directors began last week to look forward at the possibility of a new “strategic planning process” that could “create another 10-year plan like STA Moving Forward.”

Two projects are almost certain to be included in the new long-range plan: a new bus rapid transit line along Division Street and fleet electrification.

Beyond those projects, Rapez-Betty said it’s far too early to know what kinds of expansions and improvements STA’s board will decide to pursue.

“We don’t know what the categories are for this,” he said. “This could be kind of the next generation of transit.”

After a week when the reality of an ever-hotter future was impossible to ignore, it can’t come fast enough.

Work to watch for

Those who drive through Colville should expect detours beginning Tuesday, when crews will close the intersection of Aster and Highway 395/Main Street intersection to begin work on pedestrian-friendly improvements to downtown. During the monthlong closure, highway drivers will be detoured via South Railroad Street.

A chip seal project in Spokane will close Freya Street between Wellesley Avenue and Upriver Drive from Wednesday through Friday.

The Freya Street on-ramp to eastbound Interstate 90 closed last week and will remain closed through September for a WSDOT project. Drivers will need to detour a few blocks east to the Custer on-ramp to access eastbound I-90.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the true price of the Children of the Sun Trail between Columbia Avenue and the Spokane River. 

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