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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: WSDOT plans to expand use of ramp meters as drivers adjust

If you find the stoplights installed on a number of downtown Interstate 90 ramps frustrating, brace yourself for some bad news: More are coming.

Two months after activating the ramp meters, as these lights are known, the Washington State Department of Transportation is planning to increase their use.

Beginning this week, the department will activate the meter on the Walnut Street ramp from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. without interruption, eliminating what had been a break between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

WSDOT is also working to add new ramp meters at the U.S. Highway 2 and Geiger Road eastbound on-ramps to I-90, likely next year, according to Larry Frostad, traffic design and operations engineer for the department’s Eastern Region.

While Frostad acknowledges there “has been some frustration around the ramp meters” since they were turned on in mid-April, he argues much of the angst aimed at the lights is misdirected, with people blaming them for crashes, congestion and backed-up traffic they didn’t cause.

On the contrary, he says they have performed “exactly as we’d anticipated.”

What he and his colleagues at WSDOT anticipated was a decline in crashes, congestion and dangerous driving on the increasingly well-traveled stretch of interstate through the heart of Spokane.

While Frostad didn’t yet have data from May, the first full month the new meters were in use at four eastbound ramps – Walnut, Monroe, Division and Hamilton – and at the westbound Division ramp, he said WSDOT has seen traffic patterns change as expected.

Before the ramp meters, vehicles would gather at city stop lights and try to merge into 60-mph traffic at the same time. Now, they are stopped and released one or two at a time, depending on the ramp.

That, Frostad said, has allowed for more gaps in the merging traffic, less lane shifting within the flow of interstate traffic and generally safer and smoother conditions for drivers.

But WSDOT does have data for the region’s longest-running ramp meter.

When comparing the 19 months before and after one was installed at the U.S. Highway 195 on-ramp, WSDOT saw a 69% reduction in total collisions, plus a drop from seven to zero in the number of injuries those collisions caused.

Not that the meters are a panacea.

Frostad pointed to a pair of crashes at the Monroe and Walnut ramps that occurred within five minutes of each other as evidence that the lights can’t solve every problem.

“We don’t expect the crashes to go to zero,” he said, “but we do expect the severity and the number to go down.”

And he’s adamant that increasing the use of ramp meters will lead to a further decrease in dangerous conditions, especially as Spokane drivers get more accustomed to using them.

One of the more common issues drivers confront is failing to get close enough to the stop line to trigger the detection loop that tell the lights to turn from red to green. If a driver stops too soon, the light will stall and a line of cars will begin to form.

As Frostad acknowledges, the detection loops “are not quite at the stop line but they’re really close. So you have to pull up really close to the stop line” to trigger the light.

But as drivers get used to the WSDOT-engineered stop-and-go traffic pattern on Spokane’s interstate ramps, Frostad says they’ll see fewer impediments during the rest of their trips.

Or so WSDOT hopes, because even if the meters help, traffic in Spokane now exceeds prepandemic numbers, and a true accounting of whether the meters are able to cope with all those extra drivers will take time.

Bike swap

Bikes have been notoriously hard to come by ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic set off a surge in demand.

With the shelves of some shops virtually bare, the Spokane Bike Swap and Expo is returning just in time.

Canceled last year and now moved outside, the swap – slated to take place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center – promises to have “hundreds of bikes” available for purchase, according to a news release.

The swap will feature new and used bikes, as well as representatives from local bike shops, bike clubs and information about bike events.

Those interested in selling a bike can register their bike at SpokaneBikeSwap.com or during the bike check-in on Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Bike registration is $5 and will be waived if you donate a bike. The registration fee will also be waived on kid’s bikes with 20-inch rims or smaller and priced $50 or less.

Work to watch for

WSDOT will continue work this week on its I-90-Harvard Road interchange improvement project, leading to the following closures on the interstate:

Eastbound I-90 will see a single lane closure Monday thr

  • ough Thursday, from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m, plus a full closure with a detour from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Tuesday.
  • Westbound I-90 will see single lane closure Monday through Thursday, from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m, plus a full closure with a detour from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The westbound loop ramp will be closed Monday through Thursday from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Work on the so-called Summit Gap of the Centennial Trail is underway in West Central from Boone Avenue to Pettet Drive on Summit Boulevard, Mission Avenue and West Point Road.

The northbound curb lane of Perry Street between 18th and 13th Avenue will be closed Monday through July 2 for communications infrastructure work.

Work on Phase 3 of the Bigelow Gulch road reconstruction means Weile Avenue will be closed from Bigelow Gulch Road to Thierman Road through July 31. A detour along Jensen Road is in place.

Wall Street is closed between Sprague and Riverside avenues for work on the Spokane Transit Authority’s City Line.

The two southern lanes of Main Avenue between Washington and Bernard streets are closed until mid-June to accommodate utility and roadway work in preparation for a City Line station. Through traffic on Bernard Street will be closed at Main Avenue during this period, but local access will be available on both sides of Main Avenue.

Spokane Falls Boulevard between Pine Street/Riverpoint Boulevard and Sherman Avenue is closed until mid-July.

Chattaroy Road is being rebuilt from U.S. Highway 2 to Elk-Chattaroy Road. The project is expected to be completed June 30. Flaggers or a pilot car may be present. Motorists should be prepared for long delays.

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