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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: As some cities remove urban highways, work begins on skyway section of North Spokane Corridor

UPDATED: Mon., June 21, 2021

Tom Brasch with WSDOT stands recently in a sun-baked Spokane Community College parking lot, which he says will be the location for part of the soon-to-be constructed NSC Skyway that will arc over Spokane Community College and continue south to I-90.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

When Interstate 90 arrived in Spokane in the 1960s, it split the largely working-class and Black neighborhood of East Central right down the middle.

The devastating – and lingering – effects are well known. Liberty Park was diminished. Local streets lost the connections they’d once enabled. Homes were torn down. Businesses along East Sprague Avenue suffered.

East Central wasn’t an outlier, though.

Across the country, low-income and minority neighborhoods were carved up in the middle of the last century as engineers and officials sought to speed the movement of increasing vehicle traffic through cities.

That fueled the growth of largely white suburbs, but it also left major rifts in urban communities of color that remain today.

Some cities, including Rochester, New York, have begun trying to undo the damage by removing elements of their inner-city highway infrastructure. Some 30 other localities are considering doing the same, according to recent reporting from the New York Times. President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan would facilitate that process by including $20 billion to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments” in highway infrastructure.

But Spokane is heading in the opposite direction.

Since breaking ground on the $1.5 billion North Spokane Corridor in 2001, WSDOT has made about 5 miles of progress and opened the freeway from its northern terminus to Freya Street, north of Francis Avenue. But the department still has about 5 miles and eight years to go.

Construction is occurring in phases. Among the projects underway is one that will extend the completed highway to Wellesley Avenue, where WSDOT expects a new interchange to open near the end of next year.

Meanwhile, crews are slated to begin work early next month on an elevated “skyway” that will carry cars and trucks some 30 feet above the ground, starting at the Spokane River and passing over the Chief Garry Park neighborhood before touching down around Sprague Avenue in East Central, where the freeway will continue to its junction with I-90.

While the now-complete course of the freeway certainly wasn’t free of obstacles and required the removal of homes, businesses, rail lines and much else in its path, WSDOT planners were able to chart much of its course through tracts of undeveloped land and existing rail corridors to lessen the impact.

But as WSDOT moves closer to the river and then jumps to the other side, engineers are entering more challenging terrain, where disruptions are bound to increase.

In an echo of what happened in East Central half a century ago, a number of local streets in the Minnehaha neighborhood will be permanently closed to make way for the freeway , including Bridgeport, Fairview, Cleveland, Grace, Marietta and Jackson streets.

Between the river and Sprague Avenue, however, WSDOT is aiming to keep the local street network largely intact by passing above street level, explained Tom Brasch, a department engineer.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Standing in one of the vast parking lots of Spokane Community College that will soon lie beneath the freeway, Brasch said the skyway design offered the “best plan of attack.”

When complete, a pair of elevated three-lane structures will hold the freeway aloft, so that it will resemble the stretch of I-90 that passes over downtown between Third and Fourth avenues, Brasch said.

WSDOT plans to complete work on the section of skyway from Ermina Avenue to Mission Avenue by late 2023 or early 2024, at a cost of $28.5 million, according to Brasch.

A pair of bridges will then be built from the north side of the river and connect to the ends of the two sections of skyway.

On the south end, the skyway will continue to Sprague.

Along the way, however, it will have to climb to some 50 feet in order to pass over the Freya street bridge that traverses Trent Avenue.

That’s one example of the lengths – or heights – to which WSDOT will go in an effort to rise above the area’s existing infrastructure.

“To be less disruptive to what you see here,” Brasch said, “we’re going over top of it.”

While disruption might be reduced, it won’t be eliminated. The look, feel and sound of the neighborhoods will be forever altered when a freeway is dividing the sky above them.

But Brasch said it’s a tradeoff.

“You won’t have something like that,” he said, pointing to a semi-truck huffing and puffing its way up North Greene Street, “on a city street. It will be up above.”

Mike Gribner, administrator of WSDOT’S Eastern Region, said that kind of benefit will be widespread when the freeway is complete.

He argues that WSDOT isn’t just adding a freeway, it’s also freeing up the local north-south streets that have long been clogged with traffic and lined with the kind of development that typically arises along busy, pedestrian-unfriendly corridors.

The NSC, Gribner said, represents an opportunity to actually improve the neighborhoods it passes through.

“We’re in the process right now of reimagining Division Street, which is going to bring land-use changes and (bus rapid transit) while modernizing the corridor and how it connects to the city,” he said. “That is quite frankly only because we’re moving the regional trips and regional freight off of that segment.”

The same is true, he said, of Nevada Street and other routes.

While he acknowledged that “eventually those routes will fill back in with traffic,” Gribner said WSDOT is hoping that new traffic is comprised of more public transit, more bike and pedestrian facilities, and “a more balanced local system” overall.

WSDOT is building a new shared-use path, the Children of the Sun Trail, adjacent to the freeway and has worked hard to involve neighbors in discussions about how to design the areas around the new road to make them attractive and usable.

“What it does is create opportunities for us to work with those neighborhoods, to create opportunities they we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t come through the area,” Gribner said.

And while the skyway, in particular, may raise “concerns about the visual impacts” of an elevated highway, Gribner said will also have “far less footprint and more ability to create connectivity” than a street-level design.

All of these ins and outs of design and impact, of connectivity and flow, of trade-offs and balance are all part of the conversation that surrounds every transportation project, “even the simplest county road,” Gribner said.

“The discussion is usage versus impacts versus mitigation,” he said. “That’s always the conversation.”

But the conversation around the freeway has been going on for a lot longer than the average county road.

It began 75 years ago, way back in 1946, and it’s far from over.

In all that time, much has changed, including the thinking of WSDOT.

“What we have tried to do at DOT is modernize our thinking over time to make the trade-offs the most effective for local folks and balance that against regional transportation needs,” Gribner said.

Consider, for example, the original “collector-distributor” design for the junction of I-90 and the NSC, which would have consolidated traffic in wide lanes on either side of I-90.

To make way for the massive concrete footprint that “collector-distributor” would have required, WSDOT removed vast stretches of the East Central neighborhood between East Sprague Avenue and Interstate 90.

But after the land had been cleared, the Department of Transportation decided the design was too expensive.

So they went back to the drawing board and came up with a more “practical solution,” as WSDOT calls it, that would involve adding numerous bridges as well as a series of new roadways and ramps, tying the local road network, the interstate and the freeway all together.

That design revision reduced the size of the infrastructure by 30%. Now, Gribner said, WSDOT is examining ways to shrink the junction’s footprint further.

“We’ve already made it significantly smaller,” Gribner said. “This latest downsizing would be significantly more, but we’re not sure it works yet. … We suspect we’re going to end up there. It’s looking promising. In talking to some of the neighborhood associations and some of the business interests, we’re getting positive reviews about what we might be up to.”

Meanwhile, on the south side of I-90, the city is pursuing an initiative to boost development along Fifth Avenue in the neighborhood.

Randy McGlenn, chair of the East Central Neighborhood Council, said he welcomes the efforts, despite the challenges the freeway’s impending arrival will pose.

“I think WSDOT is working very hard to make the best of a bad situation,” McGlenn said.

That bad situation started with I-90 and will worsen with the long-delayed arrival of the freeway , according to McGlenn.

“Now we do not just have the east-west portion of (I-90) that’s bisected the neighborhood, but now we’re going to have this north-south section that’s going to quarter it a little more,” McGlenn said.

He credited the transportation department, though, with coming with up “some wonderful, creative ideas” about how to improve connectivity, add bike and pedestrian facilities and find ways to utilize land that was cleared for the old collector-distributor plan, perhaps by creating opportunities for new housing.

“And the nice thing is WSDOT has been very, very active to try to engage the neighborhood … and ease the pain of the effect that the new infrastructure will have,” McGlenn said.

But others view the coming of the NSC as a repetition of the injustice that occurred when I-90 first cleaved the neighborhood in the 1960s.

Kurtis Robinson, first vice president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and executive director of the nonprofit organization I Did the Time, said he views the plans for the freeway as part of a “pattern of behavior” that harms the same communities that have been harmed by other such projects.

“Most likely, it’s going to play out exactly as it has in the past,” he said. “Communities of color, low-income (people) will have to bear the brunt of the economic and environmental impacts of something like this begin done.”

While he doesn’t “speak for all impacted communities,” Robinson said WSDOT’s efforts to mitigate the effect of the freeway is too little, too late.

“They did do some outreach, but my experience is that a lot of that was done after they had already decided to do it,” he said. “So it wasn’t like, ‘We’ve got this idea, what do you think? And we’d like to get your input and see if this works for you all.’ It was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this.’ … And the problem is that the ones (who feel) the greatest impact are those with the least amount of voice. And that’s called structural oppression.”

Gribner, however, rejected the idea that East Central was chosen as the site of the junction because it was “an easy target.”

“I fundamentally disagree with that perspective, and I think there is significant documentation that it’s not how that decision was made,” Gribner said.

“It is never our intent to harm anyone,” he added.

But Gribner also argued that the freeway “has created an opportunity” for his department to “correct some of the damage that was done when I-90 was put through.”

“We really are here with an eye toward making the neighborhood better,” Gribner added.

While some cities undo the damage of similar interventions, though, WSDOT is making an expensive bet that the corridor  will be the mechanism for such improvement.

“Nobody wants a freeway going into their backyard,” McGlenn said.

But with one coming, McGlenn said the best approach is to do the best to make the most of it: “I think the real key to trying to make this situation better is, how we can develop our neighborhood with that in mind?”

Work to watch for

Crews are starting work on a city arterial chip-seal project this week. Locations include:

  • Post Street between Cleveland and Maxwell Avenue.
  • Southeast Boulevard between Perry Street and 29th Avenue.
  • Freya Street between Wellesley Avenue and Upriver Drive.
  • Wellesley Avenue between Milton and Ash Street.
  • Freya Street between 37th Avenue and Palouse Highway.

Frideger Road over the Little Spokane River northeast of Elk, Washington, will be closed Monday as county crews replace the bridge. The project is being funded by a federal grant.

The Euclid Road bridge over the BNSF railroad tracks north of Airway Heights is closed for replacement from the tracks to Lyons Road. The railroad is replacing the bridge.

Interstate 90 continues to be affected by WSDOT work on the Harvard Road interchange between Harvard and Barker near Liberty Lake.

A single lane of I-90 eastbound will be closed from Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A full closure and detour will be in place 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

A single lane of I-90 westbound will be closed from Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A full closure and detour will be in place 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

The westbound loop ramp will be closed Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.

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