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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: New streets, connections proposed for U.S. 195 corridor; issues expected to linger

UPDATED: Mon., March 15, 2021

Within the next two decades, some 3,700 new homes, apartments and other forms of housing will pop up in Vinegar Flats and the Latah Valley.

At a national average of about 2.5 people per household, that amounts to more than 9,000 new residents.

And that’s not all the growth expected in the area, according to a new study of the U.S. 195 corridor.

Some 1,700 new jobs should also become available by 2040, most of them in a retail sector that’s expected to expand to meet the needs of all the new neighbors.

All of those new people and businesses are expected to arrive in a slice of the city where the transportation infrastructure is already so overwhelmed that last year Mike Gribner, administrator of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Eastern Region, demanded the city of Spokane “adopt a development moratorium for the U.S. 195 traffic shed area” until it deals with the “crisis in management of safety within the corridor.”

If the city didn’t act, Gribner wrote, his agency would remove some access to U.S. 195 and “make it more difficult for area residents to reach destinations within the City of Spokane.”

Since that letter was delivered last February, the city has largely complied, stalling nearly all of the many proposals to build sorely needed housing in the area.

Meanwhile, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council has been working with consultants, the city, WSDOT and an array of other local jurisdictions and agencies, including the county and the Spokane Transit Authority, to come up with a solution.

Last week, after two years of grinding through information and options, SRTC’s board unanimously voted to release a long litany of proposals for how to do so.

Those proposals were grouped into two packages that share many of the same elements and that are not mutually exclusive, according to Ryan Stewart, the SRTC planner who managed the study process.

“It’s not an either/or, or a binary choice,” Stewart said. “The projects that are in package No. 2 could be implemented after the projects in package No. 1.”

Taken together, as perhaps two phases in a process of undetermined length, they act as a kind of blueprint for an even more bustling and better-connected Vinegar Flats and the Latah Valley.

If the complete suite of proposals is implemented, the result would be a new network of streets on both sides of the highway, allowing people to move more easily in and out of the area without getting on U.S. 195.

On the east side of the highway, Inland Empire Way would connect directly to Cheney-Spokane Road, transforming the usually sleepy neighborhood street into a major mechanism both for moving traffic from the city’s southwest side to downtown and for moving people from Vinegar Flats to the burgeoning commercial district on the far side of the highway.

On the west side of U.S. 195, Lindeke Street would no longer end at 16th Avenue and would instead continue south all the way to Thorpe Road. In addition, a new frontage road would connect South Meadow Lane Road to Qualchan Drive, while Marshall Road would become a major arterial that connects Thorpe Road and Cheney-Spokane Road.

Along the highway itself, new J-turns would be added at Meadow Lane and Hatch roads.

And that’s just the beginning.

The more ambitious package of changes features 28 projects, including new bike trails, a new park-and-ride and more new street connections, such as linking Hallett and Marshall roads.

Taken together, it amounts to an overhaul of the transit network in the valley. And it won’t be cheap.

The cost of just five key projects in the smaller package would be just shy of $35 million, according to Thursday’s presentation to the SRTC board.

Add in the Qualchan to Marshall connection and improvements to Marshall Road, and the cost leaps to $60 million.

But with an urgent need to both resolve existing traffic-safety issues and open the area to development, planners have identified a batch of six projects that would address safety and could be done relatively quickly.

These changes include retiming the existing ramp meter at Interstate 90, adding signs along U.S. 195 to “alert drivers of alternative routes and travel times” to downtown, and adding a half J-turn at Meadow Lane to eliminate southbound and eastbound left turns at the U.S. 195 intersection, according to a SRTC board-meeting packet.

A ramp meter that allows for safer entry onto I-90, though, will also be a ramp meter that moves cars through more slowly.

That may compel some drivers to choose Inland Empire Way or another street option, and that means “trip times to downtown will take a little bit longer,” Stewart acknowledged.

Those behind the study think a somewhat slower system will mean a somewhat safer system, and that the trade-off will be worth it.

But they also acknowledge that even an investment of more than $60 million and the implementation of every proposal won’t be a panacea for a badly ailing system.

Chris Breiland, a consultant who has helped draft the study and its proposals, told SRTC board members that while the changes would lead to safety improvements, they would be “modest” rather than dramatic.

“We’re not cutting crashes by 80% or whatnot,” Breiland said.

And there’s another major limitation to even the most ambitious package of proposals: They won’t solve the dangerous congestion at the junction of northbound U.S. 195 and eastbound I-90.

That section of road currently operates at a service level of F, the worst possible rating – and it will continue to do so, even if a significant amount of traffic is successfully encouraged to take a different route.

“This project alone is not going to address I-90 congestion issues,” Breiland said. “That’s a different can of worms there.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that even if fewer cars enter I-90 from Latah Valley, that drop is expected to be offset by increasing traffic on the booming West Plains.

“We’re still going to be very clear about that,” Stewart said. “There will still be congestion on I-90 eastbound.”

Solving the interchange issues would entail a whole host of fixes to I-90’s ramps and roadway.

“The elephant in the room is the two Interstate 90 bridges over the Latah Valley,” Stewart said.

All together, the job of expanding those bridges and otherwise improving the interstate would likely cost something like $450 million, WSDOT’s Gribner estimated last year.

It’s also not clear whether the changes proposed so far will be enough for WSDOT to allow more development in the corridor.

In an emailed statement for this story, Gribner indicated that there’s work to be done before that happens.

“We’re going to struggle with changing our posture until we are comfortable that (the safety of) these trips will be addressed,” he wrote.

For now, however, he said WSDOT would commit only to continue to keep working to find solutions.

“We have agreed to be at the table with the City of Spokane,” he wrote, “but we haven’t come to an agreement just yet, so we haven’t put anything in front of the legislature. … Our expectation is that we will partner on funding and pursue funding opportunities as they come up; that we’re in this together with the City of Spokane.”

But WSDOT, the city, SRTC and the other agencies won’t be able to hash out a solution all on their own. They will also have to involve the public.

SRTC plans to post an interactive map, further details and a survey about the proposed changes to the project website, us195transportationstudy.com, soon. That so-called “virtual open house” will remain online long enough to allow for robust community engagement, Stewart said.

“We want to make sure that since we rarely meet in person, that we take our time and provide a meaningful opportunity for everybody that’s interested to review the materials and provide input,” Stewart said.

Once that happens, a final report will be produced, then vetted with the Spokane City Council, WSDOT, STA and other governmental bodies. Only then will it go back to the SRTC board for approval.

“There’s been a long, multidecade conversation about what needs to happen down there,” Stewart said. “I’m not quite relieved yet. I think we still have some hashing out to do.”

Not to mention a lot of building.

Bigelow Gulch funding

The SRTC Board of Directors also unanimously approved at last week’s meeting an award of almost $430,000 for the next phase of the Bigelow Gulch Urban Connector project.

That money will help chip away at $2 million in unforeseen costs to continue the connector from the intersection of Progress and Forker roads to its proposed eastern terminus at Sullivan Road and Wellesley Avenue in Spokane Valley.

STA bus route changes

STA is planning to make changes to its bus system next year, when the bus rapid transit City Line is expected to begin running from Browne’s Addition to Spokane Community College.

After an initial proposal for a grid of routes on the North Side, the pandemic forced STA to downsize its ambitions. Even the scaled-down plan will add 35,000 service hours to the system.

To learn more and offer your input, visit spokanetransit.com/projects-plans/2022-service-revisions.

Work to watch for

One bad thing about the nice weather: Road construction is ramping up.

Phase 2 of the Geiger Boulevard rehab will begin Monday. That means Geiger will be closed from Flightline Boulevard to Soda Road with a detour in place.

Work on Hamilton Street also resumes Monday. Crews will be working at the intersections of Indiana Avenue and North Foothills Drive. There will be no left turns onto Indiana Avenue or North Foothills Drive, and Hamilton will be reduced to one lane in each direction.

STA will begin work on the new City Line station on the north side of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

That means the two southern lanes of Sprague Avenue between Monroe and Madison streets will be closed for utility work.

City Line work will also lead to the closure of one southbound lane of Division Street between Hawthorne Road and Holland Avenue until April 30.

Work is expected to continue this week on the Harvard Road interchange improvement project, leading to closures on Interstate 90:

  • Through Friday, eastbound I-90 will see single-lane closures from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • Through Friday, westbound I-90 will have single-lane closures from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and full closure with a detour from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. The westbound loop ramp will also be closed from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.
  • In addition, Harvard Road will see shoulder and single-lane closures Monday through Friday from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

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