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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Planners agree on a Highway 195 corridor wish list, but neighborhood leaders aren’t satisfied

Regional planners have been down this road before.

Back in 1999, soon after the Washington State Department of Transportation helped open the doors to development of the Latah/Hangman neighborhood by letting the city of Spokane extend sewer infrastructure through the department’s right of way, an engineering study came up with a litany of proposals for warding off the traffic problems that were already coming into view.

But while that study and other planning efforts have “identified improvements for the U.S. 195 corridor, most notably constructing interchanges at key intersections with U.S. 195, only one of the improvements has been built in the last 22 years.”

That’s according to the final version of a new study of the Highway 195 corridor, its junction with Interstate 90 and the sparse network of streets in the surrounding southwest part of the city.

Released late last month and slated for formal adoption next month, the study is upfront about the historical failure of officials to implement the solutions seemingly everyone acknowledges are needed. And it acknowledges that “a more implementable strategy is needed.”

“Moreover, given the rapid growth in the region over the last several years, there is an urgent need for practical, cost-effective projects that can be implemented in the near-term (less than five years) that are also compatible with the long-term vision for the corridor,” the study says. “With funding constraints that have limited progress on previously identified improvements over the last 20 years expected to continue, and improvements to the U.S. 195/I-90 interchange alone estimated to cost over $400 million, now is the time for a more practical, sustainable, and implementable vision for the U.S. 195/I-90 area.”

That may sound like some refreshingly honest soul-searching to some.But Kai Huschke isn’t buying it.

“It’s all playing catch-up,” said Huschke, chair of the Latah/Hangman neighborhood council and a resident of Vinegar Flats. “It’s all things the city has known about for decades and has chosen to do nothing about.”

Mike Gribner, administrator of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Eastern Region, got fed up enough with such inaction in February 2020, just as the drafting of the new study was starting, that he issued a letter asking the Spokane City Council to “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.”

While no such moratorium was put in place, the tactic apparently proved effective.

Developers have continued to pursue plans for new housing in the area, but the city has conditioned approval of new development projects on implementation of certain infrastructure.

Now that the new traffic study is complete, WSDOT and the city, as well as a host of other regional partners, including the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, Spokane County and Spokane Transit Authority, have a plan in place for improving safety and congestion.

But whether – and, if so, when – that will lead to a flood of new development in an area where demand and opportunity for development is high, in a city that’s struggling with what Mayor Nadine Woodward has deemed a housing “emergency,” isn’t clear.

In an emailed response to questions, Ryan Overton, a WSDOT spokesman, signaled his agency wants to see changes implemented and results demonstrated before it will back new housing in the area.

“If solutions offload traffic away from these intersections we would support that development,” Overton wrote.

Huschke, though, is pessimistic that the proposals included in the new study will be implemented anytime soon. And even if they are, he argues they won’t be sufficient to close the gap between the area’s infrastructure and the growth exerting undue pressure on it.

“These are all stopgaps, which in some ways are going to just push problems in different directions instead of solve them,” Huschke said of the 26 changes included in the study’s project list.

Those projects are grouped into three categories: near-term investments, key investments and supporting investments.

The near-term investments are intended to address existing safety and operational issues and to “help accommodate zoned and approved growth.” Because of their urgency and relative simplicity, they are targeted for implementation within five years, according to study documents.

This category of work includes:

  • Retiming the existing ramp meter at the I-90/U.S. 195 intersection.
  • Adding travel-time signs designed to “encourage drivers to choose local routes.”
  • Making improvements at U.S. 195’s intersection with 16th Avenue and Hatch Road.
  • Building a new northbound-only connection between Cheney-Spokane Road and Inland Empire Way, partially restoring a connection that was removed in 2014 when the Cheney-Spokane interchange was constructed.

Key investments would “provide the greatest mobility and safety enhancements in the study area” and would “establish a parallel network west of U.S. 195 from Hatch Road to Sunset Boulevard,” study documents say.

This list of projects, expected to take more than five years to put in place, includes:

  • Connecting Lindeke Street to Thorpe Road west of U.S. 195.
  • Creating a two-way connection between Inland Empire Way and Cheney-Spokane Road east of U.S. 195.
  • Constructing J-turns at U.S. 195’s intersections with Hatch and Meadow Lane roads.
  • Building a frontage road parallel to U.S. 195 by extending Qualchan Drive to Meadow Lane Road.
  • Extending Qualchan Drive west to connect to Marshall Road with new roadway.
  • Connecting Meadow Lane Road to U.S. 195 just north of Hatch Road by constructing a new roadway.

The supporting investments are deemed “not essential to building out the parallel local network” but would be designed to “support a more connected local network for all modes” of transportation. Among the projects included in this group are:

  • Creating a new Spokane Transit Authority park and ride.
  • Creating a new bike connection from the Fish Lake Trail to the West Plains via the Trolley Trail Conservation Area.
  • Building a multiuse path parallel to Hatch Road between U.S. 195 and 57th Avenue.
  • Adding a multiuse path on the west side of U.S. 195 to connect the proposed Latah Glen development and existing mobile home park to retail around Yokes Fresh Market.
  • Constructing a new roadway connection from the eastern terminus of Hallet Road to the southern terminus of Marshall Road.
  • Connecting 44th Avenue to Inland Empire Way.

The aim would be to relieve pressure on U.S. 195 and on its overloaded interchange with I-90 as soon as possible by moving car traffic first to existing local streets like Inland Empire Way.

Officials would then work to expand and improve the existing street network to accommodate growth.

Finally, public transportation and multimodal transit options would be added to give people ways to get around without getting in their cars at all.

Huschke, though, believes the first step in that process would move the problem of too much traffic, instead of solving it.

“You’re going to increase the possibility of accidents or problems not on 195 but on city streets,” he said. “So it’s potentially not a solution. It’s a Band-Aid at best.”

And while he likes the idea of promoting alternative modes of transportation, Huschke said such improvements are already long overdue. With more bike facilities, sidewalks and bus service largely lacking a timeline for implementation, he said officials are allowing an already unsustainable imbalance to deteriorate further.

“It’s not an easy situation, but there’s a reason for this,” he said. “The reason is – and they have from the very beginning – they have allowed development to happen without adequate infrastructure. And they’re just looking to pile that on.”

Joy Sheikh, chair of the nearby Grandview/Thorpe Neighborhood Council, agrees.

She said the latest study and the proposed solutions are an exercise in “kicking the can down the road,” instead of dealing with the fundamental problem.

The only solution that truly addresses the problem is fix the U.S 195/I-90 intersection , she said.

“They’re just saying it costs too much, but it’s only going to cost more over time,” Sheikh said. “I’m happy that safety improvements are being made. “But I don’t feel, until the intersection of (Interstate) 90 and (U.S.) 195 is improved, that the area is ready for building.”

In the grand scheme of things, WSDOT is the “least blameworthy” for the corridor’s existing conditions, Huschke argues, “because the DOT has been talking about this for years and years and others have not been listening, primarily the city itself.”

Marlene Feist, Spokane’s director of public works, acknowledges the city “could have done things differently.”

She also argues city officials are in a difficult position of having to “balance” its many “competing needs” within its budget constraints.

“It’s often more urgent to fill the current need than it is to think about the one that’s going to come due in 25 or 30 years,” she noted.

With the buildout of the U.S. 195 recommendations expected to take some two decades, she said the city is now in a good position to “implement long-term thinking” in the Latah Valley.

To do so, though, Feist said the city has to harness the financial power of growth, not put a stop to it.

“How do you enhance capacity?” she asked. “Growth has to play its part.”

Through impact fees, developers are required to help fund the infrastructure their projects will rely on, including roads and utilities.

“There isn’t just millions of dollars sitting around for the growth we think might happen,” Feist said.

Instead, she said, the city has to respond to development proposals and find ways to balance the need for more housing with the need for more infrastructure.

But Huschke said he is “unequivocally” in favor of “pausing all major developments, without a doubt,” until “real serious planning is undertaken” that accounts not only for the area’s traffic needs but also other infrastructure demands for schools, a library branch, sidewalk connectivity and other elements lacking in the booming neighborhood.

Without such a framework of services for residents, the result has been “chaos,” Huschke said

“And that’s what they’ve done: created more and more chaos,” he said. “And they’ve done studies to deal with the chaos. … Temporary solutions get thought about, but they’re not the answers.”

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