The eastbound Freya Street on-ramp to Interstate 90 has been closed since June 28, and it may never reopen.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has proposed shuttering the ramp permanently as part of its broader effort to improve safety and flow along an increasingly congested stretch of highway that begins at U.S. 195 and ends at the bottom of Freya’s short ramp.
There, the agency says, is where the interstate’s “initial congestion bottleneck” begins to form each weekday evening “due to the number of vehicles merging and the short acceleration lane.”
And that congestion just keeps getting worse.
In 2017, congestion stretched 3.8 miles and lasted for 1 hour, 35 minutes during the eastbound evening commute along the 4.6-mile stretch between U.S. 195 and Freya.
Two years later, the congestion had increased by almost a mile, to 4.7 miles of congestion, and a half hour, to 2 hours, 5 minutes.
The cause, of course, is more traffic.
But the congesting effect of that additional traffic has been exacerbated by the city’s mostly short on-ramps, which create dangerous conditions for drivers merging onto I-90 and for the existing traffic on the interstate, as drivers often have to slow down, speed up or change lanes to accommodate the vehicles finding their way into the right lane.
Widening the interstate and extending the ramps are prohibitively costly and complex propositions, so WSDOT has relied instead increasingly on ramp meters to try to improve flow and safety.
In 2019, the agency installed a ramp meter at the U.S. 195 ramp, where cars have to stop and go at the command of a traffic light to control the flow of vehicles merging onto the freeway.
That experiment proved a success, WSDOT says, with crashes down 63% ever since.
So beginning late last year, the department installed new meters at four eastbound ramps – Walnut, Monroe, Division and Hamilton – and at the westbound Division ramp. And engineers were pleased enough with their early performance that WSDOT recently expanded their use.
The transportation department has considered adding a ramp meter at Freya, too, and has even floated the idea of extending the ramp and widening I-90 to unclog the bottleneck.
But those alternatives are expensive.
And with the North Spokane Corridor slated to alter traffic patterns and infrastructure from at least Hamilton Street to Havana Street when the new highway merges with I-90 sometime in the next decade, WSDOT is wary of spending heavily in an area where the only certainty is uncertainty.
“Improvements necessary to meter the Freya eastbound on-ramp in the period prior to construction of the North Spokane Corridor Interchange are not a preferable public expense when compared to the benefits of closing the ramp,” according to the WSDOT website that describes the ramp-closure proposal. “Future construction of the North Spokane Corridor will incorporate additional performance enhancement to access, and address the change in performance along the arterial segment and at the intersection of Havana Street and 4th Avenue.”
But while WSDOT says such “enhancement to access” is certain and that “change” is coming to the arterial that would divert traffic from a closed Freya ramp to the next ramp at Havana, the design of the new highway convergence remains unclear.
“The configuration of the NSC/I-90 interchange is still being determined,” the website says.
Meanwhile, though, engineers say they have already seen improvements at the Freya ramp during a three-month closure last summer and the ongoing closure this summer.
A draft analysis of the closure found, for example, that average evening speeds in the area rose from 39 mph to 59 mph before and after the current construction closure. And crashes on the freeway are expected to go down by two per year, despite those increased speeds.
The result, the analysis says, is that the “proposed Freya on-ramp closure removes the last bottleneck that starts the evening commute congestion and provides for a more stable and higher speed profile.”
But not everything will improve, according to the agency’s analysis.
With the Freya ramp closed, cars will be directed to travel to the Havana on-ramp via 3rd Avenue and a four-way stop. That will double travel time for drivers “from one minute to approximately 2 minutes,” engineers found.
It will also degrade the level of service at that four-way stop from a level of service of E to a level of service of F on a scale that ranges from F, the worst, to A, the best.
And that intersection is expected to become more dangerous, with three more crashes a year predicted.
Put all those factors together, and WSDOT has decided the benefits of closing Freya permanently outweigh the costs.
But the agency wants to hear what you think about the plan.
To read more and link to a comment form, visit engage.wsdot.wa.gov/proposed-i-90-freya-on-ramp-permanent-closure/ by Friday.
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Do so and you’ll save the fair’s $5 parking fee and get $7 off the $13 adult cost of admission. All you’ll have to do to save that $12 is pay $2 for a half-off STA day pass that will take you back and forth from the gate.
Visit www.spokanetransit.com or call (509) 328-RIDE for more details.