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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Federal prioritization of equitable, sustainable projects changes calculus for local planners

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 21, 2021

Decipher the tortured acronyms of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and you’ll begin to understand what the federal government wants to see built. And why.

When the Obama administration was seeking to pull the country out of a recession and from the brink of a full-blown depression, it started funding projects through a new program known as TIGER, for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.

When the Trump administration wanted to fuel the economy without tangling it up in government red tape, it renamed the same program BUILD, for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development.

And in April, after the Biden administration took office with promises to combat racial inequality and climate change, it gave the same program a third name, RAISE, for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity.

“Projects for RAISE funding will be evaluated based on merit criteria that include safety, environmental sustainability, quality of life, economic competitiveness, state of good repair, innovation, and partnership,” according to a DOT news release. “Within these criteria, the Department will prioritize projects that can demonstrate improvements to racial equity, reduce impacts of climate change and create good-paying jobs.”

The change in emphasis didn’t pass by Adam Jackson unnoticed.

A planning and grants engineer for Spokane Valley, Jackson is leading his city’s decadeslong effort to cobble together $29 million for a major project that would send North Pines Road underneath a stretch of busy BNSF tracks and then connect it to Trent Avenue with a new roundabout near the Spokane River.

The reasons for the project are many, Jackson said last week, during a public meeting about the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s draft 2022-25 Transportation Improvement Program, or TIP, which includes planned regional projects that have received federal funding or are regionally significant.

There’s congestion caused by trains passing at street level, which Jackson said leads to around four hours each day when gates are down and traffic can’t cross.

There’s the inefficient convergence of Pines and Trent, where 35,000 vehicles pass through on an average day and where a new roundabout would be designed to improve traffic flow.

There’s access to a nearby elementary school, Mirabeau Park and the Centennial Trail that would be improved.

There’s also the potential long-term economic impact of the project, which Jackson pegged at about $102 million, largely due to the potential for an improved crossing and intersection to open up new development in the area.

The city has already secured almost $10 million in funding preliminary engineering and right of way.

But as Spokane Valley seeks another almost $20 million for construction, Jackson said it will be important to highlight the project’s social and environmental benefits.

While those aspects of the Pines Road project haven’t “been recognized in previous administrations,” Jackson said at last week’s meeting, “for the current administration at the federal level, they have an emphasis on equity and environmental and social justice at this time. So this project is in the location of disadvantaged communities with respect to age, physical ability, income and race, with minority populations.

“So what we’re trying to do is lessen that impact,” Jackson continued. “There’s currently no pedestrian facilities crossing the train tracks. This project would provide a shared-use path.”

The Pines project would also, through a partnership with Avista Corp., add a trailhead, restrooms and an electric vehicle charging station just east of the proposed roundabout.

Jackson’s emphasis on such RAISE-friendly elements isn’t a coincidence.

Nor is he alone among planners who see the potential in a pot of money that includes $1 billion for the 2021 fiscal year alone.

The Washington State Department of Transportation recently applied for a $1.3 million RAISE grant to study the feasibility and design of a land bridge over Interstate 90 to repair some of the damage that highway project caused when the freeway split the historically redlined neighborhood more or less down the middle.

The renaming – and reorienting – of the BUILD grant program isn’t the only change at the federal level that could change the calculus for local, state and regional planners.

There’s also $1 trillion sitting in political purgatory in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. House of Representatives is deliberating about whether to pass a bipartisan Senate package that would invest $110 billion in transportation programs.

Kylee Jones, an SRTC planner who is leading the agency’s effort to draft the 2022-25 Transportation Improvement Program, said she expects regional priorities to reflect the federal government’s new funding goals.

“I think with this administration (of President Biden) there are some new federal emphasis areas like addressing equity, climate change and sustainability,” Jones said.

“So I think we anticipate increasing our planning around those areas, and we could expect to be competitive for new funding that might come up. And we want to be sure that we’re positioned well for the region and planning for those kinds of things and emphasizing those kinds of things at our level.”

She also suggested there’s room for more projects in the four-year Transportation Improvement Program planning process that’s currently underway.

While 85 projects are already on the list, Jones said most of those are slated for 2022 and 2023, leaving the next two years open for some additions.

As it stands now, the vast majority of the 2022-25 TIP is devoted to one project: the North Spokane Corridor.

That new highway connecting I-90 to north Spokane along the east side of the city is halfway done and slated for completion in 2029.

Meantime, the NSC is slated to account for 73% of the cost of the county’s Transportation Improvement Program over the next four years.

In dollars, the NSC’s cost over that period is just under $542 million, with about $35 million slated to pay for the Children of the Sun trail that will run alongside the new highway.

The total TIP amount is $743 million.

As it stands now, just 1% of that money is for bicycle and pedestrian projects, not including the Children of the Sun Trial.

About 11% of the money is for public transit.

While those numbers suggest priorities in Spokane County remain tilted heavily in favor of road projects – and toward the NSC, in particular – there are signs that those priorities have already begun to shift.

When SRTC updated the TIP last year for 2021 through 2024, it included $6.7 million for bike and pedestrian projects.

This time that amount has almost doubled, to $10.7 million.

Transit funding, too, is up sharply after just one year, from $52 million to $75 million.

While the NSC still accounts for the vast majority of money spent on projects in the 2022-2025 Transportation Improvement Program, Jones said investment in bike, pedestrian, transit and road-preservation projects is increasing.

“And I think we can see a trend in that direction in the future,” she said.

West Central greenway meeting

The city of Spokane is considering two options for a new bike-friendly greenway through West Central, and will host a meeting Monday at 4 p.m. about what’s on the table.

To take part, visit my.spokanecity.org/projects/chestnut-elm-neighborhood-greenway-study/.

Illinois bikeway meeting

The city will also host a meeting this week about its plans for protected bike lines and other improvements along Illinois Avenue.

To take part, visit my.spokanecity.org/projects/illinois-avenue-bikeway-design-options/. The meeting begins at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

More Geiger work

Work began last week on the second phase of construction on the third and final roundabout at the Geiger/Grove intersection just north of Interstate 90.

The work, which is part of the I-90 Geiger interchange improvements project, will impact travel eastbound on Geiger Boulevard across Grove/Flightline Boulevard. Travelers will still have access southbound on Grove Road over I-90, along with west access to Geiger Boulevard.

Detours for drivers needing access to areas east of Grove Road along Geiger Boulevard should use I-90 to US 2, the Sunset Highway and Lewis Street to access areas around the closure.

Staging of construction will change as work progresses throughout the month of September and October, when completion of the roundabout is expected.

Other work to watch for

Belt Street will be closed from Boone Avenue to Maxwell Avenue starting Monday as part of a $1 million project to repave arterial streets and make drainage and sidewalk improvements.

Napa Street north of Mission Avenue will be closed to through traffic for City Line work beginning this week.

Starting Monday, crews will begin repairing the Maple Street Bridge, which will cause rotating lane closures.

Crack sealing will be underway this week at the following locations: Grand Boulevard, from 14th to 22nd Avenue; Hamilton Street, from Trent to Indiana Avenue; and Indiana Avenue, from Division to Perry Street.

Euclid Avenue is reduced to one lane in each direction between Market and Freya Street for NSC work.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the North Spokane Corridor is not slated to receive any federal funding during the period that is covered in the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s 2022-2025 Transportation Improvement Program. It has also been updated to reflect that the TIP includes both projects that receive such federal funding and projects of regional significance. 

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