Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Pedestrian underpass will link East Valley schools when Bigelow Gulch is finished

There’s a lot going on just beyond the chain-link fence of East Valley High School’s tennis courts.

Crews working for Spokane County, the city of Spokane Valley and the school district this month began a project that will revamp the area between East Valley middle and high schools, including new playfields and utility lines and providing the eastern terminus of a road project that’s been in the works since before most of the students thwacking tennis balls Friday morning were born.

“I think you will not recognize the area, in a good way,” said Chad Coles, Spokane County public works director. 

The spring season proved perfect timing for projects that include putting in a traffic signal at Sullivan Road and Wellesley Avenue, the construction of several new softball and baseball fields, as well as a practice football facility for East Valley’s secondary schools, and the next phase of the Bigelow Gulch corridor construction.

That last road extension, which will bring a four-lane highway with a turning pocket to the section of road from Progress Road down to Wellesley, will include an underground pedestrian pathway, allowing students from East Valley High to reach the ballfields without crossing lanes of traffic.

“When we have sports going on, we have a significant number of kids crossing the road,” said Neale Rasmussen, fiscal director and budget manager for the East Valley School District. “There’s not a lot of traffic right now, so it’s not a big deal. But when a new road comes in, it was a safety concern for us.”

Construction will also improve safety for Spokane County drivers, including heavy industrial trucks, said Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns.

“The biggest benefit that I see is the safety aspect,” Kerns said. “I mean, there’s definitely the freight and the mobility, the economic impacts that are going to happen. But the safety is the big one for me.”

Coles said the county estimates, when the project is complete, it will shave 15 minutes off the commute from the road’s western terminus at Havana Street to Sullivan in Spokane Valley, and vice versa.

The money for each portion of the work is coming from a variety of sources, with the county using its own money along with grants from the Washington Department of Transportation, the Washington State Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board and the Transportation Improvement Board for $11.8 million worth of improvements. Spokane Valley is also contributing funding, partially from a federal grant intending to improve traffic congestion and air quality.

“The county’s managing it, but we’re definitely working together on it,” said Spokane Valley Mayor Pam Haley. “It’s been a great partnership.”

The project is just another leg of road construction that first came under discussion in the 1990s, Coles said. He won’t be on the job to see the end of the entire Bigelow Gulch rebuild, with planned retirement at the end of June. But his presence in various levels of the county’s Engineering Department throughout construction offer a unique perspective as you drive along the finished portions of the 8.2-mile rural highway.

As Coles drives over a completed section of road – west of Argonne Road to where the highway will hook up with the final piece of throughway to be completed that will straighten the winding curves through farmland and forests due north from Beacon Hill – he points out the former road grades that gave the highway its up-and-down, rollercoaster-type feel.

“This was the roly-poly thing. You have to pay attention to see, there, that was a huge dip,” he said, motioning toward a sharp incline off the shoulder.

Crews have been using dirt excavated in other areas to provide filler for future sections of the road, and that includes the pedestrian underpass planned near the East Valley schools, said Brandi Colyar, capital projects manager for the county.

“We had some surplus material from the other projects that was moved down here for the elevated section, so that we don’t have to necessarily bring material in, or waste material,” she said.

Completed sections of the highway have already yielded safety dividends, Kerns said. The completion of an interchange where Bigelow Gulch veers south at Forker Road replaced a stop-sign-controlled intersection with left-turning traffic that was a hot spot for collisions.

“When you look at our computer program that puts the dots where there’s an accident, or a fatality, those are gone now,” Kerns said. “And that’s because that intersection has been completely revamped.”

Having construction trucks and graders near school grounds has caused some interruption to activities, said East Valley High School Principal Matt Stevens, but the work should be worth it in the end.

“It’s been so far planned in advance, the work with the city and the county, and the planning and the meetings we’ve had, we understand what’s going to happen,” Stevens said. “A little bit of pain in the process of construction is worth it. I think it’s going to work well.”

The construction will also take traffic off Progress Road in front of East Valley Middle School. Traffic headed east on the existing Bigelow Gulch corridor had rendered the crosswalks outside the school practically useless during rush hour, Rasmussen said, and left-hand turns out of the school were also impossible for staff and parents.

“Our middle school staff is just thrilled,” he said.

Construction on this phase of the Bigelow Gulch project is scheduled for completion this fall, Colyar said.

Work to watch for

Shoulder closures will continue as the city of Spokane carves wheelchair-accessible curb ramps near the Garland district.

From Monday through Friday, the eastbound and westbound shoulders at the intersections of Garland Avenue and Walnut, Cedar, Hawthorne, Jefferson, Adams and Madison streets will be closed for this work.

The westbound shoulder of 14th Avenue at Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe streets will also be closed this week.

Traffic through the Thor/Freya couplet, in the midst of a reconstruction project, will also see a route change this week. Thor Street between Sprague and Hartson avenues will be closed beginning Monday, with two-way traffic detoured instead to Freya Street. Westbound traffic on Fifth Avenue will be reduced to one lane, and eastbound traffic will be rerouted to Third Avenue.

Construction is progressing around the new downtown branch of the Spokane Library. Southbound Lincoln Street between Spokane Falls Boulevard and Main Avenue is back open for the first time in several years.

In Spokane County, Belle Terre Avenue from Sullivan to Evergreen Roads has closed for improvements including pavement, a cement-treated base and stormwater upgrades. Detours are in place and motorists should watch for flaggers.