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

Getting There: Neighbors warn of ‘Altamont speedway’ as Spokane prepares for traffic study on road affected by Thor/Freya work

Cars speed around the corners in the Alamont neighborhood where East North Altamont Boulevard and South Altamont Street come together at the top of the Altamont hill.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Josh Yandell walked to the end of his driveway in the Altamont neighborhood on a recent Wednesday morning and gestured to the stretch of wide, snow-blanketed road he refers to as the “11th Avenue Speedway.”

“I don’t want to walk my dog on this road,” said Yandell, who’s lived on the street for nearly 10 years. He paused intermittently to gauge the speed of oncoming traffic on the residential road just above Underhill Park where the speed limit is 25 mph. “I don’t let my kids on it. I used to be able to.”

Yandell is one voice among many who say they’ve spent the past several years lobbying City Hall to slow down speeders before tragedy strikes. The city has responded with data that neighbors reject as incomplete or inaccurate, after offering neighbors the chance to address those problems at public meetings. Lawmakers acknowledge that the process prioritizing work to calm traffic has left the concerned residents with no good answers.

“They feel like the system is not working for them,” said City Council President Breean Beggs, who pushed for a $50,000 traffic study along the road as part of this year’s funding commitment for traffic-calming projects. The study was included as part of a slate of road projects coming in 2023 approved by the council in April.

Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the city’s Public Works division, said intersections along the road were up for discussion at an open house last fall on needed transportation improvements in the area. Those who attended ranked vehicle and pedestrian safety improvements at Woodfern Street and Altamont Boulevard near the bottom.

Davis said it’s up to the neighborhood councils, 29 volunteer-led groups throughout the city that advise lawmakers on issues on their blocks.

The problem only intensified last summer, when prolonged work on the Thor/Freya intersection cut off one of the most popular routes to get up the South Hill on Spokane’s eastern edge. Ryan Kelly, a local resident and contractor, said his count of traffic indicates cars had increased “15-fold” as commuters looked for a way around the roadwork. He’s dubious that the traffic study will solve a problem he’s spent several years trying to address.

“There is no plan. We’ve just got to deal with this another year,” Kelly said.

Each end of Altamont presents a problem, said Patrick McKann. The street is part of a traffic circle that dates back to the early 20th century, when the area at the top of a basalt bluff now overlooking Underhill Park was incorporated into the city.

“It’s just a big, nice, wide, flat street. It needs limitations,” McKann said.

Outside his front door, traffic turns off of South Altamont Street, which crawls up the bluff beneath a bridge supporting the Ben Burr Trail, onto North Altamont Boulevard, which carries traffic east and west to Ray Street. Midway between South Altamont and Ray, traffic headed east veers off onto what becomes 11th Avenue, a wide stretch of downhill road that has Yandell forbidding his daughter from walking across the street to visit a friend because of speeders. McKann also doesn’t allow his daughter to walk to her aunt’s house, just a quarter mile up the road, for fear of speeding traffic at Altamont and Woodfern.

The turn from North to South Altamont requires drivers to veer out at a difficult angle into oncoming traffic. It also makes leaving your driveway an adventure, admitted City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who lives near the intersection.

“Sometimes it takes five to eight minutes to get out of my own driveway,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said neighbors should have a specific plan when coming to city lawmakers with demands to slow traffic. If there are too many ideas, she said, it’s difficult for the city to allocate money for just one proposed fix.

“They think they’re being ignored, but they’re not,” Wilkerson said.

Davis acknowledged the particular demands of the road, noting there were different “pain points” for travelers and pedestrians.

McKann said more stop signs would slow traffic if they were placed at intersections along the road. Yandell said he thought speed indicators that show motorists how fast they’re traveling would work, as long as they’re properly located. The city installed them at the top of the hill west of his home, but cars don’t hit top speed until they’re right on his doorstep, Yandell said.

“Even when they’ve done it, they put it in the wrong spots where people are naturally going slower,” Yandell said.

Signs are placed based on the recommendations of the neighborhood councils, Davis said. For two weeks in September, it captured traffic at Ninth Avenue and Altamont, just west of the drastic left-turn intersection that worries McKann. The average speed was actually 5 mph below the posted 25 mph speed limit there, but neighbors said they were more concerned with speeds farther east.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who represents the neighborhood, said the upcoming traffic study should provide a baseline that will enable the city to develop a plan, backed by data, to address the speeding issues. She pointed to the Thor/Freya work as a short-term problem that should subside after city crews complete work on intersections along the road this year.

“A lot of that is going to abate,” she said. “We could put in stop signs, but people just blow through stop signs, too.”

Kinnear also said Altamont isn’t the only location on the South Hill where neighbors are concerned about speeding. Increasing growth on the edges of town, including denser housing on the upper South Hill, has led to more traffic on the roads.

“Bernard and High Drive are becoming freeways,” she said.

But for McKann, Yandell and Kelly, as well as others along the street, that reality suggests there should be even more localized representation on neighborhood councils making recommendations to lawmakers about what work to fund. The area is part of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, which also elected to throw its support behind safer crosswalk improvements on 29th Avenue near the Rosauers grocery store after the death of an 80-year-old man struck while crossing the street in November 2018.

McKann said it’s disheartening to advocate for a solution in competition with neighbors, only to see City Hall shoot down options they’ve proposed in concert with students at Gonzaga University, as well as through discussions with a former engineer in the Streets Department. When he asked city officials via email if there might be a possibility to set up a speed camera at the intersection near his or Yandell’s house, based on the proximity of the Ben Burr trail and state laws permitting such cameras, that idea, also, was denied.

“They’re not responsive,” he said. “When they do respond, they shoot each idea down.”

Work to watch for

Same lane closures on Thor and Freya streets will take place this week. Alternating lanes will close on Freya between Fourth and Third avenues on Monday. Alternating lanes of Thor will close between Pacific and Second avenues on Thursday.

There will be lane closures on Main Avenue between Lincoln and Main streets downtown on Saturday.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Annual Unity Rally and March will close Bernard and Washington streets between Riverside and Spokane Falls Boulevard from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Monday. Spokane Falls Boulevard, Main and Riverside avenues between Washington and Bernard streets will also be closed during this time.