The Washington State Department of Transportation wants to make sure Spokane city leaders haven’t forgotten the agency’s threat.
It’s been more than three years since WSDOT first warned that, if Spokane didn’t address long-neglected transportation and safety issues along the U.S. Highway 195 corridor, the state agency could block local access to the federal highway and cut off residents living in the city’s semirural southwestern corner.
“In the absence of a temporary moratorium on development and a plan put forth to address it in the very near future, WSDOT will be forced to take safety and traffic control measures to address the safety of our facility,” wrote Mike Gribner, then-regional director for WSDOT, in a 2020 letter to City Council President Breean Beggs.
In particular, Gribner stated that the agency would fill breaks in the highway median that currently allow drivers to make left turns from intersecting roads, such as Hatch, Meadowlane and 16th. Those three intersections have received or are estimated to be performing at an “F” grade level of service, according to WSDOT.
In the time since that letter was sent, residential development, which had for decades outstripped infrastructure investments, was put on ice for six months with a moratorium that ended in March. A study on the corridor has been completed, and 26 priority projects identified. Residents living near the beleaguered highway have built a grassroots campaign to pressure local leaders to slow growth and fast-track street improvements.
It hasn’t been nearly enough, wrote Michael Frucci, WSDOT’s current regional director, in a letter to the Spokane City Council earlier this month. With the moratorium concluded and more development in the area expected, major, systemwide improvements are still needed, and quickly.
“Regardless of the solutions enacted by the City I must underscore the vital importance of constructing the identified improvements before or at least along the construction of the developments,” Frucci wrote.
Frucci reiterated nearly verbatim the warning issued by his predecessor three years ago: If fixes identified in the recent corridor study aren’t forthcoming, the median gaps allowing residents to turn left onto the highway could be closed. The ramp meter leading to I-90 could also be programmed to further restrict the traffic allowed onto the interstate, exacerbating congestion south along the highway.
The state agency also encouraged the city to consider adopting another building moratorium, though city leaders have argued they are not able to do so under state law.
For a corner of Spokane with few ways to access the rest of the city, these changes would not just be inconvenient, said Molly Marshall, a resident of the Grandview/Thorpe neighborhood and member of Citizen Action for Latah Valley.
“How are emergency vehicles going to get to us, or if we need an evacuation in any of these neighborhoods, especially in Eagle Ridge?” Marshall asked. “That would be crazy.”
Under existing conditions, Marshall and her husband already feel like they’re taking their lives into their hands every time they drive to downtown Spokane, they said. If significant traffic is redirected away from U.S. 195 and onto the surrounding roads without major infrastructure improvements, Marshall worries that situation would only get more dangerous.
Not to mention more onerous. She points to the Cascade manufactured home park along 16th Avenue or the Bridlewood development, both east of the highway, where residents would need to drive complicated, circuitous routes in order to take the highway south.
“It’s quite difficult to get out of there without getting on 195,” acknowledged Ryan Overton, a WSDOT Eastern Region spokesman.
It’s not a small number of people who would be affected, either. Of the 22,000 daily trips along the highway between Hatch Road and I-90, around 10,000 come from neighborhoods along the way, Overton noted.
“There’s a significant number that come directly from that area,” he added.
The state agency maintains that today’s issues along the corridor were decades in the making, pointing to a history of growth and traffic issues that stretches back some 40 years, to at least 1981, when the city annexed land in the area. In the early 1990s, WSDOT allowed the city to extend sewer infrastructure in the department’s right of way to boost the possibilities for development. It worked.
By the end of the decade, the Eagle Ridge development was underway and the city was working with WSDOT to form a plan for improving the local roadways to head off future problems. The result was a 1999 study that proposed adding interchanges at Hatch, Meadowlane, Thorpe and Cheney-Spokane roads and building two new frontage roads to take pressure off U.S. 195.
Outside of the Cheney-Spokane interchange, little has been done to build the proposed infrastructure, however.
“After multiple plans and various attempts at building out local infrastructure, that has fallen by the wayside,” said Overton. “Development has continued without necessary infrastructure, and that burden has been put on the state.”
There is no looming deadline for when WSDOT might act to close local access to U.S. 195. Beggs, who has been the recipient now of two ominous letters from the agency, said he doesn’t expect the closures to happen, so long as the city continues cooperating with the state.
After receiving Frucci’s letter, city leaders met with officials from the agency, Beggs said.
“We responded positively, and we had a very collaborative meeting with them,” he continued. “They agreed with us that the top priority is reconnecting Inland Empire Way to the Cheney-Spokane Road overpass and (U.S. Highway) 195.”
Building out Inland Empire Way as an alternative north-south route parallel to U.S. 195 would give drivers options and relieve pressure from the highway, Beggs said, though this wouldn’t be a simple project.
“To be clear, if you reconnect Inland Empire Way, you need to make lots of improvements on that road all the way to downtown, with roundabouts, sidewalks, bike lanes, etc.,” he added. “Otherwise, you’re turning a sleepy residential road into a major arterial.”
That project, as with the others the state is calling for, will require substantial outside help, Beggs added. Recent increases in traffic impact fees on new development won’t be nearly enough to pay for the infrastructure. The state has offered to help identify alternative funds to make up the difference.
“If (the city) approves funding and start working on their infrastructure networks, we will with them on implementation,” Overton said.
“Otherwise, action will be taken to keep (U.S. Highway) 195 safe for the public and to mitigate impacts on I-90.”
Work to watch for
Residential repaving will have workers on Bismark Avenue near G and A streets in Northwest Spokane this week. Crews will move to Augusta Avenue, between Ruby and Astor streets, on May 8, and work will begin at Pacific Park Drive off of Indian Trail on May 8 also.
Crews are working on the Greene Street Bridge near Spokane Community College. Expect lane closures and delays.
Bloomsday is Sunday. Downtown travel will be restricted beginning at 5 a.m. through 2 p.m., though Ash, Maple, Division/Browne and Hamilton will be open all day. The roads along the course will close at 7:30 a.m. and reopen as late as 2 p.m. near the end of the course.
Ruby and Mayfair roads near Farwell will close Wednesday for utility work.
Asphalt overlays will cause lane restrictions on Perry Road from Burk to Half Moon roads on Monday and Tuesday, Andrus Road from Chalet Drive to Jensen Road on Wednesday, Cheney-Spokane Road from Marshall Avenue to Sherman Road on Thursday and Washington Road from Gardner to Short roads beginning Thursday through May 8.