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

Getting There: Sprague Avenue project clears final hurdle despite objections

Sprague Avenue will look a little different this fall – to the benefit of the region’s water supply, but at the angst of some local commuters.

A new signalized crosswalk, bike lane, stormwater swales and a raised Spokane Transit Authority bus stop will be added to a half-mile stretch of Sprague Avenue this summer, as part of a project years in the making that will reduce the number of lanes on the thoroughfare from five to three.

Earlier this month, the Spokane Valley City Council awarded the project to Spokane-based contractor Halme Construction in a 5-1 vote for a total of $3 million. Councilwoman Jessica Yaeger was excused from the meeting for a trip and did not vote. 

Councilman Al Merkel was the lone dissenter. His vote, and statements made by Spokane Valley residents during council meetings over the past few months, has illustrated disagreements in how the project has been referred, how effective the project will be in meeting its stated goal of protecting the aquifer and whether it is a fiscally responsible move by the city.

“My concerns are with every dimension of this project,” said Merkel, who’s made those concerns known at almost every council meeting for the past few months.

Merkel believes the project never should have gotten to this point. The pavement in that section is in relatively good condition, according to the city data, and Merkel said it shouldn’t be torn up for a stormwater improvement project that he thinks will have no noticeable effect on the aquifer.

He said he has voiced his litany of concerns on behalf of residents, citing a city survey conducted in 2022 in which 63% of roughly 300 respondents said they opposed the project.

“I don’t know what this is for,” Merkel said. “And I don’t know who it serves.”

Mayor Pam Haley responded to some of those concerns at an April council meeting, reading from a prepared statement in which she called on her fellow council members to respect past decisions made by former iterations of the council, and to share factual information about the project.

Haley said the council agreed to move forward with the project after a trial period in 2022 due to the many benefits of the project. Since it was first considered in 2014, the project has always been a stormwater facilities improvement effort aimed at protecting the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the source of the region’s water supply.

“While the aquifer is out of sight, it shouldn’t be out of mind,” Haley said. “It provides a precious, invaluable resource that we must preserve for future generations.”

The scope of the project changed in recent years to include multimodal improvements, Haley said, due in part to grants the city has received to add things like a signalized crosswalk.

Haley stressed the project is relatively small in scope at three city blocks, from University Road to the east to Herald Road to the west, but will have considerable benefits to the region’s water supply without causing traffic to back up. A city study found that even with three lanes, the road could easily handle traffic volumes on any given day.

“Sprague Avenue currently uses only 20% of it’s capacity,” Haley said.

At present, stormwater that runs off Sprague collects in underground dry wells where it then seeps directly into the aquifer unfiltered, meaning copper and zinc from particles of tires and brakes can seep into the aquifer. Other potential pollutants for that section of Sprague include oils, phosphorus and nitrates from fertilizers, said Doug Howie, senior stormwater engineer for the Department of Ecology.

“Essentially, water goes into the catch basin at the edge of the pavement and goes straight into the ground,” Howie said. “No treatment, no delay, no nothing.”

Howie’s state department has pitched in around $64,000 to help the city replace the outdated well system with grassy swales on either side of the road, which are proven to be effective in filtering out those pollutants.

The city is willing to contribute as much as $1,876,000 set aside for stormwater improvement projects, but that figure may change depending on final costs. Simply adding the swales over the outer two lanes of Sprague allows the city to complete that work without needing to purchase any additional land or disrupt existing utilities, Haley said.

Projects like the Sprague Avenue work in the Valley, and similar ones across the state, is where a vast majority of the department’s funding goes every year, said Adriane Borgias, water quality manager for Ecology’s Eastern Region. Ecology receives funding from the state legislature, and federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, and disperses it to local jurisdictions through grants.

“This is just a good example of how money gets used to benefit water quality,” Borgias said. “In the Spokane area, obviously, the groundwater is the thing we want to protect because of the aquifer.”

Howie said he could not speculate on whether the switch to swales on a small section of Sprague will greatly improve water quality but stressed filtration is something that absolutely needs to be done.

“We also look at the cumulative impact of small changes over time,” Borgias said, noting that Spokane Valley has completed similar projects in recent years. “So where we have the opportunity to make those changes, we will invest. Because we know, over time, that’s going to make a difference.”

Spokane Valley resident Mike Dolan, a persistent attendee of council meetings who’s been very vocal of his disagreement with the project, believes the benefits to the aquifer will not be substantial.

He points to the project’s location, between City Hall and Balfour Park, as evidence that the project is not about the aquifer.

“It’s just something the City Council is doing to glorify themselves, and make their City Hall, park, city center thing a reality,” Dolan said.

The city is in the process of turning the once-empty 5-acre lot next to Balfour Park into an expansive recreation area, complete with basketball courts, a splash pad and an outdoor amphitheater for concerts and community gatherings.

Spokane Valley has long lacked a true downtown or city center, but once Sprague and Balfour are both completed, visitors to the area will be able to go back and forth between City Hall, the park, a new STA stop, the recently opened Spokane Valley Library and the Appleway Trail via the signalized crosswalk.

“We just built this park; we want to use it. We want it to be an attraction for families,” Councilwoman Jessica Yaeger has said of the project’s compounding benefits.

Dolan agrees with Merkel that the project should be halted, but after the contract was awarded earlier this month, that’s unlikely to occur.

Yaeger said she had some reservations about the project, but there are bigger challenges facing the city that deserve the council’s attention.

“There is a reason the rear view mirror is much smaller than the windshield,” Yaeger said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 20, 2024, to correct a vote count from the Spokane Valley City Council.