by Jerry C. Lenzi
In light of the recent commentary written by Robert Herold in The Inlander regarding the Washington State Department of Transportation's plans concerning the widening of Interstate 90, we would like to take this opportunity to provide readers the facts surrounding the project.
As the Spokane metropolitan area has grown over the last half-century, the transportation system has not kept up. The Spokane area has languished behind other cities in developing its transportation infrastructure. Studies as far back as 1946 have shown a need for and recommended the development of a multi-lane, high-speed, north/south transportation facility in Spokane.
Spokane has only Interstate 90 as a free-flowing, east/west route. North/south traffic must slog its way through one of a dozen or so surface streets, through neighborhoods, school zones and commercial areas to get through the city. Slow traffic, a high incidence of collisions and concerns with bicyclist and pedestrian safety are a daily occurrence.
And traffic is increasing, year after year. Traffic in Spokane County has grown by 27 percent in the last 10 years alone, with a 38 percent increase within the urban area.
Spokane County and the surrounding area cannot afford to ignore the growing transportation problem and inevitable economic repercussions. The North Spokane Corridor provides a sorely needed thoroughfare for transporting goods and people in this area.
In order to complete the transportation network, a "collector distributor" (on/off ramp) system will be used to link the new North Spokane Corridor to Interstate 90. This system entails the construction of new lanes to separate on and off traffic from Interstate 90 between the Liberty Park/Hamilton interchange and the Sprague Avenue interchange, thereby ensuring safer traffic operations. Currently, I-90 traverses this area with 10 lanes, including the existing Second and Third Avenues as a "pseudo" collector/distributor to accommodate on and off traffic. The reconfigured freeway and collector/distributor would use the same corridor that has been in place since the mid-1950s and adds only two additional through lanes in each direction. Of course, there would be new on and off ramps added for the actual connections to the new North/South Freeway.
Currently, I-90 carries approximately 105,000 vehicles daily. Upon completion of the North Spokane Corridor, which is being designed to handle about 150,000 vehicles daily, Interstate 90 will carry approximately 140,000 vehicles per day. This amount of traffic, with two major freeways coming together, requires a sophisticated design that ensures safe vehicle merging between the two highways and efficient movement of traffic on the through lanes.
The need for this system is not the result of questionable research and analysis. Dubbing the connection of the North Spokane Corridor with I-90 "Lincoln Street Bridge II" is not only unreasonable, but reflects a lack of understanding of the different transportation corridors and needs to be served. As part of an extensive evaluation examining the effects of the North Spokane Corridor project, the need for an extensive multilevel interchange to handle the intersection of two major freeway facilities is well documented. The Federal Highway Administration approved the design in 1997 after nearly a decade of studies, over 130 public meetings and a formal hearing process.
The Spokane City Council, as well as Mayor John Powers, has given continued support for the project. Pursuing meaningful public input on the project has been a goal since early on. The East Central neighborhood has been a part of this input process and the characterization that they have been "drowned out" is simply wrong. Through public input, project engineers have made changes and continue to pursue additional design modifications.
At this stage of the design process, the WSDOT is making refinements in the I-90 collector/distributor lane configuration, as well as similar adjustments to the North Spokane Corridor. Simply neglecting to design and provide the adequate infrastructure will not work. As a case in point, consider the congestion in central Puget Sound, now rated second-worst in the nation.
Mr. Herold also seems to have problems with the engineering profession. He seems to find fault with the concept of modeling future traffic needs. Why is it that the present freeway, built in the mid-1950s and 1960s, is experiencing traffic slowdowns in the Spokane Valley? If the traffic engineers of the 1950s had the traffic modeling computer software available today, perhaps they would have built a larger route.
On the structural side, engineering is a science. Engineers build structures to withstand years of wear and tear as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes. Look to recent events, such as the earthquakes in the Seattle area and here in Spokane. In the Puget Sound area, although some damage was reported, none of the roadway bridges collapsed. No lives were lost. Here in Spokane, there was no damage to any bridge structures as a result of our local temblors.
Engineers have the "fun" job of producing structurally sound, functional and cost-efficient facilities to serve the public needs. Engineers must go through numerous processes to justify decisions regarding environmental impacts and have continuously worked with neighborhood groups to gather public input.
Concern for the East Central neighborhood has not been overlooked. The agency has no plans for the neighborhood's primary landscape to be concrete, or have the sounds of passing traffic to dominate the vicinity. Landscaping and brickwork plus noise mitigation are included in planning.
An ever further stretch of the imagination in Herold's commentary is calling forth images associated with other projects across the U.S., which dwarf the North Spokane Corridor and its connector/distributor project plans. For example, he mentions the "Big Dig" project on I-90 in Boston. That project covers a 7.75-mile stretch of roadway and presently has a cost of $14.475 billion, with costs expected to rise even further.
The WSDOT has no plans in the foreseeable future to tunnel Interstate 90 through downtown Spokane or create a double-decker freeway, although the WSDOT will need to analyze the future capacity needs and interchange configuration for that section. As daily traffic numbers continue to grow, Interstate 90 between the Hamilton interchange and Latah Creek Bridge is expected to reach its full capacity in 20 years. A study will hopefully will be funded and get underway soon to determine the best solution to resolve this issue. Also, there are no plans to continue the freeway up the South Hill.
In looking at options in solving the big picture of Spokane's transportation problem, Mr. Herold envisioned a roadway similar to Mercer Island's Lid, hoping that it would be ideal for downtown Spokane in being both functional and aesthetically pleasing. In the same article, however, he alluded to the fact that such construction could be difficult and cost-prohibitive to build due to Spokane's basalt rock geology. He's right. When it was completed in 1993, at a cost of nearly $1.6 billion, the two-mile section of Interstate 90 on Mercer Island was the most expensive stretch of Interstate freeway, per mile, ever created.
There is very limited funding for building the network needed to best solve Spokane's transportation plight. The WSDOT, however, in conjunction with the City of Spokane, Spokane County and area citizens are working together to address the region's transportation challenges.
Jerry Lenzi is the eastern regional administrator for the Washington Department of Transportation.