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Near Freeway, Near Perfect 

by Chase Davis & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & onsistent with the Spokane motto "Near nature, near perfect," the Spokane Comprehensive Plan set a course for reducing traffic and increasing livability. For the traffic engineers and county commissioners who missed the memo: Sprawl and wasting energy are out, and urban revitalization is in. But the Washington State Department of Transportation seems intent on working for the opposite. In "Plans Unchanged" (The Inlander, 3/16/06), WSDOT made claims about the North-South Freeway (NSF) project that are dubious at best.


WSDOT stated the freeway would be "a benefit to the community as a whole." Here are some of those benefits:


& lt;ul & & lt;li & Sprawl: Study after study has shown that commuter freeways induce sprawl. Strip malls come and go, but when green space and prime farmland go to sprawl, they go away forever. Just because it seemed to be a good idea to build a freeway some 60 years ago does not make it so today. & lt;/li & & lt;li & Pollution: WSDOT's claims that the new freeway will reduce pollution are wholly unrealistic. It's a simple formula: more roads equal more traffic, more traffic means more fossil fuel burned and more road dust. That's pollution. & lt;/li & & lt;li & 4Destroyed neighborhoods: Most people don't need a WSDOT traffic and social impact study to know it's not nice to have a freeway put in your front yard. & lt;/li & & lt;li & Loss of urban housing: More than 500 homes will be destroyed and taken off the tax rolls forever. & lt;/li & & lt;li & Loss of local business: An estimated 1,000 businesses will have to relocate or close to make way for the bulldozers and pavement. Other businesses located on current north-south routes will fail as a result of getting bypassed by the rerouted commuter traffic. & lt;/li & & lt;li & Concrete: The plan calls for extensive widening of I-90 where the two freeways meet to a whopping total of 18 (yes, 18!) lanes at Altamont Street. & lt;/li & & lt;li & Traffic congestion: The increased traffic congestion anticipated at downtown exits is why the WSDOT is planning (with a budget not included in the NSF budget) to double either the width or the height of I-90 through downtown Spokane, resulting in huge losses in commercial property. (You can kiss all of Third and Fourth Avenues goodbye in the downtown area.) Pedestrians and downtown business owners, beware. & lt;/li & & lt;/ul &


Further, WSDOT's claim that the majority of Spokane residents support the NSF is disingenuous. Would the same majority of residents support the project if they knew how much it would cost them in taxes? Would they support it if they knew the serious implications for downtown and established residential neighborhoods?





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n 2003, a nickel gas tax increase provided $189 million for the NSF. The 10 cents-per-gallon tax increase from 2005 provided another $152 million, leaving a staggering $1.86 billion shortfall yet to be funded. At this rate, citizens would have to approve 80 cents more per gallon in gasoline taxes to fill the hole. Is this really the direction we want to go when crude oil is at record high prices? Moreover, only a few months ago, the project estimate was $1.4 billion -- which means that after barely starting, it's already $800 million over budget, and the citizens will be asked to pay the bill. Where is the accountability and critical oversight to make sure our tax dollars are being utilized to truly benefit the community?


Publicly funded projects are not necessarily bad. Unfortunately, the NSF project is the urban planning equivalent of the mullet hairstyle -- attractive only to those whose thinking is stalled decades in the past. But is the damage to neighborhoods, homes, businesses, open spaces and downtown really worth $210 million per freeway mile? Here are a few examples of other projects that could be done for the same amount of money:


& lt;ul & & lt;li & Seven high-speed rail commuter transit systems running from Liberty Lake to downtown Spokane ($300 million each). & lt;/li & & lt;li & 27 Spokane Convention Center expansions ($80 million each). & lt;/li & & lt;li & 110 modern aquatic centers to replace aging Spokane pools ($20 million each). & lt;/li & & lt;li & 1,467 fountain and spray pads for kids to play in the summer, replacing the closed wading pools ($1.5 million each). & lt;/li & & lt;/ul &





You can pay for and complete just about any project you ever had on your wish list with this freeway budget -- city park upgrades; university, college, and school district upgrades; projects benefiting the poor, underserved, hungry, homeless, disadvantaged or mentally ill; energy and water conservation, cleaning up the river, protections for our aquifer, Centennial Trail projects, economic development and job creation projects; and maybe even patch some potholes. With this kind of money, we could build new and upgraded railway infrastructure and service for the greater region in order to move more goods efficiently.


Let this be a challenge to the WSDOT and our elected officials to fully disclose -- clearly, transparently and publicly -- the entire plan for the NSF, its anticipated impacts, and the enormous expanse of concrete at the I-90 interchange. The WSDOT and our elected officials need to show some vision for the health and safety of our communities, and to build something innovative that will allow our city to grow, keep it livable, and provide transportation utilizing 21st-century knowledge and technologies. Let's please learn from the mistakes of other cities that built freeways and now regret it. It's not too late to do the right thing.





Chase Davis is the Inland Northwest regional representative for the Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

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