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Paving Over Planning 

by Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & C & lt;/span & itizens on the South Hill are outraged and dismayed by the city's traffic engineers, who, now flush with money the voters gave them in expectation of getting potholes fixed, are moving ahead with plans to destroy streetscapes through what amounts to an urban deforestation project. Word that Mayor Dennis Hession has decided to save "up to six trees" on Bernard -- where the assault is to commence -- is good news, but misses the bigger issue; that is, the strategic and principled application of the Comprehensive Plan throughout the city. His reluctance to break ranks with his traffic engineers mystifies especially his supporters. Choosing pavement over trees is symbolic of a greater worldview, and symbols should matter to Hession -- especially this early in his tenure.


At the same time, folks who live off Bigelow Gulch Road are stunned to learn that Spokane County traffic engineers are using a "safety problem" as an excuse to reroute, surreptitiously, the north-south freeway. Instead of coming down from Hillyard to I-90, it would turn east at Francis and absorb the Bigelow Gulch route, eventually ending at Sullivan where it would turn south again to I-90. All the while, of course, the politically charged term "north-south freeway" will never have to be mentioned, nor the rerouting debated, because, officially, the traffic engineers would only be addressing that "safety problem." A few years back, the engineers had proposed to remedy the problem by the simple addition of a turn lane and wider shoulders. Apparently this idea made too much sense.


And speaking of flying under the radar, I bet that the good citizens who live in the Whitworth/Waikiki area don't know that these same county traffic engineers have in mind using the right of way near the wide power line route that runs through their neighborhood to construct the westerly continuation of the north-south freeway, which, because of Bigelow Gulch, will be summarily transformed into a semi-beltway. Today a slice of bucolic Americana; tomorrow a freeway will run through it.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f you look out beyond Spokane, experiments conducted in Portland prove that almost all city streets are much wider than they need to be. And we already know this, or should. Take our own North Wall Street, for example. Designated as a minor arterial that's supposed to be 40 feet wide, it has effectively carried 10,000 cars a day for years -- yet it's only 30 feet wide!


So why all the unnecessarily wide roads? Simple. Engineers, who never saw a road that was wide enough, are supported by suburban land development interests who want more "flow." Flow is another word for getting residents of far-flung housing developments down to the freeway as quickly as possible, neighborhoods be damned. And not to worry: Annoying laws such as the Growth Management Act or the Comprehensive Plan don't seem to apply when our traffic engineers are on the job. Think skids and greasing.


Elected "leadership," when urged to clamp down on out-of-control bureaucrats, points to the gobs of money that their busy beavers bring into government's coffers. Such praise makes about as much sense as complimenting a person for managing to get wet by diving into a fast-moving river.


From the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., down to the local level, we have here a lavishly funded bureaucratic cabal dedicated to one thing: spending gobs of money building roads, the wider and straighter the better.


The cabal lets the engineers in on what amounts to a scam that gives them what all lesser politicians want -- the appearance of free cash. Thus engineers usually get their way, which is what HQ back in D.C. wants -- more and faster flow, which, as we have come to understand, always results in the destruction of neighborhoods, downtowns and even entire communities, while encouraging expensive sprawl. Congress created this cabal when it passed the Highway Trust Fund act back in the 1950s. Instead of your tax dollars going to support the development of "transportation," money from this source could go only to build and repair roads. Thus America has such a cheesy rail system and such ugly and expensive sprawl.


The Growth Management Act was passed to give the public relief from this cabal through the creation of local comprehensive plans, which were to provide communities with important political, aesthetic and moral texture. Counterattacking, the engineers have sought to marginalize the political process by falling back on their built-in autonomy to contrive a kind of bureaucratic shell game: unelected bureaucrats, with impunity, using safety as an excuse to construct a freeway; unelected bureaucrats using a pothole problem as an excuse to destroy streetscape by unilaterally cutting down all the trees; unelected bureaucrats unilaterally plotting to build a freeway next to a college and through one of more attractive neighborhoods in the area.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & E & lt;/span & lected leadership, if it had the will, could rid us of this bureaucratic scam, if not the road-building cabal; but, alas, most often the people who can say "No" simply cower in the background.


To keep the scam working, citizens are encouraged to spend time planning, writing and passing into law something like the comprehensive plan. But it's a cynical way to maintain a fa & ccedil;ade of actual planning when in fact it's kept in a state of perpetual irrelevance. These bogus planning efforts serve nicely as a kind of civic narcotic to keep the natives (that's us) from getting restless.


Thus abandoned, citizens are forced to rely on the courts, which only underscores how the engineers have managed to marginalize the political process. Somehow it has come to this: The only way to enforce laws like growth management and comprehensive plans is to get a judge to remind our public officials that they were elected for that very reason.
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