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Put on the Brakes 

by John Covert & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ver the past decade, cities all across the country have recognized that freeways routed through the heart of their urban centers have extracted a terrible toll on the livability and sustainability of their communities. Cities like Boston, Fort Worth, Hartford, New York, Oakland, Pittsburgh and San Francisco are relocating -- and in some cases removing -- downtown freeways constructed since the 1950s.


Ignoring this trend to consider the impact of the integration of highways into the communities they serve, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is aggressively pursuing funding for their North Spokane Corridor Project (NSC).


Despite the fact that WSDOT likes to say that this project has been a "vision for the Spokane area since the 1940s," it turns out that it is difficult to justify the need. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation's December 2000 report to the Legislature documents the fact that Spokane's regional traffic congestion index is one-quarter of the national average and less than 14 percent of Puget Sound's traffic congestion problems. The commission established a target: It hopes to get Washington's truly congested cities back down to the national average by the year 2020. Spokane's problems would have to quadruple to get us up to the national average. It is fiscally irresponsible to be funding this project when serious, legitimate problems go unfunded elsewhere in the state.


Every year, the Texas Transportation Institute publishes a nationally recognized "Urban Mobility Report" which ranks traffic congestion in the U.S.'s urban areas. Their 2005 report indicates that Spokane's traffic congestion is increasing at only 20 percent of the national average for similar-sized cities in America. They calculate that traffic congestion region-wide in the metropolitan area costs Spokane drivers one million gallons of excess fuel annually. The current price tag for the NSC is approximately $2.2 billion. Region-wide congestion costs Spokane drivers only $3 million dollars per year in extra fuel costs and WSDOT wants to spend $2.2 billion on one project. At that rate, taxpayers will recoup their investment in a mere 733 years.


When confronted by the facts, WSDOT changes the subject and starts talking about traffic safety on Spokane's arterial streets. According to WSDOT's own Environmental Impact Statement, dozens of intersections that are already displaying failing levels of service will still be clogged with stop-and-go traffic when the project is finished. In fact, three of the most congested intersections in our region (Division/Wellesley, Division/Francis, Mission/Hamilton) will experience more congestion when this project is finished.


WSDOT claims that they have done extensive environmental studies that took over nine years to complete. Unfortunately, these studies failed to address two critical public health issues in any fashion. Two major studies released in early 2000 document the alarming connection between vehicle emissions and cancer in communities adjoining highways. Children may bear the brunt of this public health tragedy. There's a strong association between childhood cancers and vehicle emissions in major highway corridors. The study found that children with leukemia were 12 times more likely to live close to highways than children without leukemia.


WSDOT's environmental studies failed to address these public health issues at all. Yet the NSC project creates 10 miles of freeway where there currently isn't any freeway and triples the freeway traffic lanes in Spokane's East Central Neighborhood. The freeway noise wall will be literally across the street from East Central's Sheridan Elementary School.


The recent studies demonstrate the urgent need for a reassessment of the NSC project, with attention paid to the public health of persons residing or attending school in the corridor of the project. More important, WSDOT must develop mitigation to protect the health of children in the highway corridor.


WSDOT hasn't even begun an analysis of how the NSC project will impact the adjacent Central Business District section of I-90 through downtown Spokane. Today, I-90 in the East Central neighborhood carries six freeway lanes. When the NSC is finished, plans show there would be 18 lanes of traffic near the Altamont exit. Piecemeal planning such as this, proposing to completely reconfigure one section of I-90 before identifying its impacts on the adjacent section, epitomizes poor planning.

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