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Why widen I-90? 

by Robert Herold


Imagine, if you will, a stretch of freeway as wide as two football fields set end to end. Such a monster would hold 19 lanes, or, alternatively, 14 lanes plus high-speed access thoroughfares on each side.


Hard to picture, isn't it? Yet this is exactly what our State Department of Transportation and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council have in mind for Spokane. I refer to the stretch of I-90 extending from the East Central area through downtown to the west.


The need for this behemoth stretch of freeway can directly be tracked back to the foreseen impact on I-90 traffic of the North-South Freeway and indirectly to the predicted effects of the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA) on north-south traffic volumes to and from Canada.


The North-South Freeway has long been sought by community political and business leaders. They have seen it as the only way to assure that the downtown core isn't abandoned by customers and visitors from the Northside and other points north, including Canada. They worry that the city as a destination may be lost as travelers are swallowed up and diverted by the growing commercial sprawl north of the city. Perhaps their greater concern, however, is that Spokane as both a city and a region could be bypassed altogether should the I-195 corridor be redesigned to better attract vehicle traffic from Boise and points south into Canada. That's the NAFTA concern. The only way to prevent this from happening, so the argument goes, is for Spokane to build a more attractive route -- I-195 to I-90 to the new North-South Freeway.


Enter the traffic engineers. Actually, they have already entered, with preliminary designs, alternative plans and even a quietly conducted community meeting or two. But thus far the emerging issue has attracted little attention -- none at all, in fact, from local political leaders. And while community groups in East Central are organized and speaking out, their voices seem to have been drowned out by the chorus of community leaders whose direct interest goes to the North-South Freeway.


What we see taking form here, slowly at first, but with enormous potential inertia, is what must be called Lincoln Street Bridge, Part II. The term Son of Lincoln Street Bridge wouldn't get it, for this project, in its imagined dimensions, dwarfs the bridge project both in terms of direct effects and collateral consequences.


Moreover, like the Lincoln Street Bridge, the argument in favor of the project is based on very questionable research and analysis, all of which would seem to be rigged in favor of the effort. Most specifically, consider the predicted traffic counts: Seems our "traffic modelers" are predicting that by 2025, the North-South Freeway-I-90 exchange will handle as many cars as Seattle's I-90/I-5 interchange. They aren't real clear on how that might happen, given that the Seattle metropolitan area currently exceeds three million and Spokane's is predicted to be less than 600,000 in the year 2025.


As for collateral consequences, several beg for early consideration:


1. Expansion of the freeway width would no doubt place even greater strain on the fragile East Central social and residential situation.


2. Expansion of the freeway width would lead to increased pressures to run the North-South freeway right up and over the South Hill. In his campaign, Dean Lynch was very clear that he would not support any such overbearing and dislocating project "just so people on Moran Prairie can get downtown five minutes faster." And in an interview with The Inlander editorial staff, Councilman-elect Dennis Hession echoed Lynch's concern. But except for these brief forays, no one in a position of leadership has had much to say. Mayor John Powers has been been almost completely silent on this emerging and critical issue.


3. The widening could result in the condemnation of Third Street from one end of town to the other. Now some of our more aesthetically sensitive observers might say that a cement wall would actually improve the look of the Third Street corridor, but left out of this reaction is any consideration of the side effects created by problems of scale, noise and shadowing. The newly restored and expanded, Lewis and Clark High School, having survived one freeway project, would once again be dwarfed and diminished.





All professions fall victim to the limitations and biases of their own culture. Traffic engineers are no exception. They lay claims to objectivity by wedding themselves to predictions based on modeling. But beyond the illusion of technique, they are also wedded to something else. Let's face it, engineers like to build things. Might we recall their very first presentation to the City Council just after they got the go-ahead to begin the Lincoln Street Bridge. They were giddy; they used the word "fun" to describe what they were about to do.


Unless protected from their worst instincts by architects, urban planners and critics, engineers will build efficiently -- in other words, in an aesthetic, historical, social and cultural vacuum. They couldn't care less about materials and scale except as a matter of structural integrity. Design, to many engineers, is a mere plan, not a statement. And since most don't understand design all that much, they simply reduce it to a set of instructions. The more modest among them look for help. Others summarily widen freeways.


City after city has finally come to address the damage done by the traffic engineering profession. San Francisco has torn down one such tribute to professional reductionism, and has more recently determined to limit another to just one level. In Boston, the other end of I-90, constructed in the 1950s, is finally coming down and is being rebuilt underground. The project, known as The Big Dig, should result in a reestablishment of ties between the downtown and the North End, as well as provide much by way of traffic quieting.


Our engineers will doubtless point out that a number of design options are being considered, including a version of the Big Dig. But given the cost of this option (due to our basalt and existing underground utility infrastructure), this idea can be considered to be nothing more than an attractive throwaway. Apparently they are also considering double-decking the freeways, a solution that would make an already bad problem even worse, would cause a giant shadow effect and likely would result in more pollution. Then there is the beltway solution; but no doubt, given our relatively sparse and inelastic population base, such an idea would be viewed as commercially bad for the city.


Which brings us back to the likely candidate: widening on a scale never before seen here.


I suggest our state and local traffic engineers are influenced by a professional perspective that is narrower than that now accepted, even within their own professional circles (as seen in San Francisco and Boston).


But as we know from the recent Lincoln Street Bridge episode, this wouldn't be the first time that what passes for traffic engineering in Spokane is less engineering than old-fashioned provincialism.


In places where the engineering profession is constrained and counter-balanced by alternate professional perspectives that are buttressed by a political commitment to good taste, the results look much different than do road projects here in Spokane. No better example can be found than the I-90 stretch over Mercer Island. Rather than concrete and asphalt bordered by billboards, what resulted there was essentially a park with cars. But what was required to bring this about was a body politic that didn't equate "freeway" with commercial exploitation. That our engineers work within a culture that often places the highest value on the lowest common denominator isn't their fault. And that's all the more reason that this project must be subjected to a broader look before any big decisions are made.


I am left with the wisdom of Walter Kulash, the traffic engineer who visited Spokane several years ago and suggested the Lincoln Street Bridge wasn't needed. "I am a traffic engineer," Kulash told the audience at the Met on that trip, "and I love the smell of asphalt on a crisp, October morning." Then he went on to explain how his profession had perhaps done more damage to American cities than any other.


Let's hope that at the very least we heed Kulash's words. And might we hope further that our political leadership gets involved directly before the engineers show up to discuss the latest "fun" thing they have in mind for us.

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