Contractors for the Washington State Department of Transportation have already built four bridges and are actively involved in earthwork projects along a five-mile section of the future freeway. In addition, work will begin this spring on six more bridges along the route. These bridges are being built in the third of a series of six construction contracts that are on tap for the North Spokane Freeway over the next few years.
Other work is progressing along the entire North Spokane Freeway route between Interstate 90 in east Spokane and U.S. 395 at Wanderemere. While major construction efforts are concentrated up north, design and right-of-way purchases are underway in all segments of the corridor. Just like I-90 through Spokane, segments of the North Spokane Freeway will be opened to traffic as they are built.
About $350 million is currently available for design, right-of-way, and construction work on the freeway. Completion of the entire route is pegged at about $2.2 billion. Of course, funding for continued construction will need to be appropriated by our state and federal lawmakers.
A commentary in last week's Inlander ("Paving Over Planning") speculated that work being done by Spokane County on Bigelow Gulch is part of a re-routed North Spokane Freeway. That is wrong. The freeway has not been moved from the Market/Greene corridor.
While Spokane County may be proposing a roadway that can provide a link between two major freeway routes, it is a different facility fulfilling different needs. It is in no way a substitute for a major north-south, high-speed, limited-access facility.
The North Spokane Freeway is the cornerstone in the completion of the regional transportation network in the Spokane metropolitan area. Interstate 90 is the east/west component. From Spokane to the south, U.S. 195 fills the need. The last piece of that equation is the North Spokane Freeway.
Other cities in the northwest and across the country saw the need for regional transportation networks early and acted on it when funding was readily available. Portland, Seattle and even smaller cities like the Tri-Cities and Yakima saw the value of a completed high-speed network that moves regional traffic into and through their communities.
This new facility is not just for trucks and cars. For that reason, the Department often refers to the project by its official name, the "North Spokane Corridor." This is because the facility is truly a multi-modal facility. A bicycle and walking trail parallels the vehicle route over the entire 10.5-mile length, with connections to the Centennial and Ben Burr Trails. In addition, the freeway facility includes right-of-way availability for future high-capacity transportation. Park-and-ride lots will be placed along its length.
The North Spokane Freeway is one of only two new state highways in Washington in that it is not an expansion of an existing route in an existing corridor. The creation of a new facility brings with it an enormous amount of environmental documentation just to begin the design and construction phases of the work. The original environmental study and resulting documentation took nine years to complete.
The environmental studies don't just examine air and water quality, but delve into more than two dozen different disciplines, including present and future traffic needs, historical sites, parks and more. The WSDOT was also required to study social issues such as the impact of this new facility on neighborhoods and the diverse citizen groups within the corridor.
The WSDOT has held nearly 250 public meeting and hearings and made a multitude of changes in the facility based on input from the public. Not only have route alignment changes been made, but details such as noise walls, landscaping and architectural enhancements have been adjusted or added as a result of citizen participation in the process.
Naturally, people will differ in their opinions about the North Spokane Freeway. This new route will make changes in some neighborhoods that will affect some citizens more than others. It is, however, a benefit to the community as a whole. Under the law, the Department has had to go through a lengthy process to justify each and every routing and design decision used to locate the corridor and to show that we have made every attempt to minimize the impacts as much as possible, while still providing a facility to address the transportation needs of the Spokane area.
The publication of this article may set off a flurry of letters and commentary debating the need for such a facility. While this debate is healthy and has been ongoing over the last half-century, it is also very apparent that the vast majority of the Spokane citizenry wants this facility to be built. Consumer surveys have consistently shown that the construction of the North Spokane Freeway is supported by more than 80 percent of Spokane-area citizens. The most frequent question we receive, either on the phone, by letter or e-mail is not "Why are we building it?' but "When will it be done?"
Jerry Lenzi is the Regional Administrator in Spokane for the Washington State Department of Transportation.