by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n our "Best of the Inland Northwest" issue last year, we asked readers to give us their No. 1 gripe about living in this area. It was a blowout. The overwhelming response was that our readers are frustrated with the condition of the roads around here -- and especially with the ruts on Interstate 90 through Spokane. We know your pain. Driving a car through those ruts feels more like driving a train down a track. That's not so bad when you're cruising through town on auto-pilot, but good luck if you need to change lanes.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will be addressing that problem (or at least part of it) over the next two years, beginning next week. Problem is, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. The freeway will be smooth sailing by the end of 2007, but first you're going to have to sit through two summers of potentially nightmarish traffic.

Any questions?

I LIVE IN A CAVE. WHAT'S GOING ON? & r & WSDOT spokesman Al Gilson says that to iron out the ruts and rid the elevated portion of Interstate 90 (between Division and Maple) of those scabby spots around the joints, his department will be "taking the top of the freeway off and putting a new top on." They'll do this in two phases.

Beginning May 15, the department will work on the eastbound lanes of the freeway, shutting them down completely, and routing four lanes of two-way traffic through what is now the westbound portion of the interstate. Traffic will be slowed to 45 miles per hour. In addition, they'll close all the on- and off-ramps on the portion they're working on (what are now the eastbound lanes), plus a couple on the other side.

Gilson says WSDOT hopes to have that phase done by September 15. But then it'll all start over again next May, when they do virtually the same thing on the opposite lanes. The freeway should be fully operational between the phases, from mid-September of this year through mid-May of 2007.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO ME? & r & That all depends. It could be rough if, for example, you live in Cheney and commute to Spokane Valley every day, because (unless you find an alternate route) you're going to be crammed into that two-way, 45 mph traffic on the freeway. The lanes will be a foot and a half narrower than usual, with no shoulder, and lane changes will be forbidden throughout the construction zone. You'll make it through to the Valley, but it's going to take longer.

The worst is if you live, say, on the West Plains and you work on 29th and Grand. If you take I-90 eastbound into town, you'll have to get off at the Maple Street exit and take surface streets to Perry, because you won't have another chance to get off until Altamont. The other exits will be closed (or rather, there will be 42 feet of jackhammers and steamrollers separating you from them).

You're lucky, on the other hand, if you live and work downtown or in, say, Browne's Addition. Or even if you commute from the north side to the south side, or vice versa. You'll see considerably more traffic downtown, as all the other unlucky bastards try to sneak through the city on side streets, but at least you can reasonably avoid getting on the freeway.

BREAK THIS DOWN FOR ME. WHAT'S OPEN AND WHAT'S NOT? & r & Pay careful attention here, because it's confusing. (We had to draw ourselves a map on a napkin just to keep it all straight.)

Eastbound: The Walnut and Monroe Street on-ramps will be closed, as will the Division Street off-ramp. Heading east, you can get off at Maple Street, but once you're on, you're not getting off until Altamont. (You can still get on at Browne, but it'll be hairy.)

Westbound: The Browne and Monroe/Jefferson Street on-ramps will be closed, as will the Lincoln Street off-ramp. Heading west, you can get off at Division or Maple, and you can still get on at Maple, but in between you're stuck.

Confused yet?

Think of it this way: Maple and Division form the western and eastern borders of the construction zone, and for the most part, once you've crossed into the zone you're not going anywhere until you reach the other side. Nor will you be able to jump into the middle of the zone. Got it?

SORT OF, BUT THIS STILL SOUNDS LIKE THE WORST IDEA EVER. & r & Closing off all these exits -- even on the side of the freeway that's not undergoing construction -- sounded pretty ridiculous to us, too. But there's some logic behind it. The WSDOT's Gilson explains that I-90 normally gets nearly 100,000 vehicles traveling through Spokane each day. Funneling that same traffic through four lanes instead of six, and so close together, is a recipe for disaster. Gilson hopes that shutting down exits, then, will ease some of the problems that could otherwise arise when that many cars are trying to share that little space while trying to merge and exit.

It's also kind of a mind game. "What we are trying to do by closing some of the ramps," Gilson says, "is to try to reduce the number of vehicles and/or drivers that are attracted into that section." In other words, the messier it's going to be to use the freeway, the more likely you'll skip it altogether. "We want people to take alternative, reliable routes into downtown and on and off I-90, and try not to create extra congestion."

IN OTHER WORDS, IT'S LAST SUMMER'S THIRD AVE. CONSTRUCTION ALL OVER AGAIN? & r & Yeah, probably. A lot of people are going to be using Third or Second or Sprague to get through town instead of dealing with the freeway. City spokeswoman Staci Lehman says the city will tinker with downtown traffic signals -- shutting down green lights on defunct off-ramps, running greens longer on thoroughfares, etc. -- but adds that there's only so much the city can do to accommodate the overflow.

"Generally what happens, though," Lehman says, "is that drivers will spend a day or two traveling through downtown, then realize there may be better ways to get to their destination that skirts around downtown."

Looking back, it's a good thing Third Avenue was fixed when it was. The timing was coincidental, and fortuitous. Officials in WSDOT's Spokane office didn't get the OK on this project until July 1 of last year, when $13 million of state money that couldn't be used for the Hood Canal bridge project on the West Side was suddenly up for grabs.

"We were efficient and quick, and we said, 'We'll take it,'" Gilson notes. For most projects of this scale, he says, you would have three to five years to prepare.

WELL, WHY IS THE FREEWAY IN SUCH BAD SHAPE IN THE FIRST PLACE? & r & The short answer is: studded snow tires. Or what Gilson describes as "millions of little pick axes beating on your driveway."

He notes that while about 30 percent of Washingtonians use studded tires between November and April, about 55 percent of Spokanites do. That's a lot of tungsten steel spikes clawing at the concrete, and there are very few days when the road surface is actually covered in snow. Gilson adds that the Department of Transportation has on numerous occasions petitioned the Legislature to outlaw studded tires, always without success.

The long answer is that the concrete on the bridge deck hasn't been replaced since 1984 and 1985, when the freeway saw only about 45,000 vehicles per day. The work was given a life expectancy of about 20 years, and traffic has doubled since then. The problem is that while traffic will continue to grow, the quality of the concrete they'll lay down over the next year is about the same as the stuff they poured 20 years ago.


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