City says Billig’s threat won’t stop Sprague project but could block future work on Riverside and other road construction
The city of Spokane is pushing back against state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig’s threats to hold up state transportation funds related to an East Sprague Avenue renovation project, asserting that the project is fully-funded but Billig’s actions could have detrimental effects on other road work for years.
Marlene Feist, the city’s spokeswoman, said the language Billig has added to the Legislature’s transportation funding bill would “hold up” funding for five years all city transportation projects that rely on state money. The Senate bill, with this language, was passed Wednesday 47-0, but must be reconciled with the state House transportation package, which includes $3 million for the Sprague project.
“It is holding up all transportation grants until we’ve satisfied whatever his requirement is,” Feist said, adding that the city doesn’t need state funding to finish this year’s Sprague road rehabilitation.
Billig, a Democrat who represents Spokane, inserted the language in the bill after nearly a year of asking the city to include bikeways in Sprague’s design, or in a concurrent project. He pointed to the $12 million in state funding for the $15.4 million pedestrian and bicycle bridge that lands on Sprague as reason to have bikeways, but the city rebuffed his request and put the Sprague project out to bid with no bike facilities.
Feist, however, said the city does have a plan for a bike trail to run between Sprague and the railroad tracks, but acknowledged it was in its earliest stages and years from completion.
“We actually already have plans,” she said, noting that an as-yet-to-begin feasibility study would take 12 to 18 months to complete, followed by six to eight months of design, 18 to 36 months for right-of-way acquisition and six to eight months for construction.
Also, the city estimates the trail would cost $3 million for design, right-of-way purchases and construction.
She added that the Sprague project, which is fully-funded through a mix of 2014 street levy funds and money from the University District Public Development Authority, was never meant to include bikeways.
“There’s more complication here. There’s competing interests here. It’s not just a bicycle facility,” she said, adding that the city’s Bike Master Plan, which was created in 2009 and updated in 2017, envisioned bicycle traffic to use Pacific and First avenues.
She added that cyclists are allowed to use Sprague, with or without bike facilities.
“Every lane, if you’re a confident rider, every lane is available,” she said, suggesting a stripe of paint marking a bike lane was largely ineffective anyway. “Just because there’s a stripe doesn’t make it safer.”
Still, she argued the city prioritizes bikeways when it can – primarily through striping bike lanes.
“It becomes difficult for a city to balance all the needs a city has. We’ve obviously prioritized bikes in the last few years,” she said, counting 50 miles of striped bike lanes installed between 2012 and 2017, along with three miles of separated bike trails. “We are making a concerted effort to try and fulfill our master bike plan. We are committed to bike facilities.”
But Billig is demanding action on the Sprague project, and is wielding a large stick.
The language he added to the Senate’s transportation funding bill, says that “any new approval for grants or allocations for projects during the 2019-2021 biennium for the city of Spokane is contingent upon the city developing an infrastructure plan to provide an east-west safe connection for the increased bike traffic volume on Sprague Avenue and identifying funding for these connection improvements. The connection improvements may include a bike-only path reasonably adjacent to Sprague Avenue.”
In a letter to Billig earlier this week, Mayor David Condon asked for the “immediate removal” of the language from the bill.
“Limiting the City’s ability to access transportation grant funds hurts our citizens,” he wrote.
Condon pointed to the renovation of Riverside Avenue downtown, which is expected to begin in 2021, as potentially the prime victim of Billig’s action. If the budget proviso remains, the gas tax-funded Transportation Improvement Board state grant the city is relying on to rebuild Riverside would be at risk. He noted that the Riverside project “is designed to accommodate Spokane Transit Authority’s Central City Line, and serve as a significant bike facility.”
Billig replied to Condon, saying the budget language didn’t stop the city from applying “for grants or from being approved for grants. It only prohibits the release of funds. This will provide the City with enough time before the point when a grant would be funded to align the bike safety project with the rest of the Sprague rehabilitation project.”
Feist said Billig’s actions to hold up all state funds for one bike project wasn’t right.
“To hold Sprague up until we have the project funded doesn’t make sense,” Feist said, adding that the road project will proceed regardless of Billig’s actions. “From our perspective, we’re trying to balance all the needs in our community, from a development standpoint, from a economic standpoint.”