Highway Boondoggles: North Spokane Corridor

Photo:  Washington State DOT
Photo: Washington State DOT

In their fourth Highway Boondoggles report, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building across the country. Our final boondoggle is the North Spokane Corridor. The proposed highway will slice through a historic Spokane neighborhood and take money from other transportation priorities in order to shave just minutes off the drive to low-density suburbs north of the city.

The North Spokane Corridor (NSC) is a proposed highway that will connect Interstate 90, which runs East-West through the center of Spokane, to U.S. Route 395 north of the city. The cost of the project is $1.5 billion, the vast majority of which will come from state funding sources.

The NSC has been in the works for decades — and has been a source of controversy the entire time, because it will slice through neighborhoods, including the historic community of Hillyard, and result in more than 500 homes being displaced. Hillyard business owners worry that the new highway will damage the district that they have worked to improve in recent years.

The project could also bring unwelcome changes to areas outside of Spokane. The Spokesman-Review newspaper estimates that the project will result in “quiet, rural areas in northeastern Washington [becoming] more crowded.” If that prediction plays out, and the new highway creates new demand for car travel north of Spokane, the highway would likely only provide a brief respite from congestion. 

Even under current conditions, the congestion benefits of the highway are small. The top listed benefit on the project homepage is that it will shave around 10 minutes off the trip from I-90 to Wandermere, a suburban neighborhood in the northern section of Spokane. Critics of the project have suggested that the current amount of traffic could be carried by a much smaller boulevard, which unlike a highway could be walkable and bikeable.

Meanwhile, Washington and Spokane have other important transportation needs, including:

  • Repairing roads and bridges. 67 percent of Washington roads are in poor or mediocre condition, eighth most in the country, and 26 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
  • Better transit in Spokane, which residents have supported at the ballot box. In November 2016 voters approved Proposition 1, “authorizing an increase in local sales and use tax of up to 0.2% to help maintain, improve and expand public transit in Spokane Transit’s service area.” Despite the new revenue, Spokane’s transit system will need to compete for future grants to complete planned projects.

The NSC also constitutes a major expense that will add to Washington’s already growing and costly debt. In 2015, Washington had $8.5 billion in highway debt, nine times more than in 2000. And in 2014, Washington spent $457 million on debt servicing in 2014, three times more than in 2000. This debt has created difficult questions for state officials. In February 2018, Washington’s treasurer warned lawmakers against putting a $1.3 billion revenue windfall toward a property tax cut, arguing it should instead be used to pay down state debt.

  • thielges

    Unsurprisingly the neighborhood that will endure the greatest displacement is one of the least affluent: “Hillyard suffers some of the worst poverty in Spokane, per capita it is the poorest neighborhood in the state of Washington.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillyard,_Spokane

  • Charles Hansen

    The Hillyard neighborhood was divided by James J. Hill in 1892 when he built the largest railroad yard west of the Mississippi in the county northeast of Spokane. The town of Hillyard incorporated west of those yards a few years later to give services to the 6,000 men working in those yards. Building a freeway next to the tracks that are still used today will not divide the neighborhood any more. The yard is gone today but there is 800+ acres of industrial zoned land with rail access and soon a freeway. The neighborhood is hoping for some job producing industries to move to that area and the city of Spokane is giving some incentives for industrial uses of that land. The Hillyard and Bemiss neighborhood could use jobs. Both are working with WSDOT and Eastern Washington University urban design class to make the freeway fit in the neighborhoods. The Children of the Sun path along side of the freeway is WSDOTs next issue, where should it go, what should it look like. Every other Monday the neighborhoods are meeting with WSDOT to figure that out.

  • swtmix

    @Charles Hansen

    So you would have no problem with a new freeway cutting through your neighborhood? It’s really easy to say “This is needed so go ahead and build it” when it doesn’t affect you personally. There are other options than a freeway that would work much better.

    And a freeway NEVER “fits in the neighborhood”. If it did, people would be clamoring to live next to freeways and I doubt you can cite any freeway adjacent neighborhood anywhere in the country where this is true.

  • nullbull

    5.1 miles for $1.5Billion dollars. That’s ~$300million / mile.

    To save a small number of people 10 minutes on a drive to a super-low-density location.

    See, when you’re building transit, everyone complains when you add capacity that isn’t needed. When you’re building roads, you can build capacity specific when no no one needs it, and the same people who whine about transit will completely support you.

    The blindspot in this culture for cars is glaring, counterproductive, dumb, and expensive.

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