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Spokane Valley to proceed with Sprague project; concerns over aquifer, congestion remain

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(The Center Square) – Spokane Valley will reduce Sprague Avenue to three lanes between University and Herald Road under an approximately $3 million project awarded to Halme Construction, Inc. on Tuesday.

The project has the valley at odds, as community members have continually expressed concern over the lack of data pointing to current impacts on an aquifer beneath the road, expected congestion and the construction of a crosswalk outside an intersection.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Rod Higgins cast peoples’ feelings of resentment aside, noting the whole point of the project is to prepare for increasing stormwater regulations from the Department of Ecology.

“We could have done just the bare minimum, or we could do in advance what we knew [the Department of Ecology] was going to do,” Higgins said.

The decision to proceed with the project follows conversations dating back to 2022 when it was first introduced to the city council; however, the scope has increased significantly due to design flaws that overlooked compatibility with current systems along the roadway.

The city council initially anticipated spending around $1.7 million on the proposed project.

Now, in addition to reducing a section the length of a few blocks from five lanes to three, the Sprague Avenue Stormwater and Multi-Modal Improvements project will: replace outside lanes with biofiltration swales, treating stormwater seeping into the aquifer; add a signalized pedestrian crossing at City Hall; add a Spokane Transit bus stop and a fresh layer of pavement, among other improvements.

After receiving four bids last month, the city council awarded the contract to Halme Construction. The company’s bid came in at around 16.6% less than the city engineer’s estimate of $3.6 million, agreeing to proceed with the project for $3 million.

Spokane Valley has approximately $4.5 million available for the project. Around $2.3 million comes from grants awarded by the state and federal government and Spokane Transit Authority, while the other half will come from city funds.

Traffic Engineering Manager Jerremy Clark said the project makes for a safer Sprague by eliminating free left turns at the University intersection, reducing pedestrian crossing distances and mitigating excessive speeds observed along the road.

Clark said during a pilot project in 2022, drivers only used about a quarter of the three-lane capacity. He reminded the council that, like Interstate 90, Sprague should have no problem operating with three lanes in a single direction.

“This is not a speed reduction project,” he said. “Speed reduction was expected as a byproduct.”

The pilot program also showed an increase in average speeds of about one mile per hour, keeping around 35 to 36 mph. At the same time, the percentage of vehicles traveling faster than the speed limit also decreased by around one mph.

Councilmember Al Merkel, an outspoken opponent of the project, questioned several aspects surrounding the enhancements. He started on statistics regarding the speed changes, noting that most drivers still exceed the speed limit along Sprague.

In addition, Merkel said the mid-block crossing, connecting city hall with Balfour Park and the county library, adds a notable safety concern despite the program touting it as otherwise. Merkel pointed to a study stating that crosswalks outside of intersections are particularly dangerous when crossing more than two lanes of traffic.

As to the aquifer, Merkel questioned how much of an effect the short stretch between Herald and University Road is making. He asked for data pointing to the impact some have used to justify the project.

Public Works Director Bill Helbig responded that his department does not have that data. He pointed to Spokane County Environmental Services, noting that the agency monitors the aquifer with wells throughout the valley.

“What we do know is that the Department of Ecology looks at a lot of that data,” Helbig said, “and we’re seeing that they’re increasing the regulations on the level of treatment that this region has to provide to protect the aquifer.”

He said that failing to comply with DOE regulations could eventually lead to daily fines of around $10,000.