Spokane Journal of Business

Spokane’s road work backlog: Year of the big fix

Extreme wet winter, spring compound annual breakup

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-—Mike McLean
Spokane city street crews repave a portion of Freya Street between Second and Sprague avenues as part of a program to repair streets damaged by extreme wet winter weather.
-—Mike McLean
City street crews remove a layer of asphalt during a grind-and-overlay project on Freya Street in the north central neighborhood.

Although a number of long-planned transportation system improvements are underway, it likely will take much of this road construction season—if not longer—for street crews to complete urgent repairs of winter and spring water damage.

In Spokane, the city has approved a $1 million infusion to repair arterials damaged by extreme wet weather, says Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for Spokane’s public works and utilities.

The city’s initiative, marketed as Fix-It-Fest 2017, includes 8.2 miles of new repair projects, 5.2 miles of planned projects, additional crack-seal work, and any needed pothole repairs.

Three new thin asphalt overlay projects in the initiative are temporary fixes, Feist says.

They include the Thor/Freya couplet between Third and 11th avenues, in the East Central neighborhood; Upriver Drive between North Center and Greene streets, in north-central Spokane; and Sunset Boulevard between Government Way and Royal Street, in west Spokane.

“All three are scheduled for a full rebuild in 2018,” Feist says. “We’ll give them a little bit of love this summer.”

New, longer-lasting asphalt treatments called grind-and-overlay projects are planned on Fourth Avenue between Wall and Washington streets south of downtown; Freya and Thor streets, from Sprague Avenue to Second Avenue, in the East Central neighborhood; and Freya Street between Upriver Drive and Empire Avenue, south of the Hillyard neighborhood.

In grind-and-overlay projects, the top layer of old asphalt is removed and replaced with fresh, hot asphalt.

Six earlier-planned grind-and-overlay projects will occur as scheduled this year, including Assembly Street between Rowan and Francis avenues, in northwest Spokane; Southeast Boulevard between Regal Street and 29th Avenue, on the South Hill; and Garland and Empire avenues between Howard and Nevada streets, on the North Side.

“We’re really focusing on repairing roads that need rebuilding and having enough maintenance scheduled to keep roads in good shape for a long time,” Feist says. “If we do things like crack-seal and grind-and-overlays on the road surface, roads will hold together much longer, because base is there.”

New chip-seal projects are planned on “A” Street between Driscoll Boulevard and Rowan Avenue in northwest Spokane; Upriver Drive between North Center and Greene streets in north central Spokane; and Addison Street between Empire and Rowan avenues, in the Nevada Lidgerwood neighborhood.

Chip-seal is a pavement surface treatment using liquid asphalt and crushed gravel that reduces effects of traffic wear and helps prevent water from penetrating the pavement.

Three grind-and-overlay projects are being postponed, because other weather-damaged streets are identified as having higher priority, Feist says.

The postponed projects are Thorpe Road from Westwood Lane to the city limits, in west Spokane; Palouse Highway between Regal and Freya streets, on the upper South Hill; and Altamont Street between Hartson and Sprague avenues, in the East Central neighborhood.

“We looked at how many cars use the roads, how bad conditions were,” Feist says. “We had to make decisions because we can’t do everything in a year.”

The water damage-related projects are just a fraction of the city’s planned investment in the street system this year, Feist says.

“This is just maintenance,” she says. “Major construction isn’t on the (Fix-It-Fest) list.”

Spokane voters passed a 20-year levy in 2014 to fund about $5 million annually for arterial street work and pay off debt from a 2004 street bond.

The city is committed to matching the levy funds with budget dollars for street projects, Feist says.

“We’ve added more to arterial maintenance since the levy passed,” she says, adding that 2017 will be a record construction season for the city.

Major street projects planned or under way this year include rebuilding Sprague Avenue between Helena and Stone streets in the East Central neighborhood; rebuilding 37th Avenue between Regal and Freya streets on the upper South Hill; and constructing Barnes Road in northwest Spokane.

The city also is extending Martin Luther King Jr. Way on the south edge of the University District and constructing streetscape improvements along Division Street downtown.

Feist says street crews have filled nearly 3,500 potholes since Jan. 1.

Spokane County

Spokane County recently recalculated weather-related road damage at between $4 million and $5 million, says Randy Moran, a county roads department project manager.

That’s roughly half of what the county originally had estimated in March.

Initial damage estimates totaled $9 million when some roadways were still underwater from flooding that started in mid-February.

“They were based on a combination of what we could see, and we had to guess on what we couldn’t see,” Moran says.

At the height of the flooding, 31 roads were closed. A dozen of them damaged down to the base, including portions of Greenwood Road west of Spokane; Latah Creek Road, in south Spokane County; and Cornwall Road, also in south Spokane County.

As of earlier this week, portions of those three roads remained closed.

“We’ve already spent close to $2 million of our budget money that we would normally use for road repairs,” Moran says.

Moran met Monday with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Although the damage occurred during two overlapping disaster declarations, FEMA likely will attribute all of the damage to one long weather event, Moran says.

“It started raining in February and it was still raining in March,” he says. “During the couple of days the sun came out, the snow melted, and the water still ran.”

FEMA funding can cover construction that helps prevent future damage.

“If we have areas that have consistent problems that we need to make better so it won’t happen again, FEMA is onboard with that,” Moran says.

Some road damage won’t be covered by FEMA, which only funds repairs to local access roads.

Major collector roads, arterials, and highways, including Bigelow Gulch Road northeast of Spokane, fall under the purview of Federal Highway Administration aid.

Unlike FEMA, which is covering some damage caused by freezing and thawing, the highway administration isn’t covering any damage that wasn’t directly caused by flooding.

“No spot that we’re trying to repair on Bigelow Gulch was underwater,” Moran says, although he claims that much of the damage is water related.

For example, the highway administration will only cover three or four sections of Elk-Chattaroy Road that were flooded over, not the entire 11.5 miles of road that Moran asserts was damaged when water saturated the road bed and then froze, undermining the road when it thawed.

Moran estimates at least $2 million in damage that occurred during the disaster declarations won’t be covered by state and federal emergency funds.

“It puts a dent in our road-preservation program,” he says. “In the next few weeks, we’ll know how far our chip seal program and our asphalt program can go. We can’t do a lot of things we had planned, because we have flood-damaged roads we have to fix.”

Some heavily damaged roads might not be repaved immediately after the road beds are restored.

Latah Creek Road reconstruction is problematic because of the road’s location next to the creek.

“There’s no vegetation to slow runoff down where the Yale fire was eight months ago,” Moran says. “Now we’re involved with the state Fish and Wildlife agency. You don’t go near water without a permit.”

Some planned road projects likely will be delayed.

“Our three-year list is now a five-year list,” he says.

Spokane Valley

Spokane Valley spokeswoman Carolbelle Branch says Spokane Valley has seen an increase in potholes and pavement failures due to water saturation this year compared with other recent years.

“It would be difficult to quantify it against prior years until we can compare end-of-season results,” Branch says, adding that the previous two winters were unusually mild.

Spokane Valley has budgeted $1.4 million for street maintenance activities.

Street preservation, stormwater, and capital improvement programs, which are separately budgeted, also contribute to maintaining street conditions, she says.

“We have been able to keep up with the additional maintenance, including filling potholes and crack sealing,” Branch says. “At this point, we haven’t needed to commit additional staff or resources.”

Mike McLean
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Deputy Editor Mike McLean has worked his entire journalism career in the Inland Northwest. Mike, who also lives to reel in fish and crank up music, has worked for the Journal since 2006.

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