Sierra Club criticizes plan for freeway - North-south route through Spokane among the projects in Referendum 51

SPOKANE -- The proposed north-south freeway through Spokane, a key component of Referendum 51, was criticized by The Sierra Club yesterday for its potential to increase sprawl, pollution and traffic.

The freeway was one of 49 road projects around the country criticized by the environmental group, which is encouraging public transportation and non-highway fixes for traffic woes.

But Al Gilson, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said the freeway is long overdue.

"Right now on a typical day, north-south arterials handle over 300,000 vehicles a day," Gilson said. "This freeway should have been built dozens of years ago."

Work on the $1.3 billion project has already started, and Referendum 51 contains more than $205 million for the freeway, which would intersect with Interstate 90 just east of downtown. The Spokane project is a centerpiece of the bid by boosters of R-51 to win Eastern Washington votes this fall for the $7.7 billion statewide transportation measure.

Many Spokane political and business leaders have endorsed the proposed freeway.

Interstate 90 carries east-west traffic through Spokane. But vehicles must slog through 10 miles of surface streets to move from U.S. 395 north of the city to I-90.

"A lot of traffic doesn't want to go through downtown Spokane and has few other options," said Stan Miller of the Inland Northwest AAA, which supports the highway. "Free-flowing traffic creates far less pollution than stop-and-go traffic."

The proposed highway would be eight lanes running north and south, and up to 18 lanes where it connects with I-90.

"I don't support the idea of building 18 highway lanes on Interstate 90 through the heart of where I live, work and socialize," said neighborhood activist Mel Silva at a Sierra Club news conference.

"I'm all for economic development, but not for wrecking our high quality of life with massive, unnecessary highway expansion."

The freeway will encourage "people to live outside of Spokane. It will divide existing neighborhoods, gobble up farmland, forests and open spaces, and create new traffic problems," said Christy Lafayette, of the 1,000 Friends of Washington.

The Sierra Club pointed to car-sharing programs in other cities, light rail and improved bus systems as better solutions.

Chase Davis, the Sierra Club representative in Spokane, said the highway will displace people and businesses and could hurt efforts to revitalize downtown.

The Sierra Club disputed state Transportation Department claims that the freeway would save 1.7 million gallons of gas a year, scrub more than 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide from the air, and save 2 million hours a year in driving time.

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