SPOKANE, Wash. - It's a freeway 66 years in the making, and if you commute between north Spokane and downtown, the North South Corridor can't be finished soon enough.
The good news is with the next few weeks 5 ½ miles of the 10-mile freeway will be finished from Francis north. The bad news? That's the least expensive half of the $1.9 billion project and the money is running out. Right now the southbound lanes between Francis and Farwell are being completed.
Later this summer the overpass at Francis will be under construction and by next year roughly 7 miles of railroad track in the area will be re-laid to allow for the freeway to pass through. But that's where the current funding dries up. "When people ask when will it be finished?
The question that I have to ask is, ‘When will the funding be available?'" explained WSDOT Public Information Officer Al Gilson. Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) is one of the many politicians working to secure funding and we spoke with her via satellite from her offices in Washington, D.C. "This is a project that we need to finish what we've started," she said. "It's time to finish the North South Freeway."
In June, McMorris Rodgers, along with US Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Patty Murray (D-WA) announced a $10 million dollar federal TIGER grant for the project. While every bit helps it will cost another $1.3 billion to finish the freeway entirely.
Congressional Candidate Rich Cowan of Spokane (D) , who is Cathy McMorris Rodgers' opponent in the fall election, says the Congresswoman from Kettle Falls has repeatedly voted against federal TIGER Grant funding for the North South Freeway until this election year. Governor Christine Gregoire did not invite her to the 2010 ribbon cutting because McMorris Rogers voted "No". Cowan, a business executive, says we've been waiting for 60 years for the freeway and we need a change in Congress in order to finish it.
Congress just passed a 2-year transportation package that provides funding for projects of regional or national significance. McMorris Rodgers told KHQ, that's where she's looking for the next chunk of change.
"I have my eye on that program because I think the North South Freeway is one that we want to compete," she said. State Representative Andy Billig is the Vice Chair of the House Transportation Committee, and he's also been working toward funding.
"It would definitely be preferable to do the project all at once and do it as fast as possible, and get that funding together," he added. "But that's not the reality of the situation." The reality is as with any long-term transportation project the money comes in over a number of years, through separate grants and allocations both at the state and federal level.
Billig says for Washington State's part right now $70 million is at work on the freeway and in the next 2-year budget cycle another $53 million is targeted. But even if the rest of the needed $1.3 billion was in the bank the finished freeway would still be a decade away.
"Projects depend on funding," Gilson added. "So the more funding is available, the faster we can build things. If we had all the money available today, we could probably finish this in 7-10 years." In the end, it may be a matter of perspective. It took some 30 years to build I-90; and now, only 11 years into construction on the North South Freeway, a little patience may go a long way.
"Some people say it's going slow, I think it depends on how you look at it," Gilson said. "We think it's moving along quite nicely. When finished, the freeway is also expected to boost our local economy, through short-term construction jobs, but also as a long-term freight route which could draw traffic off I-5, and make Spokane a major player in the import and export of goods between the US and Canada.