Long before there was talk of light rail and conversation about fancy terms like “multi-modal transportation,” steam-powered trains rumbled along the tracks of the old Milwaukee Railroad.
The first locomotives traveled a course that was built in 1909, a time when Spokane County featured less than five miles of paved highway, according to Florence Boutwell, local historian and author of “The Spokane Valley – A History of the Early Years.”
In 1916, a concrete road called Appleway was built from the Spokane city limits to the railroad crossing at Dishman. A year later, construction crews added four miles of roadway to the east. By 1919, motorists could take Appleway to the intersection of Liberty Lake Road. A year later, the street was paved to Idaho border.
Over the years, travel along the east/west passageway through Spokane Valley has undergone as many changes as the surrounding landscape. Larger thoroughfares like Sprague Avenue and Interstate 90 were constructed to carry the bulk of traffic between Coeur d’Alene and Spokane. The once thriving railroad eventually found its way into the history books.
In October 2000, Spokane County officials held a grand opening for the newly refurbished Sprague/Appleway corridor. The pricetag for the couplet rang in at a cool $18.9 million and included the addition of an eastbound road from the I-90 onramp near Thierman to University Road. Sprague was converted into a five-lane, one-way street from University west to the freeway.
The project was a compromise to an original plan that would have installed a south Valley arterial parallel to Sprague on property once owned by the railroad and purchased by Spokane County in 1980 for $3.2 million.
These days, motorists traveling east along Appleway Boulevard must turn left on University to reach Sprague or right to access any number of eastbound cross streets. Plans to extend the road have stalled in a contentious court battle between the city of Spokane Valley and Spokane County, which still owns the land.
The issue appeared as if it would be resolved in 2005 when the county made preparations to deed the property to Spokane Valley but the deal eventually fell through. In 2007, a portion of the old railroad line within Liberty Lake was transferred from the county to the city of Liberty Lake with the understanding that a 28-foot wide band along the right-of-way would be reserved for mass transit.
After losing to Bob McCaslin in last November’s general election, former Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson said the failed bid to secure the property was one of his major disappointments while in office.
“I wish we could have gotten Appleway resolved,” he said.
Now McCaslin and the rest of the “Positive Change” team – newly appointed Mayor Tom Towey and Council Members Brenda Grassel and Dean Grafos – are faced with the question that has been deliberated since Spokane Valley incorporation in 2003.
“The first step is to sit down and talk about it with the county,” said Towey. “We have to determine where we’re at on both sides.”
Towey emphasized that the Spokane Transit Authority would need to be part of any discussion regarding the future of the right-of-way. The undeveloped corridor has been mentioned as the site of a variety of multi-modal transportation including light rail, electric rapid transit and a dedicated bus line.
As in Liberty Lake, a minimum of 28 feet would be needed to install such a service. In certain areas along the Milwaukee right-of-way, often referred to as “pinch points,” additional land would need to be purchased for public transportation purposes. In previous discussions, STA has said it would provide funding support for the required land.
“I know those conversations have taken place in the past,” said Molly Myers, a spokeswoman for STA. “Right now, the conversation is really between the county and the city of Spokane Valley. They have a new (City) council out there. We’re just kind of waiting to see what happens.”
Things could get a little clearer next month when Spokane County commissioners sit down with Spokane Valley’s governing board to mull over the law enforcement contract and the future of the right-of-way. Commissioner Mark Richard said he remains optimistic about the search for common ground at the March 8 meeting.
“We’re absolutely interested in working with the city of Spokane Valley,” Richard said. “We’re trying to strike a balance.”
Richard said the county is hoping “to recoup our investment or at least seek fair market value” in any transfer of land. He added that mass transit “remains one of our priorities” as far as future development is concerned.
At the Feb. 9 City Council meeting, Spokane Valley City Attorney Mike Connelly provided a history of the Milwaukee right-of-way as well as an update on recent city/county discussions. The city received a letter from county commissioners last December that described a vision for the corridor as a thoroughfare for motorists and mass transit. The commissioners also indicated that they would like to discuss the new council’s objectives for the land.
Connelly said the next step would be for the council and commissioners to meet and “work toward an agreement.”
“I think everyone agrees this is a transportation corridor that should be preserved,” Connelly said. “An awful lot of time has been spent arguing about what we said and what we meant instead of solving the problem.”