Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ben Burr Trail Improvements Require Partnership and Civil Dialogue

A little known local treasure has created some vocal opposition over the last few months. The Ben Burr Trail on the lower south hill is a 1.1 mile underutilized public treasure that will have its true potential either squandered or realized depending on the direction of the local community and City of Spokane.

What follows is the project as proposed, pros and cons and my take of what is at stake.  Regardless of positions, there are some choices that need to be made regarding this project - everyone should have a voice and the best solution will address legitimate concerns while balancing the preservation of the beauty and maximizing the utility of this public resource.

Project as proposed: Connect the south hill with a mostly separated, paved trail from 11th Ave and Fiske to the existing Centennial trail in the University District.  This involves using Federal grant money to pay for paving the Ben Burr Trail, installing safety measures like railing and then a dedicated paved path and bike lanes over to the Centennial Trail. More information is available at the City of Spokane.


  • Much needed infrastructure that improves safety for both non-motorist and motorist without adding to traffic and congestion
  • Makes the entire trail accessible to hikers, joggers, cyclists, and wheelchairs (ADA Compliant)
  • Improves safety in terms of traffic and potential falls on steep terrain
  • Provide designated pathway (with the exception of about 100 meters with Sharrows) from southeast to the University District and Centennial Trail
  • Utilizes existing easements and right-of-ways
  • Usage and traffic will increase
  • Trail will be paved
  • Provides safe access to downtown from the east part of the south hill.

  • Usage and traffic will increase
  • The trail will need to be widened in areas (some trees will need to be removed for safety and minimum width requirements)
  • Some steep drop-offs will need railing (poorly planned rails may not be aesthetically pleasing) 
  • As with any project there will be the need for retaining walls and slope stabilization
  • Trail will be paved
After attending the informational meeting in the East Central Community Center I rode the entire trail to get a better sense of what the project was about and some of the concerns voiced by other community members. I traveled from downtown via 4th Ave to where 4th dead-ends.  The newly designated bike route also dead-ends and sends you down to 3rd Avenue to continue east.

There is not an easy way to access the trail by bike directly from 4th Ave., and remediating this is not part of the proposal.  The detour to 3rd would now have connectivity to both the Centennial trail and Ben Burr if the project moves forward as proposed.

The pathway to the park/trail has stone steps and some pretty nasty areas that have washed-out - ride-able by some but not many.

This is pretty representative of the current state of the trail for the majority of its length


Below is a section of the trial that appears to have a steep enough drop-off to require a safety railing.  One of the arguments against the trail is that railings would destroy the views and vistas from the trail.  As a Federally funded project it must meet certain standards for accessibility and safety so that is where these requirements come from. Look at the two photos below and decide whether a 42" railing (the height of kitchen counter-tops) will destroy the view from that point on the trail.

I have always loved this bridge and wonder whether it would have to be modified to meet the Federal standards.

The photo above shows a particularly secluded and scenic part of the trail.  It is easy to get to by bike or walking, but is all but virtually inaccessible for someone who requires ADA accommodations.  The trees on the right offer shade in the summer and brilliant foliage in the fall - hopefully the trail width requirements will not necessitate their removal.  During the entire trip I only saw two others on the trail despite it being early afternoon on a sunny Saturday.  When I stopped to ask them their opinions they indicated they have been long time residents of the East Central Neighborhood and support the project.

All of the above photographs depict the essence of this blog post; as users of this public resource we all have different opinions regarding what trail characteristics are important. Naturally there are questions as to whether these attributes can be preserved or even enhanced while making the trail accessible and a valuable part of Spokane non-motorized infrastructure.

Choices and compromises need to be made and the community at large and public officials will need to come together in a partnership and agree to meet for constructive dialogue.  Questions need to be articulated in an organized fashion and clear and honest responses should be communicated through consistent channels.  Otherwise an environment of misinformation, distrust and dysfunction will result and important community voices and priorities will be lost in the process.

The City of Spokane has begun this process with community informational meetings and listing questions and answers about the project at its Frequently Asked Questions website.

Finally, this brings me to another non-motorized paved trail that runs north and south between 57th Ave., and S Myrtle street on Spokane south hill.  The paved trail is bordered by farmland to the east and wetlands on the west.  To the south of it is S Ben Burr Road which is paved and runs through fields, forests and orchards.

I ride the trail and road frequently and see people commuting, walking, riding, running - all enjoying what is around them.  To a person, I never see anyone looking down and cursing the pavement.  Instead they are enjoying conversation with their companions and the accessibility, diversity and scenery both offer with close proximity to neighborhoods throughout the year.

In order to utilize the Federal grant the entire project must be paved and other requirements for safety must be met.  City engineers can apply for variances which may be granted but they will be the exception rather than the rule. 

In conclusion, it comes down to keeping The Ben Burr Trail the way it is and lose connectivity and infrastructure that will benefit the community for years to come or coming together for the greater good and working to make it the best project possible for all concerned.  I was one of the participants that raised my hand in support of the project during the meeting at the East Central Community Center and will work to support it if the City of Spokane decides to move forward.

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