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Traffic puts scare in Sauvie's Halloween

The pumpkins are plump. The hayrides are sensational.

And the beautiful fall weather, especially last weekend, has made Sauvie Island about as close to blissful as October in Portland can get.

The traffic to get there and get away from there? That's been decidedly less blissful.

Last Saturday's traffic - when cars backed up on the right lane of U.S. Highway 30 for miles toward Linnton and when the last visitor's car, according to some reports, got off the island at about 11 p.m. - was as bad as Kari Egger has seen it in her 16 years living on the island.

'It's just been a nightmare,' says Egger, co-owner with her husband, Bob, of the Pumpkin Patch on the island.

The overwhelming traffic seems to have a number of ingredients. The increasing popularity of the activities on the island in October - picking pumpkins, going on farm hayrides, negotiating corn mazes - is, of course, one of them. Especially in nice weather.

But added to that, this year has been the ongoing construction of a new Sauvie Island bridge. And the construction-related closure - earlier than expected, some Sauvie Island farmers say - of the Highway 30 right-hand turning lane onto the current Sauvie Island Bridge.

The result? A lot of time with kids in the car, before and after the hayrides.

Robin Nicholas said she and her family waited Saturday afternoon for about 90 minutes in a northbound line of cars on Highway 30 before they could make the right turn onto the Sauvie Island Bridge. It also took them about 90 minutes to get off the island, after they had spent a few hours at Kruger's Farm on the island.

'It was actually really fun,' she says. 'But it was frustrating getting on and off the island.'

The lines of idling and sometimes honking cars and frustrated commuters can be a strange juxtaposition with the environment of the island - which, even though it's only a dozen miles from the center of a major city, remains almost entirely agricultural.

But the adults and children of the city especially gravitate to that environment in the middle two weekends in October - when Sauvie Island farms sell thousands of pumpkins and offer special fall events.

The popularity of those October weekends has increased in recent years, especially when it's not raining.

But traffic during the last two weeks has been 'out of control,' says Don Kruger, owner of Kruger's Farm.

The traffic jam has come even though this year local farmers have paid for overtime pay for an additonal Multnomah County sheriff's deputy, and have got help from a sheriff's reserve officer, to direct traffic at the Highway 30 entrance to the bridge and just over the bridge on the island.

The crush may be over

Still, the sheriff's officers generally work only until about 6 or 7 p.m. - 'because they're concerned about their safety, because they're on the highway,' Egger says.

Even improved traffic control, for limited hours, can do nothing about the closed turning lane on Highway 30. Egger says he was told the turning lane would not be closed until November, after the October island rush. It was closed in late September, he says.

A Multnomah County spokesman said the turning lane was closed early to ensure the project could be finished before the busy Sauvie Island season in October 2008.

Farmers and island residents take some solace, however, in their belief that the crush is over for another year. The second and third weekends in October are the busy weekends, they say. The fourth weekend - in other words, this coming weekend - is always much slower.

Egger figures everyone who wants to get a pumpkin and experience the island has done it by the third weekend. 'In our 15 years, we have never had any backups the first or last weekend.'

Some take traffic in stride

Meanwhile, island residents - at least some of them - have decided to try to roll with the pumpkin punches on October's second and third weekend.

'You consciously think about how you're getting off the island on those weekends in October. You consciously think about it,' says Donna Matrazzo, an 18-year island resident who is active in the Sauvie Island Conservancy.

She adds: 'If you get inconvenienced three weekends a year, that's the price you pay for living in such an extraordinary place.'

Others apparently are thinking about making adjustments as well.

Egger says sheriff's officials came to her about 2:30 p.m. last Saturday to get paid for the hours they would be working directing traffic, she says. Because, she says they told her: 'We don't want to fight the traffic to get our check.'