By Troy Foster
The City of Madras may soon have a green light to go ahead with plans to realign the north junction and install a traffic signal.
The Central Oregon Area Commission on Transportation, known as COACT, recently recommended the allocation of $2.35 million of an estimated $10 million for lane capacity projects in the Tri Counties to the problematic junction.
The plan calls for the rerouting of Highway 97 traffic onto 6th Street to connect with Highway 26 at a new intersection. That intersection will feature a stoplight north of Pine Street on the end of the 4th and 5th Street couplet. A second northbound travel lane would also be added to Highway 97.
"The need there at the north junction is around conflicting traffic movements," said Oregon Department of Transportation Region 4 Area Manager Gary Farnsworth, who will forward the recommendation to the state office. "There's potential for accidents there because a lot of trucks and cars that go through there conflict."
Officials from the Central Oregon Area Commission on Transportation, an advisory group, negotiated recently to get their share of House Bill 2142, which gave ODOT roughly $400 million to spend on improvements to bridge, preservation and lane capacity projects.
County and city officials from all over Central Oregon negotiated where to spend that money, and the north junction project was ranked No. 3 on its lane capacity priority list behind projects in Redmond and Bend. Nine total proposals were considered.
"It was almost like a bartering table," said City Councilor Bob Sjolund, who represented Madras. "Everybody pleaded for their own causes but at the same time evaluated the need for Central Oregon and our project is important to Central Oregon."
ODOT and the City of Madras have identified the north junction as a problem area for years.
According to ODOT statistics, 10,800 vehicles come in and out of Madras on Highway 97 daily just north of the junction. Roughly 12,500 come in and out of the city on Highway 26 north of the junction. All those statistics are projected to increase.
The existing intersection carries with it a heavy volume of truck traffic. Many southbound trucks on Highway 97 attempt dangerous left turns at the junction and impede northbound traffic on Highway 26 in an area that is traversed by more than 20,000 vehicles daily.
The City Council put its stamp of approval on the proposal after an extensive public hearing process. More than 10 different proposals were once considered that ranged everywhere from maintaining the status quo to improvements that could have cost $14 million.
"This design concept was put together about 5 or 6 years ago," Sjolund said. "It seems like we've been working on alternatives for years."
Ed Moore, ODOT's senior land use transportation planner for Jefferson County, said even this proposal is probably an interim solution.
"It will probably suffice the needs for another 10 or 15 years and ultimately there'll have to be a more permanent solution," Moore said. "There's just no money to do that right now."
One popular alternative that will not become reality was a long-held position that an interchange should be constructed north of Madras to take Highway 97 around the city.
Farnsworth said that won't happen in the near future for a myriad of reasons, which include land-use problems, the possibility of unintended urban sprawl and consequences the city's business community could face.
If all goes accordingly, the planning stage for north junction improvements will begin in April and construction will commence in August of 2004.
Farnsworth, however, cautioned that nobody will know whether the project is a done deal for about another month.
"It's all a work in progress for one thing," he said. "There's still potential for change."