>Highway 361 project will get state dollars

   News Editor
   A $3.1 million proposal to repave Highway 361 from Madras to Juniper Butte was ranked as the most important preservation project in Central Oregon at a recent joint-area commission meeting of the Oregon Department of Transportation's Region 4.
   That means the "Old Culver Highway" project, which calls for the repaving of eight miles of road beginning at 4th Street in downtown Madras on through Metolious and Culver, will almost surely receive money from the $400 million statewide stimulus package earmarked for bridge, lane capacity and preservation projects.
   Meanwhile, just when it appeared the City of Madras would finally have its problematic north junction improved, the same area commissioned all but nixed a $2.35 million plan to realign highways 97 and 26 at a new intersection.
   The Central Oregon Area Commission on Transportation recently ranked the north junction project third on a priority list of lane-capacity improvements for the Tri-Counties. COACT, an advisory group, was told it could choose where to spend $10 million of the stimulus package for lane-capacity projects. The Culver highway project fits into the preservation category.
   But last week, ODOT agreed to fund lane-capacity projects in Bend and Redmond plus Prineville's less expensive plan to improve truck traffic through its downtown area, which was No. 4 on COACT's priority list.
   "Needless to say, I was not tickled," Madras Mayor Rick Allen had to say of the unexpected flip-flop.
   The regional commission examined each area's recommendations and made adjustments. COACT was represented by one county commissioner from each of the Tri-Counties while representatives from the South Central Oregon Area Commission on Transportation and the Lower John Day Area Commission on Transportation also met at the Region 4 bargaining table. Commissioner Bill Bellamy represented Jefferson County.
   Gary Farnsworth, ODOT's Region 4 area manager, called these latest developments part of a "work in progress" but admitted that he was "not optimistic" the north junction project would be funded with stimulus package money, which was borne out of House Bill 2142.
   "This was one of the tougher choices we had to make along the way but it's not over," Farnsworth said. "When we weighed out the different projects it didn't prioritize as high as we all thought it would have when COACT met a few weeks ago."
   Farnsworth described the north junction project as "just below the cut line." He said the joint-area regional commission had many concerns regarding the project's readiness, which was fundamental criteria in how House Bill 2142 money is spent.
   Prineville's lane-capacity project could begin during the 2002 calendar year and was far less expensive. One of the other major goals of the commission was to make sure that each county received a roughly equal portion of the money set aside for Region 4.
   The Highway 361 project will cost more than the north junction project and bring considerable improvements to the downtown areas of Culver and Metolious as well as the corner of D Street and 4th Street in Madras.
   A $200,000 project to improve Butte Street in Metolious has also been highly prioritized. It will fix the street's load limit and include bicycle & pedestrian improvements when work begins in 2002.
   Madras city officials had explored options to improve the congested north junction for more than five years and the latest setback means there may not be any work on a solution for a couple more.
   While news of the north junction's rejection was disappointing, Madras City Councilor Bob Sjolund, a member of COACT, said he was "not surprised" that the project he lobbied for is all but finished. However, he said he believed it would be put near the top of ODOT's future State Transportation Improvement Program priority list, which directs federal dollars toward state projects.
   "We'll have another opportunity next year and get a stab at it then," said Sjolund, noting that the project could get under way as early as 2003.
   But Allen expressed his obvious discouragement at the regional commission's decision.
   "If we're still going to have to fight for this I guess the trucks are still going to be lining up (on Highway 97) because that problem is not going to go away," he said.
   If, by chance, it gets approved, the north junction proposal would create an intersection with a traffic signal north of Pine Street on the end of the 4th and 5th street couplet. A second northbound travel lane would be added to Highway 97.
   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.
   Allen said that the lane-capacity projects in Bend and Redmond had an enormous advantage in that they had "millions and millions" to offer in the form of matching funds. He said Madras shored up $25,000 for their project at the last minute to no avail.
   Each ODOT regional commission will now forward their recommendations to the state commission on transportation, which will make the ultimate decisions on allocations by January.
   Allen hopes this setback will inspire current and future city leaders to cooperate more on any future proposals.
   "The community seems to always vacillate back and forth on what they want done there," Allen said. "We've had so many people come and go over the years and everyone seems to have a different theory on how to fix the north junction and I'd hope people will challenge themselves to see this one through."
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