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ODOT rest area slated for permanent rest

County protests imminent closure of Hwy. 26 facility
by: LISA ANDERSON Highway 26's only public restroom between Madras and Portland costs the Oregon Department of Transportation $7,500 per month that it plans to cut out of its total biennual budget of more than $5 billion.

Good luck finding anyone who's looking forward to the Government Camp rest stop closure that the Oregon Department of Transportation set for Oct. 31. Highway 26's only public restroom between Madras and Portland has brought welcome relief to thousands over the years.

'It's a question of public safety,' said Joel Horning, a resident of Redmond. 'It's a place to stop, refresh, get out of the car - not just a place to stop for the bathroom. It doesn't make sense to close something so used.'

Horning travels between Central Oregon and Portland almost every two weeks and always takes a break there. He wondered if he would end up stopping at campgrounds or on the side of the road and said he dreaded both of those scenarios.

The rest stop also provides the only public stop along the highway between Sandy and Hood River. A Monday survey of the numerous rest-stop users before the start of ski season revealed a number of travelers from the north.

Bernadette Chumley of Woodland, Wash., often travels through to Bend. 'When you gotta go, you gotta go,' she said. 'They better bring a big clean-up truck out here if they're going to close the rest stop.'

But the funding stream in this case also needs relief. ODOT's 2-percent reduction in its maintenance budget pitted the rest stop against snowplows, much to the grief of bathroom breakers, tourism advocates and local businesses.

ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton argued that, unlike rest-stop facilities along Interstate 5, the Government Camp facility is not really full service, pointing out that trucks usually can't stop in its parking lot when it's jammed with skiers.

'We're in a situation where government is providing services for private businesses like the ski resorts,' Hamilton said.

The rest stop has cost ODOT nearly $475,000 over the past six years. While $70,000 annually was sufficient in 2006, its total cost has risen to nearly $90,000 in the past three years largely due to vandalism issues, Hamilton said.

Regarding the vandalism, Horning countered that he doesn't see it as an issue. Suggesting more lights around the building to discourage vandals, he thinks rest stops between Portland and Eugene are comparably vandalized, and 'those aren't being closed down.'

In letters to the Oregon Transportation Commission and state legislators last week, Clackamas County Chair Charlotte Lehan begged that the rest stop remain open until an alternative source of funding could be found.

'This facility is of vital interest to a broad array of residents, businesses, local and federal governments, recreational users, commuters and visitors,' Lehan wrote.

Among them are Clackamas County constituents such as Don and Irene Cawley of Damascus, who travel to Prineville regularly. They've used the rest stop since the 1940s and don't want to have to go out into the woods to relieve themselves. They see vandalism as an issue, particularly inside the restrooms, but they think a rest stop is a necessity in the area.

On Aug. 22 and Sept. 12, the U.S. Forest Service, Villages at Mt. Hood and Government Camp, the ski operators (Summit, Skibowl and Timberline) and other business interests met with ODOT to come up with a short- and long-term strategies to keep the rest area open. They negotiated with ODOT to delay the closure that was originally set for June 30, but Hamilton says ODOT can't delay it any further.

An initial letter on April 22, 2009, to Clackamas County, the Government Camp Community Planning Organization and the Forest Service outlined reasons for this year's planned closure of the rest area. The letter, which referenced the availability of other planned public restrooms, flew under the radar on that assumption, making emergency meetings necessary.

'There's been a lot less notice on this than I'd think is necessary, so I would hope that ODOT takes that into account in reconsidering their decision,' said Peter Watts, a Lake Oswego-area attorney who volunteers as chair of the Clackamas County Tourism Development Council.

ODOT offered that Clackamas County's budget assume the site's approximately $7,500-per-month maintenance costs for a six-month period in order to keep the restroom open while the group works on a longer-term strategy. Any change in the operation would require a transfer of the conditional use permit of ODOT's current restroom facility on Forest Service land.

'There's no reason this can't happen promptly if someone steps up with a good plan,' Hamilton said.

The county has also experienced recent reductions to its $800-million annual budget and doesn't have an identified pot of money to draw from for restrooms on state-owned highways.

County Tourism Director Danielle Cowan wondered why in ODOT's total biennual budget of more than $5 billion the transportation agency couldn't find a way to keep one of its most popular services open at less than a $200,000 portion of that total.

'We are not in the rest- area business; ODOT is. We think they should find this rest area to be as important as the many others they operate, especially since it the only option on that entire stretch of highway,' Cowan said.

Acknowledging that any financial reduction is a difficult balancing act, Hamilton responded that ODOT's budgeting process received input from thousands of Oregonians through online comments and through testimony given in Salem.