A highway divided

The state wants other agencies to divvy up state-run Highway 43, but local officials are wary of the costs

In the 1930s, Highway 43 served as a farm-to-market route, helping farmers and others from rural parts safely and efficiently transport their goods to town.

These days, it's a major thoroughfare through some cities - a main street of sorts for Lake Oswego and West Linn - as well as a regional arterial.

That shift in the road's role has led the Oregon Department of Transportation to push for cities and counties along Highway 43 to take control of the state-run route, shouldering the burden for its future operation.

Jason Tell, a regional manager for ODOT, formally expressed the state's 'willingness' to transfer jurisdiction of the route in a letter to affected governments late last year.

'Because of the changing function of the road and constrained state transportation funding, Highway 43 will be minimally maintained if it stays under state control,' wrote Tell.

On the other hand, he said, 'Transferring it back to local governments would formalize the transition this facility is going through, speed the realization of regional planning efforts and better serve communities along this route.'

At stake are some expensive and long-range projects planned throughout the region, including a replacement Sellwood Bridge in Portland, a possible streetcar line between Portland and Lake Oswego, redevelopment of the Foothills district in Lake Oswego and completion of long-sought street improvements in West Linn, among others.

Those all stand to gain from a jurisdictional transfer, which would bring more control to development standards used in planning local projects along the highway.

'It is clear that local and regional plans call for Highway 43 to perform a different function than originally envisioned,' Tell wrote. 'This transformation will happen sooner, more efficiently and better serve your aspirations through local ownership and management.'

Even so, affected governments in Clackamas County are leery of the potential costs.

'With control comes a bill to maintain it,' West Linn Mayor John Kovash said recently, describing what some see as a catch-22.

Transfer won't happen without everyone on board

The roughly 12-mile road begins in Oregon City and moves through West Linn, where it is known as Willamette Drive, before running north through Lake Oswego, where it becomes State Street. It continues heading north, becoming Macadam Avenue, and ends in Portland.

So far, only Portland, Clackamas County and Multnomah County officials have been directly involved in negotiations with ODOT. The discussion is focused on Highway 43 from West Linn on north; the state would keep control of the portion in Oregon City.

But Clackamas County won't assume control of its six-mile stretch 'if West Linn and Lake Oswego aren't able to assume ownership almost simultaneously,' said Cam Gilmour, Clackamas County's director of transportation and development.

That's for two reasons, he said. The cities have long aimed for more flexibility in the roadway's development standards, whether for bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways, intersections or other projects.

'It's particularly acute with consideration being given to the Portland-Lake Oswego transit project,' Gilmour said. 'Having something that functions more like an urban boulevard with more pedestrian orientation has been something everybody is interested in pursuing.'

The other reason is financial in nature.

'There isn't really money for it at this time from a county or local jurisdiction perspective,' he said.

Deal hinges on money

Today, the Oregon Department of Transportation spends about a quarter-million dollars annually on Highway 43, which it has owned since the late 1930s. The department has offered $8.2 million to cover estimated costs of bringing pavement up to good condition: $3.3 million for Portland, $1.4 million for Multnomah County and $3.5 million for Clackamas County.

That $3.5 million is a big difference from what Clackamas engineers believe is needed to bring the county's stretch up to speed.

Gilmour said his division believes almost $9 million is needed, including $1.1 million for a piece in unincorporated county land, $4.1 million for Lake Oswego and $3.6 million for West Linn.

'You wish you could do just an overlay, but we think more substantial work is necessary,' Gilmour said, explaining the cost difference. 'You need a good roadbed that is well-drained before you put asphalt on top of it.'

The state went 18 years without a gas tax increase until this January, and the economic recession has constrained the amount of money coming to the state highway fund, Gilmour said.

'We're all struggling financially with road funds. All of us have fallen behind, including ODOT.'

He hopes ODOT officials will consider phasing in the transfer and putting more money on the table so the county can take the offer seriously.

The state doesn't face any legal requirement to keep Highway 43 in good condition, he said, although policy calls for keeping 90 percent of the entire highway system's pavement in fair condition or better.

'That's a goal - not a mandate,' Gilmour said. 'Funding has never kept pace with that need.'

Gilmour said West Linn would face big challenges to fund highway improvements without the roadway being in decent shape when it took control.

'West Linn, in particular, doesn't have any permanent funding in place to take on this road over time unless it's initially in good condition,' he said.

Much of the West Linn pavement now rates in poor condition.

Lake Oswego, meanwhile, has pavement in slightly better form because the city has invested in the road to complete local projects over the years.

West Linn council wary of idea

The West Linn City Council recently discussed the proposal to transfer Highway 43 jurisdiction, noting ODOT's buyout offer falls far short of the city's $20 million Highway 43 streetscape plan, developed several years ago but never funded.

The buyout money also wouldn't cover ongoing maintenance.

'We're talking, over time, probably $500,000 or a million dollars a year it would take to maintain the standard,' said councilor Mike Jones.

The city now only has $30,000 a year for crack sealing and $30,000 a year for slurry sealing in its annual street fund, according to the public works department.

At the same time, if West Linn took ownership, Highway 43 would become its highest-volume road for traffic, pushing it to the top of the priority list.

'That would demand our maintenance and repair attention,' West Linn Engineering Manager Dennis Wright told the council. 'I don't know where we'd get the money to do even the minimal maintenance ODOT is doing on Highway 43 now.'

Aside from cost, local officials worry about the impact on traffic flow between cities if Highway 43's management is broken up into segments.

Outside of the council meeting, West Linn's mayor said projects planned in Lake Oswego - a possible streetcar line along the Willamette River to the downtown area, and redevelopment of the Foothills district, for example - could choke traffic flow to and from West Linn. That portion of Highway 43, he said, 'is our link to downtown Portland.'

'If you transfer ownership to other jurisdictions, you have fragmented ownership,' Kovash said, instead advocating for 'some type of overall management system for Highway 43.'