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A highway divided

State is 'willing' to transfer control of the roadway over to local jurisdictions; the question is, can they afford it?
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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 replacing the 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.

'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.

At a city council meeting Tuesday, Lake Oswego Mayor Jack Hoffman said he has the same concerns as Kovash and hopes to find more information at an upcoming stakeholders meeting.

Hoffman said he is 'anxiously awaiting the April meeting to hear what ODOT has to say.'

Transfer won't happen

without all 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 north from West Linn; 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 partly because the cities have long showed interest in securing more flexibility in development standards along the road, he said. State highways are designed to carry vehicle traffic through and beyond a city, a goal that sometimes clashes with local efforts to create bike lanes or alter intersections.

'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.'

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

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. In exchange for other agencies taking over jurisdiction, 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 conceptual plan, developed several years ago but never funded.

The buyout money also wouldn't cover ongoing maintenance.

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.

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

Outside of the recent meeting, West Linn's mayor said projects planned in Lake Oswego - a possible streetcar line and redevelopment of the Foothills district, for example - could choke traffic flow to and from West Linn.

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

Lake Oswego faces

financial impacts, too

Lake Oswego engineers are still analyzing the yearly costs to maintain a portion of Highway 43, but it's already clear that 'the financial implications could be significant,' said city economic and capital development director Brant Williams.

To keep up with long-term replacement of aging infrastructure such as bridges, he said, the city would likely need to set aside about $570,000 a year.

The council will need to weigh the benefits of controlling the corridor and funding its operation and maintenance, among other aspects of ODOT's proposal.

'Are we getting the funds we feel would be necessary for justifying taking on a facility that requires quite a bit of maintenance, has a lot of infrastructure and would be a long-term challenge for us to keep up with, given our existing revenues and funding sources?' Williams said.

Lake Oswego City Councilor Donna Jordan said she doesn't see a need to rush the decision.

'If the price were right or they had different things on the table, it might look like the best thing to do because it gives you a lot more local control over how your streets look and how your neighborhoods look,' she said. 'But the mix has to be right.'