Taking aim at Public Enemy #1

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It's human nature to look for someone or something to blame when a loved one suffers a traumatic death.

Sometimes that sentiment is just an emotional response to a terrible loss, and sometimes the outrage is justifiable as a matter of fact.

There is probably a little of both in the overwhelming sense of loss - and outrage - over the death of 17-year-old Taija Lyn Belwood, who died Dec. 31 when her car went over an embankment on Cornelius Pass Road and tumbled about 50 feet into a creek bed below.

No one knows all the circumstances that precipitated this tragic event. Ice could have been a contributing factor. Any time a young person is involved, driver error is a possibility.

What is known is that the tragedy ripped a hole in the community big enough to drive a Mac truck through, which is why more than 400 people turned out for a candlelight vigil for the Warren teenager Thursday at Scappoose High School, where Taija was enrolled as a senior. It hurts anytime a young person is lost. It really hurts when that young person is bright, beautiful, well known and well liked by so many people - like Taija Belwood.

Of course nothing will ever completely heal the heartache that her death has caused, and the questions of 'how' and 'why' will never be completely answered, although those questions linger in the minds of many.

In the search for a villain that is natural in a story like this there is a growing consensus that one major contributing factor to Taija Lyn Belwood's death was Cornelius Pass Road itself. That consensus is being fueled by the memories of others who have died or been seriously injured on the narrow road that snakes its way up the hill from Highway 30 to Skyline. That consensus is also being fueled by the firsthand knowledge of thousands of commuters from Columbia County who drive Cornelius Pass Road everyday on their way to work at Intel and other locations in and around Hillsboro, Beaverton and Tigard. Many of those folks are in agreement - Cornelius Pass Road is treacherous, with shoulders that are too narrow and guardrails that are too sparse. It's like running the gauntlet, every day.

Indeed, Cornelius Pass is a lifeline to Washington County for residents of Scappoose, St. Helens, Rainier and Longview, Wash. Yet their ability to effect improvements is limited because the most dangerous section of Cornelius Pass Road is under the jurisdiction of Multnomah County. Multnomah County commissioners are not exactly beholding to people who live in Columbia County, which may be why they've neglected this weak link in their infrastructure for so long.

That isn't stopping students from Scappoose High School from trying. They have kicked off a fundraising effort they hope will buy guardrails along the highway so others can be spared Taija Lyn Belwood's fate.

It isn't stopping Elizabeth Haagenson, either. Haagenson, who drives over Cornelius Pass every day on her way to work at the U.S. post office in Evergreen, is circulating a petition in hopes of gathering enough signatures from concerned citizens to convince Multnomah County commissioners to earmark some money for Cornelius Pass Road. Haagenson is impressed with the SHS fundraising effort but has been around long enough to know that bake sales and car washes are not going to be enough to raise the money to transform Cornelius Pass Road from highway of death and dismemberment to a modern commuter thoroughfare not only with guardrails but also with shoulders, heat sensors and proper lighting. She also has been around long enough to know that armed with enough information, signatures and passion, people can move mountains, which is what this mission will require.

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