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Foundation grows out of Cornelius Pass Road fears

Planner says Cornelius Pass Road upgrades would top $40 million
by: Rick Swart, Multnomah County planner Ed Abramson tells students at Scappoose High School it would cost more than $40 million to transform Cornelius Pass Road into a modern commuter highway. Abramson was speaking in response to the students’ plans to raise money for a guardrail at the curve where their classmate, Taija Lyn Belwood, died in an automobile crash. Listening in the background are Belwood’s mother, Tammy Belwood, and stepfather, Jim Smith.

It would cost more than $40 million to transform Cornelius Pass Road into a modern commuter highway, and given the hefty price tag such major improvements aren't going to happen anytime soon.

That is the message Multnomah County's principle planner delivered to a group of concerned students and parents Friday at Scappoose High School.

'That money isn't growing on trees,' said Ed Abramson, head planner for Multnomah County's Land Use and Transportation Department.

Abramson and several representatives of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office provided an overview of the issues surrounding Cornelius Pass Road in response to the recent death of Taija Lyn Belwood, a Scappoose High School senior who was killed Dec. 31 in an automobile crash on the heavily used arterial between Highway 30 and Hillsboro.

The tragedy prompted calls for improvements to the road, which is used by thousands of Columbia County residents who commute from St. Helens and Scappoose to jobs in Hillsboro, Beaverton and Tigard.

A group led by the teenager's parents has formed the Taija Belwood foundation to advocate 'for a safer Cornelius Pass Road.' The foundation has set up a Web site (www.taija-belwood.com) and is circulating petitions asking Multnomah County's board of commissioners to expedite planned improvements to the thoroughfare, which critics say have languished because it is designated as a 'rural road.' The foundation is also printing bumper stickers that say, 'Pray for me - I drive Cornelius Pass Road,' in an attempt to build support for their cause.

'Taija always said she wanted to change the world,' said Tammy Belwood, the teenager's mother. 'If we can save just one more person from dying on that road, then we've changed the world.'

Scappoose High School students are raising money they had planned to present to Multnomah County commissioners to help cover the cost of a guardrail on the curve where Belwood's 1996 Mazda MX6 left the road and tumbled down an embankment.

Abramson said that while the students' intentions were

honorable, the money would be better spent on driver education, a theme that was echoed by sheriff's deputies.

'The one thing we can focus on today is the human element - driver safety and responsibility,' said Lt. Jason Gates of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. 'Being a defensive driver is going to be the number-one thing that will have the greatest immediate effect.' Abramson encouraged the students to 'think out of the box' to come up with innovative ways to improve awareness of safe driving practices.

Not everybody bought into that approach.

'How many more people have to die before you do something about that road?' asked Joe Werderber, a SHS senior. Werderber said Multnomah County has known for years that Cornelius Pass is one of the five most dangerous roads in the region, yet has done little to make it safer. 'We're not asking them to spend $40 million to fix the road, we're asking them to put up a guardrail.'

Jim Smith, Taija Belwood's stepfather, said the new foundation is committed to working positively and constructively with everybody who can affect incremental improvements to Cornelius Pass Road.

'That's what Taija would have wanted,' he said.

The foundation hopes to gather 14,000 signatures to present to the Multnomah County commissioners along with technical information about the road from its own experts, according to Smith.

Petitions are available at the South County Spotlight, Roadrunner, All About Mail and the high school in Scappoose, and at Skinny's Texaco and Oregon Trail Lanes in St. Helens.