The unavoidable question that lingers in the minds of many Columbia County residents in the wake of Lonny Friberg's fatal automobile accident is how many more people must die before somebody does something to make Cornelius Pass Road safe.
That's not only a fair question in light of the fact that Friberg is the second Scappoose resident in two months to die on what unquestionably is one of Oregon's more dangerous roads, it is literally a question of life and death. Friberg, 62, affectionately known as the 'yacht doctor' because of his expertise in repairing boats, joins Scappoose High School senior Taija Belwood on the list of local residents who have died while driving the gauntlet between Highway 30 and Hillsboro. In the past five years, nearly 100 crashes have been documented on Cornelius Pass Road.
Members of the Taija Belwood Foundation, which formed to advance safety improvements after she died when her car plunged over an unguarded embankment New Year's Eve, aren't buying a Multnomah County Sheriff's Department report that attributed the crash to driver error rather than the condition of the highway itself.
In a classic case of Catch 22, highway authorities in the region are good at finding reasons why Cornelius Pass Road is somebody else's problem. Columbia County is sympathetic to the need for improvements because its citizens are primarily the ones who use the road, but technically is off the hook because the road itself lies in Multnomah and Washington counties. Even if it was within the county's borders, Columbia County is so 'broke' it cannot even afford to provide 24-hour police protection.
Washington County, where thousands of Columbia County residents are going to work, doesn't see the need for road improvements because it has already invested millions along its portion of Cornelius Pass Road. It's not seeing an unusually high number of wrecks in its jurisdiction.
Multnomah County, which has jurisdiction over the section where most of the crashes are taking place, has more pressing transportation matters to contend with, like the bridges in downtown Portland. Three of its county commissioners are up for election this year, and the candidates aren't going to get a lot of votes solving a problem for people in Columbia County.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is not in the habit of adding highways to its list of responsibilities just because some county can't or won't belly up to the bar.
The U.S. Department Transportation might be a possibility, except that it just dumped a lot of the $30 million used to replace the Sauvie Island bridge just a few miles down the road. The federal well is deep, but it isn't bottomless, especially in the aftermath of an expensive war and a big bank bailout.
As is so often the case, agencies are much better at pointing out the problems than finding solutions.
The problem is people dying on Cornelius Pass Road.
The solution is money - by Multnomah County's estimate, $40 million, which, county officials are quick to add, is in short supply. Who has the moxie to find that money and bring it to bear remains to be seen.
What is unique about Cornelius Pass Road is how it has become a lightning rod for change. More than 100 local residents have joined the Taija Belwood Foundation and are working hard to keep the pressure on people who are in a position to effect positive change. They have collected more than 6,000 signatures demanding improvements, written more than 500 letters to city, county, state and federal officials, published a dynamic Web site, and distributed press releases, flyers and bumper stickers raising awareness of the problem - too many deaths on Cornelius Pass Road. Perhaps their greatest accomplishment is harnessing the collective conviction that something can and must be done to save lives. Toward this end they are moving forward with plans to commission an independent study of what can be done to make the road safer, and on Monday at 7 p.m. they will host a town hall meeting at Scappoose High School to further mobilize and motivate their supporters and hold public officials accountable.
This is community activism at its best - a worthy cause and a dedicated group of volunteers determined to see it through. Someday, someone will be spared an awful tragedy because of their efforts.