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Road now de facto bypass

The debate over the need for a new large roadway to serve western Washington County is not over.

Recent emergency repairs on Northwest Cornelius Pass Road proves motorists are creating their own version of the “Westside Bypass,” the name given a proposed freeway project through the county that was killed by environmentalists and mass transit advocates in the 1990s.

The road runs north from the Tualatin Valley Highway in Hillsboro and over the west hills to Highway 30.

This month, Multnomah County has closed a portion of the road from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on three consecutive Fridays — the last of which is May 17 — to patch asphalt that is breaking down because of increased heavy truck traffic.

County spokesman Mike Pullen explained that many of the additional trucks are working on the new semiconductor fabrication plant on Intel’s Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro. The road work is expected to cost around $40,000.

But those trucks are only part of the story. According to figures provided by Multnomah County, annual average daily traffic counts on its section of Cornelius Pass Road are skyrocketing. The number of vehicles using the road jumped from 5,945 a day in 1991 to 10,378 a day in 2011, the most recent year for which such figures are available. Pullen said many, if not most, of these vehicles are continuing into Washington County, drawn by its booming economy.

Traffic counts on the road could increase substantially as the economy continues to improve.

Federal, state and local officials have been worried about the condition of Multnomah County’s portion of the road for a long time. It is only two lanes wide, and twists through hills between Skyline Boulevard and Highway 30. There are few barriers along a series of steep ravines, and these safety concerns were highlighted by the death of 17-year-old Taija Belwood in a single-car crash on Cornelius Pass Road in December 2008.

The resulting public outcry led the 2012 Oregon Legislature to appropriate $9.5 million to improve safety, but the specific projects that will be funded are still to be determined.

Tammy Belwood, Taija’s mother, is thankful for the proposed safety enhancements, but worries it is not nearly enough.

“Cornelius Pass Road wasn’t designed to be the kind of road it is today,” said Belwood.

Despite her misgivings, Belwood sees Cornelius Pass Road as the quickest route between her home in Scappoose and her job in Hillsboro. Driving through Portland to reach Highway 26 would take at least twice as long, she said.

Bypass project axed

The Westside Bypass project was killed before a specific route was ever proposed. But interest in the concept of a new westside transportation corridor never completely went away, especially as traffic congestion in Washington County has grown. According to Metro figures, average freight and commute times have increased 17 percent there since 1980, and are expected to increase another 22 percent by 2035.

The Hillsboro City Council proactively jumped into the issue last November, when council members passed a resolution asking the 2013 Oregon Legislature to direct the Oregon Department of Transportation to study the need for a new transportation corridor to serve all of Northwest Oregon, including Columbia, Clatsop, Clackamas, Marion, Multnomah, Tillamook, Washington and Yamhill counties.

Although no specific route was recommended, a conceptual drawing followed much of Cornelius Pass Road, helping to reignite opposition to the idea. Hillsboro responded by pulling back and reaching out to others in the region.

“We’re listening to a broad range of stakeholders and seeking funding for a study on how best to meet the next 50 years of transportation needs in northwest Oregon,” explained Rob Dixon, assistant manager of the city of Hillsboro.

However, as the increasing vehicle counts on Cornelius Pass Road prove, drivers are not waiting to create their own preferred route to and from western Washington County — even though the Multnomah County portion is in need of substantial work. Washington County has transformed most of its share of the road into a modern, four-lane thoroughfare, but the entire Multnomah County stretch has not been repaved in several decades.

A significant percentage of the vehicles using the road are commercial trucks, and many carry fuel and other hazardous materials. The Oregon Department of Transportation has banned trucks carrying hazardous materials from traveling through the Vista Ridge tunnel from Washington County because of safety concerns.

But Multnomah County has designated the road a freight route because it is the most direct heavy truck connection between western Washington County and Highway 30.

The costs of maintaining county roads continues to increase, with the cost of asphalt sealing oil going from $182 a ton in 2001 to $240 a ton in 2006 and to $624 a ton in 2012. The cost of maintaining a paved road is now averaging about $30,000 per mile, per year. For comparison, the annual cost of maintaining a gravel road is about $5,000 per mile.

Too many accidents

County road and public safety officials had been meeting about the growing number of accidents on Cornelius Pass Road even before Taija Belwood was killed when her car slid off a curve and landed upside down in a creek, drowning her.

The death prompted officials to request that the Federal Highway Administration conduct a safety audit of the road. It identified 18 safety issues along the corridor, and recommended a number of improvements. Some were funded with federal stimulus dollars in 2010, including “rumble strips” to warn drivers when they are nearing the outside edge of the road or crossing the center line.

After hearing from Taija’s family and friends in 2009, the Legislature authorized the development of design alternatives for improving safety on Cornelius Pass Road. The study — which involved the Oregon Department of Transportation, Multnomah County and a number of consultants — focused on a five-mile stretch of the road between Highway 30 and Kaiser Road. It found that 171 vehicle accidents occurred there between 2003 and 2009. The largest number, 50, took place at the Skyline intersection. Other large numbers occurred at the Highway 30 intersection and along a number of curves between there and Skyline.

The study proposed 13 specific safety improvements. They ranged from adding lighting to upgrading the entire corridor to comply with 45 mph standards. Costs of these upgrades on an individual basis range from $191,000 to $26.8 million, with the total cost of all the improvements pegged at more than $60 million.

That much funding is not available, however. Instead, the 2012 Legislature authorized $9.5 million for Cornelius Pass Road, and the county is now deciding how best to use the funds.

A separate ODOT project to improve the intersection at Highway 30 is already under way.




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