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ODOT cites declining traffic crashes

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - New signs indicating turn hazards were installed at the Bennett Road-Highway 30 intersection.An Oregon Department of Transportation assessment of the state’s 13 active safety corridors anticipated soon after the New Year is likely to recommend a delisting of the five-mile stretch of Highway 30 between Scappoose and St. Helens.

“It’s on the list for recommended decommissioning,” said Amanda Salyer, an ODOT senior traffic analyst.

State transportation officials are pointing to a decline in severe and fatal crashes in the corridor, which has been active since March 2011. Safety corridors are designated for select state roads that meet criteria for listing based on historical crash data. To be considered, roadway crash statistics for serious injuries and fatalities must be 110 percent of the three-year state average.

Two locations within the corridor — at the Highway 30 intersection with Bennett and Church roads — are listed on the state’s Safety Priority Index System as of December 2010 as being in the top 5 percent of dangerous road zones.

Other ODOT officials pointed to the possible delisting as a sign actions taken on Highway 30, including a recently completed $20,000 signage initiative that included replacing faded signs and locating signs more strategically along the longer 57-mile stretch of Highway 30 from near Linnton to Clatskanie, are having a positive effect.

There have also been educational efforts, including campaigns built around students returning to school and, currently, a student competition to design highway safety videos.

“I think the motorists who are using the corridor are more aware of their behavior,” said Lou Torres, an ODOT spokesman, who cited data indicating a decline in crashes in rural areas along Highway 30. “I think [the efforts have] been making a difference.”

Despite the crash data, however, there is some question whether the fundamental problems plaguing Highway 30 that led to several high-profile crashes, including fatalities, have been addressed.

Sgt. Yvette Shepherd, who manages the Oregon State Police worksite in St. Helens, said high speeds within the safety corridor are still commonplace.

“Unfortunately, we are still having speed issues within that area,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd learned earlier this year the worksite would not receive safety corridor funding to cover overtime expense needed to beef up patrols within the corridor, as it had in the prior budget year. During the safety corridor’s first year, OSP received $16,500 to expand patrols.

A September 2011 article in The Spotlight pointed to the fact speeds topping 70 mph were still regularly recorded in the corridor, according to OSP observations, though there had been an indication the volume of speed citations was declining.

Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher, who with Sen. Betsy Johnson co-chairs a Safety Working Group focused on the corridor, said he is also not convinced the main safety issues — in particular high speeds — tied to Highway 30 have been tackled.

“You could put the signs up, but I’m not sure that’s going to cause people to slow down,” he said. “They built a highway that looks like an expressway, and people are going to drive it like an expressway.”

Fisher said the decision to not double fines within the corridor, which had been made based on feedback from local residents who perceived it as a potentially excessive hardship during a difficult economy, likely diluted the corridor’s presence.

“At the end of the day, we never doubled the cost of the fine. We never did that,” he said. “I can’t say that [the safety corridor] has made a significant difference on the speed on U.S. 30.”

ODOT officials say that despite the possibility the corridor will be delisted, identified projects, including intersection work where Bennett and Millard roads intersect with Highway 30, will go forward. Unclear, however, is how much money the state will allocate to those projects.

Torres said he expects to have a better grasp of design options in February when his agency meets with the local working group.

There are 13 active safety corridors within the state at any one time, which is intended to increase their significance to motorists. Following delisting, ODOT officials said monitoring of the corridor continues for three years.

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