Protest and busy forum bring out Oak Hills residents opposed to five-lane project

With construction expected to begin this summer, residents opposed to widening Bethany Boulevard to five lanes are running out of time to change the course set in motion by the Washington County Department of Land Use and Transportation.

That doesn't mean they're not going to try.

About 150 neighbors and concerned citizens, many from the Oak Hills area, staged an outdoor protest near the Highway 26 overpass on Sunday. Others kept county transportation officials hopping at a two-and-a-half-hour information session held Tuesday evening at Sunset Presbyterian Church on Northwest Cornell Road.

The more vocal neighbors are registering their opposition to a plan to widen the congested corridor to five lanes between Northwest Cornell Road to the West Union Road intersection, including the overcrossing of Highway 26. The residents, concerned about increasing traffic as well as preserving houses and neighborhood character, advocate a more modest plan primarily involving three lanes.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners approved the five-lane plan in a 3-2 vote in early 2011. Including the overpass expansion, the projected budget for the project is close to $25 million.

Amy Barton, a resident of Oak Hills for eight years, said Tuesday she was disappointed county officials and commissioners appeared to ignore petitions with 1,700 signatures advocating a scaled-down road expansion design.

'We feel four to five lanes is overkill and a huge waste of taxpayer money,' she said of the project.

Stephen Roberts, communications coordinator for the Washington County transportation office, said data from numerous focus groups and studies helped inform the board of commissioners' decision.

'We've had a pretty long process with this one,' the Tigard resident said.

Washington County District 2 Commissioner Greg Malinowski said he attended the forum in support of Oak Hills and other concerned neighbors. He and fellow Commissioner Dick Schouten supported the three-lane plan but were outvoted.

'There was no evidence I can find that three lanes won't work,' he said.

He said he's particularly concerned that a five-lane corridor will effectively cut off neighbors and children from Oak Hills Elementary School, rendering any safe pedestrian crossing impractical.

'Kids can see the school, but they can't get across Bethany,' he said.

Malinowski said his understanding of the rationale behind the five-lane plan boiled down to 'if three lanes can put through a certain amount of traffic, then five could put through even more.'

But, he added wistfully, 'there's got to be more to life than just seeing how many people can drive through to get to the next subdivision.'

Roberts said the purpose of the forum was to present final plans rather than accept further citizen input.

'We're doing a little nipping and tucking,' he said of the plans at this stage. 'The decision was made, so we're moving along.'

Acknowledging the outcry against the project's scope is notable, Roberts said the office has also received supportive feedback.

'More often than not, it's along the lines of 'Why didn't you do this 20 years ago?'' he said.

Darla Castagno, a 40-year resident of Oak Hills and a champion of the Historic Register plan, said the project planning 'started with five lanes and ended up with five lanes.'

'The decision was made beforehand. That's what the citizens feel,' she said.

Although it would appear there is little time left to influence a change in plans, both Castagno and Barton - without specifying what's next - indicated the Oak Hills group is not done fighting to preserve their neighborhood's quality of life.

'It's not over in our minds - yet,' Castagno said.

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