Still unclear how ODOT can fix Cherry Lane, Cora, Hilltop

by: Photo by Holly M. Gill - Oregon Department of Transportation officials update the Jefferson County Commission on the status of the Cherry Lane/U.S. Highway 97 safety audit. At the table were: (clockwise from right) Ana Jovanovic, ODOT project leader, Commissioner Wayne Fording, Commission Chairman Mike Ahern, Commissioner John Hatfield, Joel McCarroll, Region 4 traffic manager, and Gary Farnsworth, ODOT area manager.

   A safety audit of U.S. Highway 97 at Cherry Lane, north of Madras, has shown what residents of the area have long known -- it's a dangerous intersection.
   During just four days at the site, officials observed and photographed unsafe practices, such as northbound drivers using the southbound passing lane as a left-turn lane.
   Besides the hazards of speeding, trucks and agricultural equipment on the highway, "It's hard to pick out the intersection, day or night," said Joel McCarroll, Oregon Department of Transportation Region 4 traffic manager.
   Last week, ODOT officials presented the results of the four-day audit, conducted from Aug. 30 through Sept. 2, to the Jefferson County Commission.
   In order to properly address the problems at Cherry Lane, the six-member audit team studied the portion of the highway from the Hilltop Lane/Meadowlark Lane intersection on the hill north of Madras all the way to Clark Drive. Kittelson & Associates Inc., of Portland, compiled the results.
   The highway, considered a freight route, averages over 4,000 vehicles a day, about one-quarter of which are trucks. In 2010, there were six crashes between Hilltop Lane and Clark Drive -- up from three in 2008 and 2009, and two in 2007.
   Among the findings was that the passing lane for southbound traffic, just south of Cherry Lane, seems to be causing increased speeds, and safety problems, as traffic nears the city's northern city limits.
   "The southbound climbing lane -- what it's really doing is encouraging drivers who want to speed to speed," said McCarroll. "There is a real correlation between speed and crash severity."
   Team member Rich Black, of Madras, county engineer, said that because the passing lane is short, as vehicles approach from the north, "A car only has 30 seconds to make a decision, get in the lane and pass."
   Southbound cars are averaging 65 mph, while trucks are averaging 62 mph on the passing lane.
   One obvious solution, according to Gary Farnsworth, ODOT area manager, would be to close the southbound passing lane. "It appears the climbing lane, in and of itself, is an issue," he said.
   The southbound passing lane could be transformed into a left turn lane for northbound drivers turning west onto Cherry Lane. However, that solution might have to meet the approval of the Oregon Truckers Association.
   Other changes could include installation of "Your Speed" signs; earlier signage for southbound motorists; and photo radar enforcement for speeding.
   "We want to do low-cost solutions, if they buy us benefits," said McCarroll.
   Officials also discussed the possibility of paving Brown Drive to Loucks Road, to allow residents of the North Madras Heights area to use another route into town and avoid the highway traffic.
   Ana Jovanovic, ODOT transportation planner and project leader, said that the original project was scheduled to go to bid in January 2013. "I don't know how realistic that is at this point," she said, pointing out that acquiring right of way for a solution could add a year to a project.
   Even if there are no immediate results from the group's audit, Black said that the effort was not wasted. By getting a Cherry Lane project in the queue for funding, as it becomes availabe, "It puts us in a better position to go after that funding," he said. "Five years beats the heck out of never."
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