ODOT officials hear pleas for lower speed, traffic light on Highway 47

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - (L-R) Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, deputy general manager for Clean Water Services; Forest Grove City Councilor Victoria Lowe; trail designer Hoichi Kurisu, CWS General Manager Bill Gaffi and Washington County Chairman Andy Duyck opened a new trail at Fernhill Wetlands Thursday, May 1. Story on Page A17.Tom Beck is glad to see Highway 47 finally getting the spotlight. But he’d rather see it get a traffic light.

Eight days after a crowd gathered in Forest Grove to press for improvements to the deadly Highway 47 intersection at Northwest Verboort/Purdin roads, a large group of officials gathered again last Thursday, May 1, to press for change at a different intersection — the spot where Highway 47 meets Fernhill Road (to the south) and Maple Street (to the north).

“This is an urban road, but it’s classified as ‘rural,’” said Beck, chair of the Forest Grove Planning Commission. That means it’s regulated by ‘rural’ standards, which put the speed limit at 55 mph — too fast to install the traffic light so many local officials want to see at the popular intersection, which is frequented by people heading to Fernhill Wetlands, Clean Water Services, the Oregon National Guard Armory, Laidlaw Transit Inc. and elsewhere.

Sometimes the visitors are schoolchildren, like the Joseph Gale fourth-graders who walked there for a field trip last week and had to get a police escort to stop traffic while they crossed the highway. It will likely include an increasing number of bicyclists as word gets out about the new Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway, which crosses Highway 47 at that same point.

Beck and other city officials want the Oregon Department of Transportation to change the highway classification to ‘urban’ at that point, so the speed limit can be lowered to 45 mph, which would allow a traffic light.

A host of officials gathered last Thursday to make their case to ODOT’s Region 2 Area Manager Larry McKinley and Region 1 Area Manager David Kim, including state Sen. Betsy Johnson, Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington, Washington County Commissioner Dick Schouten, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax and City Councilor Victoria Lowe, Pacific University President Lesley Hallick, Forest Grove School District Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, Rob Foster, the city’s director of public works and a number of others.

“It was a very high-powered room,” said Lowe, who was concerned that all the recent attention to the highway’s intersection at Verboort would detract from the city’s longtime efforts to make this one safer.

A recent ODOT traffic study concluded the Highway 47 speed limit near Fernhill Road should remain 55 because 85 percent of drivers were observed traveling at that speed.

“Well of course they are, because that’s what they’re allowed to do,” said Lowe, who will travel to Salem in June with Mayor Pete Truax and other city officials to testify before a state traffic panel about the problem and ask them to overrule ODOT’s finding.

Where Highway 47 is within Forest Grove’s city limits, the state traffic engineer has discretion to lower the speed limit despite the study’s results, said Public Works Director Rob Foster, who will also travel to Salem in June.

Beck thinks ODOT needs to realize conditions have changed since it constructed the highway decades ago. “When they built this bypass, we were a town of less than 10,000 people.”

Fernhill devotees gather to open new trail

Fernhill Wetlands devotees gathered at the site last Thursday, May 1, to celebrate both the opening of a new trail and the beginning of a massive wetland-reconstruction project that will reshape the artificially square ponds that originally served as sewage lagoons.

The natural water-treatment methods being developed at Fernhill by Clean Water Services will benefit birds, birdwatchers, ratepayers and Forest Grove residents, said CWS General Manager Bill Gaffi.

They will probably also be watched around the country, said Washington County Commision Chairman Andy Duyck. CWS, which manages water resources for the Tualatin River watershed, “is on the cutting edge of innovation,” Duyck said.

City Councilor Victoria Lowe — who donated a personally designed birdbox in honor of the occasion — praised the many agencies that have worked together to improve the wetlands, but added that “the most critical partnership for the future is the partnership we establish with our environment.”

“It makes sense what we’re doing here,” said Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, CWS deputy general manager. “People come here to connect with nature and sort of wash away their daily toils.”

Hoichi Kurisu, who designed Fernhill’s new trail — as well as a water feature and foot bridges already in place — reminisced about how “When we started this project, I came almost every day before dawn, waiting in the dark. But even before sun rises, I hear bird. Then another.”

Kurisu, president of Kurisu International, spoke of how today’s “consumer-driven” societies have forgotten something important in their quest for more things.

Fernhill Wetlands “is not just purifying our water, but is purifying our hearts,” he said.

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