A state transportation committee has approved funding a $7.3 million road improvement project for Northeast 238th Drive in Wood Village that will widen the road, allowing freight to move along the major north-south route in East Multnomah County.

The project was ranked as a highest priority among a variety of transportation projects jointly backed by East County jurisdictions through the East Metro Connections Plan.

"This is a big win for East County, made possible because we came together and worked cooperatively to identify our top shared priority," Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis said when he heard that the Oregon Department of Transportation's Region 1 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program Committee approved funding for the project.

"This is an example of when political leadership can result in tangible benefits to livability, such as shorter and safer commutes, and more efficient movement of goods and services," Bemis said.

Diane McKeel, who represents East County on the Board of County Commissioners, echoed Bemis.

"The East Metro Connection Plan is a great example of the collaborations we've been able to achieve at the local level," she said. " I'm proud that East County is leading the way by providing a shining example of local collaboration among multiple jurisdictions — including Multnomah County, Gresham, Fairview, Troutdale and Wood Village. These collaborations are crucial at a time when budgets are tight, and we must stretch every dollar for projects vital to our local economy."

Gresham, Fairview, Wood Village, Troutdale and Multnomah County adopted the East Metro Connections Plan last year to address ways to improve north-south transportation routes from Interstate 84 to U.S. 26. A significant part of the plan was an agreement to prioritize improvements on 238th between Halsey and Glisan streets to accommodate future growth and development and to allow for freight mobility.

The state's transportation commission is expected to give final approval to the 238th Drive project in December, said Don Hamilton, a spokesman for ODOT's Region 1.

East Multnomah County leaders joined forces and agreed to study how to best solve the problem of connecting Interstate 84 to Highway 26. For more than 20 years, leaders talked about expanding various routes to create a Mount Hood highway, but political turf wars always got in the way of any progress on it.

In 2007, local leaders partnered with Metro to study the area's land use in terms of future transportation, economic development and environmental needs. The result was unexpected: East Multnomah County didn't need a new highway, but it did need a better designated freight route than using Northeast 181st Avenue to access East Burnside Street.

That's when politicians drafted the East Metro Connections Plan, identifying north-south connections that need improvement along with problem intersections. Many were on Northeast 242nd Avenue, which turns into 238th as it heads down a steep and winding hill into Wood Village.

The plan called for widening traffic lanes on 238th and 242nd between Glisan and Halsey, adding bike paths and sidewalks on both sides of the roadway, and allowing freight trucks to use it. Now, lanes are too narrow.

Metro adopted the plan as part of its regional transportation plan, and East County leaders provided a unified voice while lobbying for sparse transportation funding.

Working together as a region, paid off with Wednesday's announcement that the regional transportation committee approved funding for the project, McKeel said. "We have made great strides in a short amount of time, recognizing that it was just over a year ago that we completed the East Metro Connections Plan," she said, adding that the funding is a big step forward for regional economic development.

Over the next 20 years, population is projected to grow by 28 percent, with jobs growing by 98 percent, McKeel said, citing a Metro study. "Jobs in East County are expected to double by 2035, so this connection plan is critical in order to meet our community's ongoing challenges of road and freight capacity, transit options and livability," she said.

And the road improvement project will help pave the way for industrial use at the Gresham Vista Business Park between Glisan and Stark streets west of 242nd Avenue. The property is considered ideal for "trade sector" investment, and the Port of Portland is working with the city of Gresham to develop it into a job center for clean technology, manufacturing, food processing and other professional services.

The industrial park is projected to provide about 2,700 new jobs to local communities.

In addition to creating more jobs, the road improvements will "foster economic development, safety and improved access for local residents and businesses alike," McKeel said.

But not every East County politician is as excited about the road project as McKeel and Bemis are. Wood Village Mayor Patricia Smith said she reluctantly agreed to support the road project because of the positive impact it will have on all of East County.

"It was not an easy decision on my part," she said, calling the project the lesser of two evils. "It was better than a five-lane highway coming through our park."

An alternative plan was to build a $34 million overhead highway between Stark and Glisan, running through Don Robertson Park. Because of the land's steep grade, the highway would have been built overhead, adding greatly to the expense, with an interchange at Halsey.

Instead, the 238th Drive project will serve the same purpose for a fraction of the cost without sacrificing Wood Village's only park. "It will open more access to Gresham Vista and help drive economic development, but the grade will be the same," she said. The road still will have only three travel lanes, but they will be widened.

Construction could take place as soon as 2016 or as late as 2018.

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