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Planning for Sandy's growth and transportation on Highway 26 needs a complex puzzle

FILE PHOTO - An average of more than 30,000 vehicles travel on Highway 26 daily, according to ODOT traffic volume statistics from 2016. At a little more than 12,000 people strong, Sandy still endeavors to maintain its "small town feel." The fact is that, with U.S. Highway 26 running straight through it — and population on the rise — city-like traffic woes are inevitable.

According to projections by researchers at Portland State University and Clackamas County, by 2034, Sandy could be home to 18,980 people.

This would make Sandy comparable in size to current-day Happy Valley. Given Sandy's most recent estimated population, it ranks as the second fastest-growing city in the state.

"We definitely have a pretty good growth rate," said city Planning Director Kelly O'Neill Jr. "There are 170 apartments in construction right now (and) if those all get occupied with the next year we'd have up to 447 more people."

"It's not a very well-kept secret anymore what a great place (Sandy) is to live," Mayor Bill King added.

O'Neill expressed belief that the city is prepared to take on the projected growth in stride — at least in terms of housing.

As for how that increase will affect the commutes of local residents and visitors, the question is increasingly common. Seldom is there an answer to be given.

Sizing up Sandy

"Sandy is drastically underprepared for both our current traffic, as well as the tremendous influx we'll experience in the future as one of Oregon's fastest-growing cities," said Sandy mayoral candidate Stan Pulliam. "Other than the recent walkability study performed in Sandy's downtown area, very little long-term planning has been performed to address the future infrastructural needs of our community to adjust to increases in traffic.

"For an example, it's been well over a decade since there's been any research on the viability of an alternate route to alleviate traffic without affecting local businesses. Because of increased traffic on Highway 26, our citizens are forced to use residential side streets for their local commuting needs, which drastically raise the safety concerns of those affected residents. It's concerning to imagine Sandy's traffic issues becoming worse, and even more concerning that nothing proactive is being done to address the problem in the long term."

Unfortunately, aside from projects like the walkability audit, the city is limited on what it can do to improve the highway that carries thousands of vehicles to and from the Portland area, Mount Hood and popular points beyond like Bend.

The walkability audit did help the city assess the accessibility of their side streets, which connect to Highway 26, but City Manager Kim Yamashita said, "I don't think there's any one fix (to the traffic problem)."

"Walkability won't work for everyone," she added. "Mass transit won't work for everyone."

The last state-level plan for the Highway 26 corridor running through Sandy was conducted in 2008. Through this, ODOT attempted to forecast what improvements Highway 26 would require throughout the next 10 years.

For many, the layout of Sandy's city center is quite the enigma. Many have pondered what planners were thinking when they incorporated the core of the downtown business district into a U.S. highway corridor split into two one-way passages. Nevertheless, the fact that the state owns the major thoroughfare makes planning interesting for the city.

Whose road is it?

"People think the city can control how much we grow, but we can't," Mayor King said. "I know a lot of people are frustrated. We've looked to the future and plan for as much as we can."

"We're really at the whim of ODOT when it comes to traffic problems," Yamashita added.

Since Highway 26 is property of the state, any time the city wants to make modifications along or on the highway, there's a hefty amount of paperwork and red tape. Yamashita noted herself that its hard for the city to do much to affect change on the highway, but said "getting local traffic away from the highway is the first step."

"Timeliness and building out ahead of the growth (on ODOT's part) would be helpful," she added.

This is something she expressed to Rep. Jeff Helfrich on his most recent visit to Sandy, asking him to appeal to ODOT to get help with Highway 26-related issues.

With traffic through Sandy reaching a daily average of more than 30,000 vehicles in recent years, the question has arisen numerous times — to bypass or not to bypass?

This is just one of many projects that would greatly affect Sandy on which ODOT would ultimately decide. A bypass was proposed in the state-generated 2008 Sandy Gateway Plan, but the project was never implemented.

Any bypass of Sandy would most likely have to curve around the city's southern edge, running from west of Orient Drive to Shorty's Corner at Southeast Firwood Road, and, O'Neill said, would not be financed by the city.

"We would use our funds for streets inside the city limits before we'd fund an ODOT facility," O'Neill noted. "We'd rather see Bell Street extended and 362nd Drive expanded before we'd touch Highway 26. Our priority is to solve our transportation first."

When a projection of what that project would entail was drawn up more than a decade ago, the estimated cost was well over $500 million. Even without the inevitable inflation, that price tag is not one the city could manage.

On the bus

So what's the answer?

Many would argue public transportation. Not surprisingly, that includes Sandy Transit Director Andi Howell.

"Transit is quicker than building a new highway," Howell explained.

Through the years, Sandy Transit has consistently planned to accommodate growth in the community. In 2009, the department completed its most recent master plan in which it outlined necessary tasks that would keep the system moving forward into 2029.

However, Howell said, "the city then grew fast enough we've pretty much implemented everything in it already."

In order to keep the department's forward momentum, Howell applied for a grant through the Transportation Growth Program last year to fund a new master plan.

This plan too will be a projection for the next 20 years, assuming the population in Sandy doesn't experience a boom similar to what occurred after the 2008-09 recession.

Fortunately, for people like Howell, the Legislature passed House Bill 2017, dubbed Keep Oregon Moving, making "a significant investment in transportation to help further the things that Oregonians value — a vibrant economy with good jobs, strong communities with a good quality of life, a clean environment, and safe, healthy people," according to the state website.

"What's really exciting is that transit was part of the new transportation package, and the funding that is in that package for transit is for connectivity throughout the state," Howell said. "Throughout the state, especially in this region where we have such serious traffic problems, people are starting to realize transit is the answer."

With the grant funding, the Sandy Transit Department hopes to "update the TSP to include the 668.2-acre UGB expansion area and identify pedestrian/bike systems and roadway classifications within the expanded area; update project programming lists, including project cost (currently in 2009 dollars); and implement the alternative mobility standards developed as part of the 2011 TSP."

This grant funding received by the transit department is ODOT's current effort to address traffic on Highway 26, said Don Hamilton, ODOT Region 1 public information officer. The state does intend to create a new plan of its own for the popular highway soon, but Hamilton said, "we're going to start with (the Sandy transit master plan) and see where it takes us."

The information ODOT receives from Sandy's transit plan will affect what the state investigates in its own study, but there will definitely be a new plan.

"We're looking very carefully at the traffic on that road," Hamilton noted. "We're trying to take steps to do what we can to make that road safer and more efficient."

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