Highway 99 redesign plan passes muster with county

Jackson County officials said Tuesday they have no problem with a state transportation plan that will eliminate two traffic lanes on Highway 99 between Phoenix and Talent to better accommodate bicyclists and improve safety.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is drafting a plan to update that stretch of road. Changes include adding center turn lanes in some areas, reducing certain lane sizes and adding shoulders and sidewalks in some areas.

There also will be improved lighting and better connections to the Bear Creek Greenway.

The most significant change will occur between Phoenix and Talent, where a center turn lane and bike lanes will be added and two traffic lanes removed.

ODOT estimated the project's overall cost at $6 million to $7 million. The proposed improvements are aimed at accommodating traffic volumes through the year 2034, ODOT said.

"There is a problem today," said Jackson County Roads & Parks Director John Vial. "Something needs to be done. Is this the right solution? That's going to be a matter of opinion, but they are trying to fix a current problem."

ODOT officials presented their in-progress plan during a Jackson County Board of Commissioners public work session Tuesday.

Ian Horlacher, an ODOT planner, said the agency began evaluating Highway 99 in 2010 with an eye toward improving driving conditions and making commutes smoother.

There are traffic volumes of 15,000 to 17,000 vehicle trips per day on the road section from south Medford to north Phoenix, ODOT officials said. From south Phoenix to South Valley View Road, vehicle trips per day drop to about 9,000. (Correction: See below)

Officials say the road needs modifications. Between 2005 and 2009, 308 crashes were reported on the highway in the area of the plan. Most were rear-end collisions or involved cars making left turns.

"It's more of a safety improvement," Horlacher said. "There are a number of considerations."

Current proposals would keep all four travel lanes in some sections but would reduce lane widths and make accommodations for bike lanes and sidewalks or multiuse paths. Horlacher said this would especially improve conditions through the north end of Phoenix.

"There's no continuous sidewalk," Horlacher said. "You have intermittent sidewalks, you have substandard sidewalks where there are utility poles in the middle."

ODOT officials say removal of two traffic lanes in the Phoenix-Talent stretch, similar to projects dubbed "road diets" in Ashland and Medford, would improve safety by adding a center turn lane where motorists could wait before making a left turn across oncoming traffic.

ODOT has been meeting with various local governments along the corridor to gather input and suggestions that could be incorporated into final plans.

"We will not adopt a plan the county won't adopt. Or the cities," said ODOT Planning Manager Mike Baker.

Commissioner Don Skundrick said he had no objections to the project.

"I think their plan makes all the sense in the world," Skundrick said.

Commissioner John Rachor agreed but said he understands the criticism that this project is geared toward bicyclists, who average only about 60 trips a day on the stretch, compared with the 9,000 to 15,000-plus motor vehicle drivers.

"These guys are engineers, and it sounds like they've done their research," Rachor said.

ODOT officials will hold March open houses to gather public comments about the project. The exact dates and locations have yet to be determined.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The average vehicle trips per day for each of the corridor's sections has been clarified in this version.

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