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Though the Medford ban on panhandling has been ruled unconstitutional, Oregon Department of Transportation officials say panhandling won’t be allowed around the new south Medford interchange, such as this spot at the top of the northbound off-ramp, during construction. - Jim Craven

Safety trumps panhandlers

Transportation officials say panhandling won't be allowed around the top of the new south Medford interchange because it isn't safe during construction.

The Oregon Department of Transportation wanted to clarify its position after Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia recently threw out a Medford ordinance against panhandling at intersections because it violates the free speech provision of the Oregon Constitution.

"We don't oppose the judge's ruling," said Gary Leaming, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "We want to keep people safe in the construction zone."

Leaming said once motorists get off the freeway, there are no stop signs or traffic lights to control traffic flow during the construction phase and no place for pedestrians to cross safely.

"You can't impede traffic," he said. "If somebody stopped up there you would be impeding traffic."

ODOT is only concerned with panhandling around the exits and entrances to the freeway where the new overpass crosses Interstate 5. The area is filled with traffic cones and a vehicle circulation pattern that currently doesn't require stop signs or traffic signals.

Workers and equipment constantly are traversing the overpass while major construction continues on the northbound on-ramp to Interstate 5.

"It's a very big hazard for pedestrians at this point," he said.

When the panhandling ordinance was overturned, Leaming said, "Our contractors and inspectors were concerned that that might open the way for panhandlers to show up at the top of the interchange."

Once the interchange is completed later this spring, panhandlers and pedestrians will be able to safely negotiate the overpass guided by traffic signals and crosswalks.

Even though the overpass is off limits, the new intersections at Barnett Road and Center Drive have signals and panhandling wouldn't necessarily impede traffic.

"You can knock yourself out there," said Leaming.

Medford police officials have said they have stopped enforcing the panhandling ordinance in light of the judge's ruling. Medford officials haven't decided yet whether they will appeal the ruling or craft a new ordinance.

Medford police Chief Randy Schoen said his department has asked ODOT to define the area where construction work is taking place and to report anyone who is in those zones.

"People, period, won't be able to hang out there," said Schoen. "They will be asked to leave or we will cite them for trespassing."

He said it doesn't matter if someone is panhandling or just idly standing around the overpass area because it is unsafe for the pedestrian, driver and workers.

"It will be a different issue once the construction is done," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

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