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The Medford viaduct would be vulnerable in a major earthquake. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

If the Big One comes

A statewide panel charged with assessing Oregon's future transportation needs found the ability to handle a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake a top priority across the state.

The Governor's Transportation Vision Panel released its final report this week outlining needs and challenges facing the state in coming decades. Called "One Oregon: A Vision for Oregon’s Transportation System," the report locked into three key priorities:

• Preparing for the impact of a major Cascadia subduction zone event;

• Alleviating Portland metro area congestion, which is having a major impact on the economic vitality of all regions;

• Improving public transit, such as bus systems, both to get people around locally and to connect communities across the region.

"I was very happy they recognized the impact of a Cascadia event, particularly in southwest Oregon, where it's twice as likely to happen," said Medford lawyer Stuart Foster, a former member of the Oregon Transportation Commission who was on the Innovation and Seismic Subcommittee. "Obviously there is a significant need for a major seismic retrofit of I-5 from California to Washington."

In Southern Oregon, the viaduct traversing downtown Medford is a component that needs examination, he said. "We've got to have a backbone in place along the I-5 corridor to address the 300,000 people living in southwestern Oregon."

Not surprisingly, three of the five priorities assigned to Southern Oregon — public transit, seismic preparedness and freight mobility — mirrored the panel's top three for the state. Connected and integrated routes for bicyclists and pedestrians and expansion of infrastructure for electric vehicles were the other two priorities.

The region covering Jackson, Josephine and most of Douglas counties has a need for "flexible and reliable transit" because it is important to residents to have access to schools and employment centers, the panel wrote. "There is a strong regional desire for improved and increased intercity transit connections that link towns to urban centers and the region to other parts of the state," the report states.

Bridges and river crossings along I-5 are in need of seismic security. "The region’s topography and its close connections with California make it important to integrate resiliency investments across state lines and ensure that airports have the tools they need to assist in recovery efforts," the report states.

Freight mobility is closely aligned with the Portland congestion, exacerbated by the demise of major port traffic to the Columbia River mouth. Climbing lane enhancements on I-5 mountain passes and highway connections to coastal communities are regional priorities, the panel states.

Expansion of charging stations for electric vehicles along the I-5 West Coast Electric Highway is a potential tourism driver, according to the report.

The region's challenges are four-fold, the panel found, revolving around congestion, potential isolation, growing population and poorly linked bike and pedestrian paths. The region's manufacturing, agricultural and timber industries rely heavily on freight transportation.

"But increased congestion both within and outside of the region is making it difficult for producers to get their goods to market," the report states.

The mountainous geography puts the region at risk of being isolated if an earthquake caused bridge collapses and landslides. The report indicated the increase of retirees moving here "risks a rapid spike in congestion." The panel said without increased funding for transit, Southern Oregon would experience a 40 percent increase in travel delay by 2038.

Mike Card, president of Combined Transport and former president of the American Trucking Association, suggested truck traffic alone will grow 20 percent during the next 10 years.

"How much more is I-5 going to be congested if we don't make changes?" he asked. "You've got to give credit to the governor for the Vision Plan. We're off to a good start and we need everyone on board."

Card was surprised more people weren't at the table when hearings were held in March.

"There were a lot of people who use the interstate system that weren't there," he said, including food manufacturing and timber industry representatives, who ship around the country.

"To me, investing taxes into infrastructure is the best thing we can do with our money. It retains its value and helps businesses and citizens." The report stated Southern Oregon's access to the interstate and freight rail network long has been essential in moving this region’s manufacturing, agricultural and viticultural products.

But Bob Melbo, rail planner for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said railroads aren't as resilient as some people think. Unlike the eastern part of the country, where there are often multiple lines in a region, there are few redundancies where traffic could be rerouted if bridges were knocked out or tunnels caved in.

"If you're on a highway, there is usually another road a few miles back if a bridge is out and you can work your way around it," Melbo said. "If you lose a railroad bridge, you're basically stuck until you can repair the structure."

While multiple financing options are available, the panel stated three guidelines should shape decisions.

• Efficiency: Does the funding mechanism achieve the most from available resources?

• Economy: Does the funding mechanism maximize resources at minimal cost?

• Effectiveness: Does the funding mechanism achieve the desired result?

“It is the panel’s vision that in 30 years Oregon will have a transportation system in good repair, resilient to natural disasters, and financially stable,” said Transportation Vision Panel co-chair Gregg Kantor in a news release. “Oregon will have a safe, reliable and efficient multimodal network that supports Oregon’s businesses and enhances Oregonians’ quality of life. But to get there, we must take immediate action.”

To read the report, see https://visionpanel.wordpress.com

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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