Bypassing the bucks

The area manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation says ODOT is in the early stages of negotiating with Medford and Jackson County officials over shifting responsibility for maintaining a stretch of Highway 62 after the state builds a 3.5-mile bypass to ease traffic congestion.

City and county leaders should make sure ODOT clarifies exactly when such a transfer would take place and under what circumstances. And they should get it in writing.

At stake is a $140 million project — $100 million of it in state money — and as many as 2,100 jobs, which the local economy desperately needs. But the carrot of state highway dollars comes with a very large stick.

The Oregon Highway Plan requires local governments to assume responsibility for maintaining state highways when the state pays to build a bypass if — and this is a big if — the bypass succeeds in diverting a "significant portion" of traffic. Unfortunately, the plan does not clearly define "significant." If the bypass diverts 30 percent of the 47,000 vehicle trips per day now clogging Highway 62, is that significant? Forty percent?

State engineers estimate the figure would be 50 percent, which sounds significant until one asks whether that includes trucks or a mix of trucks and cars. Heavy trucks cause far more wear and tear on roadways than passenger vehicles do.

Cory Crebbin, Medford's public works director, says his definition of significant would be diverting 50 percent of all traffic but 80 percent of truck traffic.

The problem with that scenario is that the bypass is designed to run from Poplar Drive to Corey Road, and does not include an intersection at Vilas Road, which many trucks use to reach the Central Point freeway interchange. Trucks headed east over the mountains to Bend would be likely to use the bypass to save time getting out of town, but rigs headed north on Interstate 5 could ignore the bypass entirely, staying on 62 to reach Vilas Road.

That would affect the long-term cost to the city and the county of maintaining the bypassed section of Highway 62. It also could mean a less-than-"significant" change in the volume of truck traffic on the heavily traveled portion of 62 within Medford.

It's difficult to fault state highway planners for trying to come up with a fix for the Highway 62 mess. There is no ideal solution.

It's also difficult to argue with the concerns of city and county officials, who have plenty of road and street maintenance already waiting for funding without adding more than three miles of a major highway.

That's why it behooves them to pin down ODOT on what will constitute a significant diversion of traffic, and insist on a binding agreement that lets the city and county off the hook if the bypass fails to live up to its billing.

For the future, the Legislature should clarify the language in the Oregon Highway Plan to clearly spell out when the state may unload jurisdiction over state highways — and when it may not.

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