Welcome to Oregon; please don't stop

It's rare that we find ourselves in agreement with Jack Walker. But when it comes to the proposed welcome center on northbound Interstate 5, the Jackson County Commissioner has it exactly right.

After 16 public hearings generating 4,000 pages of documents, the commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to give the project a green light, but said the state must gain the Ashland City Council's approval to connect the center to city water and sewer lines.

Walker said he could not find a single reason to reject the proposal. He added that neighbors who said they didn't know about it apparently hadn't been paying attention for the past 12 years.

"If they weren't aware, they should have been," he said.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has been planning a new rest area and welcome center since the Siskiyou Rest Area at milepost 10 was closed in 1996 for safety reasons. The old rest area and welcome center was situated on the steep downgrade coming off the Siskiyou summit.

The new center would be built on a flat, straight stretch of freeway at milepost 12.5, just south of Crowson Road and before northbound drivers reach exit 14, the south Ashland interchange.

The state bought the land for the center more than a decade ago, but the project was put on hold because of lack of funding. After it was revived, neighbors in the Oak Knoll Meadows subdivision raised objections, saying the center would generate noise, increase crime and pose a safety hazard.

ODOT has bent over backwards to address those concerns. Tractor-trailers will not be allowed. Lighting will be directed downward and shielded from above to minimize light pollution. Studies show the center will not generate any more noise than freeway traffic already does.

It is unlikely that trucks would need to use compression brakes on that stretch of road, and even if they were so inclined, ODOT has offered to post signs instructing truckers not to use them.

The center would be half a mile from the nearest homes, which are situated on the other side of Crowson Road. Water and sewer services would be provided by the city of Ashland. City officials have said that will not be a drain on the city's systems.

The neighbors say they will continue to fight the center, appealing to the state Land Use Board of Appeals if necessary. That is their right. But they should try to see the larger picture.

Tourism is a $340 million industry in Southern Oregon. But since 1996, the only interstate crossing the California-Oregon border has been without a center welcoming travelers and encouraging them to visit Ashland, the most tourism-dependent community in the area.

Timber once fueled the valley's economy. It does no longer. Tourism has helped to fill the gap, but it could do more.

Ashland residents can't expect to share the benefits of a tourist economy if they insist on blocking reasonable efforts to support that industry.

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