PHOENIX — The Oregon Department of Transportation cleared a major hurdle this week in its efforts to rebuild the Fern Valley interchange, despite concerns raised about whether the city could afford its $1.5 million contribution.

PHOENIX — The Oregon Department of Transportation cleared a major hurdle this week in its efforts to rebuild the Fern Valley interchange, despite concerns raised about whether the city could afford its $1.5 million contribution.

A project development team, made up of local and state officials, voted Thursday to rebuild the interchange with a crossing-diamond style, expected to cost $72 million. The other option was not to rebuild.

The choices had been narrowed down to two after seven years of planning, meetings and public comment over how best to replace the failing interchange at Exit 24 on Interstate 5.

"We had a unanimous vote, which was gratifying, especially since Phoenix has been a partner all along in the past on this issue and there is every indication that partnership will continue," said ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming.

Joe Strahl, team member and contract engineer for the city, expressed concern about the size of the interchange and whether Phoenix could afford its portion.

"We can't live with what we've got any longer," he said, but added he was unsure whether the proposed design plans were the best option for a small city.

"I think the city of Phoenix feels they've been given a white elephant and they're not quite sure what to do with it," he said.

ODOT officials will give a presentation on the project to the Phoenix City Council at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the public works offices at 1000 B St.

A citizens' advisory committee on Wednesday also agreed the interchange should be rebuilt, though members had reservations. The city has not yet approved an interchange area management plan, required at the state level for the project to move forward, nor figured out how it would pay its portion.

Committee members Bob Korfage and David Lewin recommended the project be built. Longtime resident Pauly Hinesly opted for the "no-build" alternative and a wait-and-see approach with the interchange. City Planner Dale Schulze favored replacing the interchange but opted not to officially endorse the project without other concerns answered.

Local business owner Tani Wouters, a Jackson County Planning Commission member, abstained from making a recommendation, saying she felt too many issues had been left unanswered. The other five members of the committee were absent.

ODOT project leader Dick Leever and Leaming said they were disappointed with Wednesday's turnout and with confusion over the purpose of the meeting.

"The recommendation we were looking for was build or no build, and I think (the citizens' advisory committee) got wrapped around this IAMP axle and took their eye off of the goal," said Leaming.

"Not to say that's not important, but we were looking to them for build or no-build."

Speaking at Wednesday's meeting, orchardist John Graves said he was eager to see the project move forward to enable agricultural workers to navigate between packing houses on the city's west side and orchards on the east side.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.