When the couplet came to Medford in 1958, stressed-out auto drivers thought it was really great — sort of.
Now, if the word couplet makes you think of your favorite Shakespeare sonnet, think again. We're talking here in the jargon of the traffic engineer — you know, like the people at ODOT.
Because the State Highway Department considered Main Street in Medford a part of their Highway 238 to Jacksonville, they not only contributed some money, they also did some of the work. One year after the Eighth and Main streets couplet opened, the department restriped Main Street from Riverside Avenue to Oakdale Avenue. The four existing 9-foot-wide lanes were considered unsafe. The result was the three 12-foot lanes we drive on today.
The Eighth Street Bridge was completed in 1960, and the 10th Street Bridge opened just more than a year later.
— Bill Miller
They define a couplet as "the two roadways of a divided highway, named differently, approximately parallel with traffic flow in opposite directions and separated by accessible land uses."
Let us translate. Think Eighth and Main streets in Medford. Main runs one-way west, Eighth moves one-way east, and in between them are plenty of accessible buildings.
Of course, it wasn't always like that. In the early Medford years, two-way traffic, auto or horse, was the rule. But not long after World War II, traffic began to get a bit congested, especially when a long railroad train running through the middle of downtown clogged streets with blocks-long traffic snarls in both directions. Worst of all, traffic was predicted to at least double in a decade.
In 1954, the State Highway Commission (today's ODOT) conducted a traffic study in Medford and recommended a $10.8 million project to improve traffic flow throughout the entire city. It included a railroad underpass for automobiles on 10th Street between Grape Street and Riverside Avenue, but because the city's share of the cost was $4.1 million, the project never got rolling.
In 1956, with the blessing and cooperation of the highway commission, city officials presented voters with a 10-year alternate plan. For $1.6 million, taxpayers would eventually get bridges across Bear Creek at Eighth and 10th streets and a promise that other major streets would be widened, repaved, and upgraded with curbs and gutters.
As the years passed and costs rose, not everything could be completed. The plan for a one-way couplet between 10th and 11th streets was one of the first items to go.
Nevertheless, the first element of the street plan, the couplet for Eighth and Main streets, opened up to the total bewilderment of drivers on Friday, Aug. 8, 1958. For a few days, the town was tangled in some of the biggest traffic jams it had ever seen.
"We still have a few bugs to work out," said Medford City Manager Robert Duff.
One of the biggest "bugs" was Eighth Street eastbound traffic merging with Riverside Avenue's one-way northbound traffic. During a normal Friday-evening rush hour, traffic would back up for four blocks south of Main Street. On opening day of the couplet, the jam stretched more than 10 blocks and stayed that way for almost an hour. On Eighth Street, the line of cars stretched back to the Jackson County Courthouse.
"There is bound to be temporary confusion," Mayor John Snider said, "but the traffic engineers assure us that it will be worked out satisfactorily."
Mail Tribune Editor Eric Allen saw things with an optimistic eye.
"Minor jamming at peak hours will be eliminated by next spring with a new bridge across Bear Creek," he said. "Progress on other segments of the program is coming right along.
"In a world where news is too often gloomy or chilling," he said, "it is a pleasure to note the good things. They DO happen — occasionally."
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.