Our Opinion: It's time to help Highland

South Medford interchange impact on nearby neighborhood must be addressed

Reasonable people may disagree on whether the south Medford interchange with Interstate 5 has been a benefit to the city or was a wise use of tax dollars. But, outside of City Hall, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't think the project has had a significant impact on the neighborhood off Highland Drive.

Given that the city and state offered assurances to those same neighbors that construction of the new interchange would not have a big impact, it seems only fair that city officials consider what they can do now to alleviate the situation.

A story by Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann in Friday's paper detailed some of the impacts. One short stretch of Highland has seen a 40 percent increase in traffic, while a residential neighborhood farther north has seen a 30 percent increase in traffic. That's 1,200 cars a day, which works out to something in the vicinity of 400,000 added cars a year.

Neighbors say during times of the day they can't safely cross the street, and others note there are no sidewalks on Highland, which leads to one of the city's major parks and is a few short blocks from an elementary school. The intersection at Highland and East Main Street routinely has cars backed up at a stop sign, leading to some less-than-safe choices by drivers.

When the south Medford interchange was first proposed more than a decade ago, many people were astonished that the city would not be getting a third interchange, but instead a replacement for the existing Barnett Road interchange. Neighbors in the Highland area immediately raised concerns and others were equally concerned by the pricetag, which ultimately nearly doubled from its original $50 million estimate.

State highway officials said the project was built to reduce congestion on Barnett, by providing three options for drivers headed toward downtown or west Medford. That seems to be working on Barnett, but in part at a cost to the Highland neighborhood.

The city's public works director says there could be other factors creating the increased traffic, including new businesses and the construction of a new Walmart on the opposite side of the interchange. The Walmart explanation is hard to buy: The traffic that comes from Walmart and through the Highland neighborhood does so precisely because the interchange allows that. Otherwise, it would be a circuitous route from the store to the neighborhood.

Beyond that, there's the question of whether the Walmart would have been built at all if the new interchange didn't exist.

There's no doubt Medford needed a new interchange and also plenty of evidence to suggest that it has indeed helped even out traffic flow in general. But the Highland neighbors have paid a price, which can be seen both by the traffic numbers and by a good old-fashioned eyeball test. There are significantly more cars passing through that neighborhood, no question.

Like any city, Medford has more projects at any given time than it can afford to take on. But as it plans, it seems reasonable to give added weight to the needs of that neighborhood. Street improvements and new sidewalks should be targeted there, as should a traffic signal at Highland and Main.

The new interchange was intended to help the city better handle traffic. Now it's time for the city to help the neighborhood that has seen too much of that traffic pushed its way.

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