Not enough people live or work along Highway 99 to sustain a robust mass transit district, a draft report by local transportation officials finds.

Not enough people live or work along Highway 99 to sustain a robust mass transit district, a draft report by local transportation officials finds.

The document, prepared by the Rogue Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, appears to lend credibility to land-use watchdog groups' criticisms that local cities aren't pushing hard enough for increased urban densities rather than expanding into agricultural lands.

The draft report is part of a long-range effort to more effectively use Highway 99 as a corridor for alternative transportation. Transportation planners hope for better bus connections, bicycle lanes and sidewalks near the highway to encourage more people to choose options other than using their cars.

Once the study is complete, it could help pave the way for more federal and state funding for projects that encourage alternative transportation.

As planners look at ways to increase transit use and densities along the corridor, local cities are pressing on with a separate 10-year effort that will determine how the valley will grow to accommodate a doubling of the population over the next 50 years.

Brent Thompson, president of Friends of Jackson County, said the Highway 99 report affirms his conclusions that cities need to make a greater effort to increase population densities rather than gobbling up high-value farmland. Thompson's group, along with Rogue Advocates and 1000 Friends of Oregon, have expressed similar concerns.

Thompson said he will put the Highway 99 report into the public record of the Regional Problem Solving process, the effort by six cities and the county to define growth in the valley.

Thompson said cities may have to allow greater heights on buildings to encourage more population density.

"We need to change the zoning along these corridors to achieve these goals," he said.

The Highway 99 report finds a minimum population of 10 houses per acre is needed to create a well-operating, frequently used transit system. Only a few isolated areas along the highway corridor achieve these population densities now, the report finds.

For a more optimum transit district along the urban area of the corridor, the report suggests up to 20 houses per acre.

In addition, the highway report finds that a minimum of 20 employees per acre =also is helpful in promoting a good transit district.

A section of Medford from Barnett Road to Highway 62 has 20-employee-per-acre densities, as well as in Ashland from Helman Street to Walker Avenue, the report states.

Thompson said every community needs to work together to achieve higher densities to help attract a better bus or transportation system as federal and state dollars get tied more and more toward regional efforts to conserve energy.

Medford City Councilman Al Densmore, a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said creating a better transit district and pushing for higher densities in communities can be achieved in concert.

He hopes that in the short term an express bus line can be established from Medford to Ashland to help encourage more commuter traffic. A light-rail system also is being discussed, but Densmore said he doubts whether that idea will make economic sense.

At the same time, he said cities can work on sections of Highway 99 to make it more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians, while making sure it is still capable of handling freight traffic in case the interstate is shut down during an emergency.

Densmore said looking at Highway 99 as a whole will help develop strategies over time that will increase urban densities while providing better mass transit.

"The report is the first step in developing that larger vision," he said.

Even though there aren't sufficient densities now, Densmore said the area still could qualify for federal or state dollars to improve the transportation system along the corridor.

He said the transportation issue is just one of many facing cities along Highway 99. In the future, he would like to develop plans to improve different sections to encourage business as well as alternative means of transportation.

"Let's look at this stretch by stretch," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.