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County commissioners skeptical of bypass proposal

Appeals by legislators and transportation officials failed to fully convince Jackson County commissioners Tuesday that a $100 million Highway 62 bypass proposal won't be a waste of money.

"I don't think it's the best project for the entire community of Jackson County," Commissioner Jack Walker said.

After years of discussion and research, the Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing a bypass to alleviate congestion on busy Highway 62 in north Medford. The new roadway would begin just east of Poplar Avenue, on the north side of Highway 62, and create either a two-lane or four-lane highway running roughly along the old Medco Haul Road for 3.5 miles to just south of White City. Another option is to end the bypass at Vilas Road.

Projections indicate that 27 percent of drivers on the highway would use the new route.

"It's really a lot of money to handle about a third of the traffic," said Commissioner Dave Gilmour. "If all that comes out of this is a permanent bypass that goes from Vilas Road to Ace Hardware (near Poplar Avenue), not a lot is gained."

While the commissioners's support is not required for the project to move forward, their opposition could jeopardize the funding and the money could go elsewhere in the state, Matt Garrett, director of ODOT warned.

Commissioners said they want ODOT to answer questions about the project before the county endorses it. After receiving assurances their questions would be answered, the commissioners agreed Tuesday they would not send a letter opposing the project.

The bypass would primarily be funded through Oregon House Bill 2001, which provided more than $900 million in transportation projects over 10 years throughout the state.

The money will be raised through bonds and by increasing motor vehicle fees and the gas tax by 6 cents per gallon.

Legislators who helped Jackson County get the money in Salem were surprised the commissioners didn't endorse the bypass plan that was part of a multi-year planning effort. The bypass also has been identified as a project of statewide importance, offering tourists a gateway to Crater Lake.

"It's not spending money for the sake of spending money," said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said it's important to have the county endorse a project that has been the subject of much discussion for at least 12 years.

"Commissioner Walker is grousing about what's already been done," he said.

Art Anderson, ODOT area manager, said the portion of Highway 62 — also known as Crater Lake Highway — in the Medford area is one of the most congested in Southern Oregon, with an average of about 40,000 vehicle trips a day.

While ODOT prefers to build a four-lane bypass, Anderson said that the $100 million might only pay for a two-lane segment at first. However, the long-range plans call for the roadway to be four lanes, he said.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said a four-lane roadway to Vilas has been proposed for years.

"Do it right in the first place," he said. "We fought very hard to allocate the money for this project."

The commissioners also asked for more information about how many businesses would be harmed by the bypass, either by being displaced or having their access changed.

Walker said many local businesses are struggling with the economy and don't need limits placed on customer access.

"If I were one of those businesses, I would say not now," he said.

Anderson said ODOT does consider the impact on businesses, but also must look at safety issues on Highway 62.

"It's a balance," he said.

The commissioners also voiced concern that other local transportation projects could get shortchanged if the state throws more money into extending the bypass in the future. The total cost to build the bypass to White City has been estimated at up to $450 million.

When the bypass is built, ODOT wants to turn over jurisdiction of Highway 62 to the city and county. Gilmour said if the county assumes responsibility for the roadway it would also have to pay for the maintenance, which could be considerable.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.