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Foothill Road project offers future benefits

The transformation of Foothill Road from a meandering two-lane route into a four-lane “mega corridor” is now set to begin next year. The project will provide a north-south alternative to Interstate 5, which could prove vital in the event of a mega-earthquake that could flatten the I-5 viaduct, rendering the freeway impassable and cutting Medford in two.

The work is estimated to take the better part of three years, which will mean headaches for local motorists. But the wait will be worth it when the completed road offers a quick route from Phoenix to White City that avoids I-5.

It’s worth noting that the seeds of this project were planted in 1962, when the I-5 viaduct was constructed. The interstate was initially planned to run east of town, near Foothill. Medford civic and business leaders at the time were convinced that freeway drivers would not stop in Medford if they couldn’t see the city from the road, so they fought to run it smack through the middle. But they also opposed an interchange in the center of town, leaving Medford divided by the viaduct but without convenient freeway access.

Six decades later, Medford is still paying for that short-sighted decision.

The viaduct has been strengthened over the years to make it somewhat less vulnerable to an earthquake, but further seismic upgrades and widening the roadway could cost up to $89 million, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

ODOT may pursue such a project in the next 10 years. Rerouting the freeway to the east has essentially been ruled out, as it would cost more than $1 billion. Replacing the viaduct with a tunnel — another possibility discussed in the past — would cost at least half that much.

While we wait for funding and the eventual upgrade to the viaduct, finishing the Foothill corridor project offers a useful alternative, providing four travel lanes from Hillcrest Road to Delta Waters Road, plus a center turn lane for most of that distance.

Eventually, the city plans to extend South Stage Road east of the freeway and build an overpass to connect the western section, providing a much-needed east-west corridor.

Accommodating growth can be frustrating when it disrupts familiar routines and creates traffic delays. But those are temporary, and the result will be a better road system than we have today.