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City moves forward on I-5 welcome center

ASHLAND — In a 4-2 decision Tuesday night, the Ashland City Council voted to remove a four-year completion requirement for construction of a controversial Oregon Department of Transportation welcome center and rest area on Interstate 5, a deadline which had previously been a contingency for the city extending water and sewer services to the site.

Councilors defended the resolution in the face of significant public opposition, saying moving closer to an agreement with ODOT will allow the city to stipulate requirements of a project that will be built with or without the city's participation.

The council had voted in 2011 to extend water and sewer service to the Siskiyou Safety Rest Area and Welcome Center as long as ODOT completed the project within four years. The welcome center, slated for construction at milepost 12.5 off Crowson Road, has been the subject of sharp criticism from residents of the nearby Oak Knoll neighborhood, who fear the site will draw crime and cause safety issues for motorists. The welcome center project has also raised concerns of increased strain on the city's water supply.

The original Siskiyou Safety Rest Area on I-5 was closed in 1997 following a fatal crash. The federal government, which requires rest areas no more than 60 miles apart, requested that it be replaced as soon as possible. 

The project has been delayed several times by land-use legal battles since it was first proposed in 2008, leading to ODOT missing the original deadline. The agency also had to borrow $1.5 million from the city of Medford last spring to make up Travel Oregon's expected but unfulfilled contribution to the $12 million project, which ODOT representatives said Tuesday will take roughly a year and a half to complete.

Councilor Pam Marsh, in explaining the council's role with regards to the original deadline, said ODOT had made a good-faith effort to meet the city's requirements.

"They've done what we expected of them as far as moving forward on a reasonable timeline," Marsh said.

Councilor Rich Rosenthal, while describing the situation as "odious," told audience members that the council can't stop the facility from being built. "I think the ODOT rest area will happen regardless of whether we're involved or not involved," he said, explaining that he thought it was better to have a role in dictating the rest area and welcome center's specifications.

Councilors Greg Lemhouse and Carol Voisin were vocal in their continued opposition to the project, the benefits of which Lemhouse described as "overblown." "There will be some negative impact to the city of Ashland from this project," Lemhouse said, adding that he felt the concerns of Ashland community members had been ignored by the state and federal government.

The council directed Assistant City Attorney Doug McGreary to come up with a first draft of an intergovernmental agreement with ODOT using input from councilors.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

This ODOT drawing depicts a planned 'welcome center' for Interstate 5 just south of Ashland. Courtesy of ODOT