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Death of transportation bill costs Jackson County $10 million

The death of a transportation bill in the Oregon Legislature last week also killed off hopes for about $10 million in road projects in Jackson County.

Among the biggest losses was $4 million for a study of Foothill Road intended to pave the way for securing federal and state dollars to create an alternative to Interstate 5 for north-south travel through the Medford-Central Point area. Jackson County and 10 local cities also will lose $5.6 million in transportation funding after the Legislature failed to reach agreement on a $344 million package.

The legislation has been tangled up in politics since the beginning of the 2015 legislative session. Republicans initially said they would not support the transportation bill, which included added gas taxes, because a clean fuels measure approved by the Democratic-controlled House and Senate and signed by Gov. Kate Brown would also increase fuel prices. A compromise was apparently reached last week, but died after 19 Democratic House members, including Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland, said they would not vote for a bill that cut back on the clean fuels bill.

“It’s an opportunity lost,” said Al Densmore, a former Medford councilor who has been active on transportation issues. “I think it’s sad, very sad that they couldn’t come up with some broad agreement. Having said that, this may at least provide the framework for discussions going forward.”

Densmore said the loss of dollars will put a hold on dozens of projects throughout the region.

According to Oregon Department of Transportation, Jackson County will take the single biggest hit, losing $3.4 million, followed by Medford at just over $1 million.

Cory Crebbin, Medford Public Works director, said the loss of funding would not affect city projects immediately.

"We were not counting on it, Crebbin said. "It was not included in any kind of revenue projection."

If the money had come in, he said, the city would have put it to good use, possibly to supplement a street utility fee that is used to maintain the city's more than 200 miles of streets and 22 miles of alleys.

Travis Brouwer, assistant director for ODOT, said the $4 million for Foothill Road would have paid for a study that would look at widening it from a two-lane country road to a four-lane highway.

“There are extensive investments that will go into Foothill Road to bring it up to the point where it would be extended to connect with Highway 140,” Brouwer said.

In May, the Medford City Council authorized spending $10 million to widen Foothill north of Hillcrest for about one mile. Another $3 million in federal funds had already been set aside for the project. The city has indicated widening Foothill Road is one of the most important transportation projects for the future of Medford.

The city has also upgraded a stretch of the North Phoenix portion of the route from Barnett Road to Hillcrest Road. 

Brouwer said cities and counties throughout Oregon would lose about $100 million because of the failed transportation bill. That works out to $60 million for Oregon counties and $40 million for cities.

Brouwer said the numbers are based on estimates from previous budget allocations.

Overall, ODOT estimates that it will spend less on transportation projects over the next five years due, in part, to declining gas tax revenues caused by more fuel-efficient cars and reduced driving by Oregonians.

Later this year, Jackson County residents will see the start of one of the biggest road construction projects in a half-century when the Highway 62 bypass in the Medford-White city area gets underway.

About $120 million worth of construction and improvements are scheduled, meant to ease traffic congestion and improve safety along a stretch of busy Highway 62.

The work, officially known as the Oregon 62: I-5 to Dutton Road project, will build a four-lane expressway from Poplar Drive in Medford to Corey Road, diverging from Highway 62 to run north along the Old Medco Haul Road. Most of the stretch will run west of Highway 62 and east of the Medford airport.

All work is expected to be completed by 2018. The Oregon Department of Transportation acquired $100 million for the project in 2009 through the state's Jobs and Transportation Act, with the additional $20 million coming primarily from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.