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Talent goes with road project despite evacuation concerns

Despite concerns about reducing drivable pavement on West Valley View Road in an emergency such as the Almeda fire, Talent City Council voted unanimously Oct. 6 go ahead with a project to aid vehicle, bike and pedestrian safety.

“We have to weigh safety concerns in an emergency evacuation situation versus everyday safety and quality of life, including nonmotorized transportation and wanting to make a better, more livable community,” said Councilor Jason Clark. “I share concerns with evacuation, but … it was a very unusual event that struck us.”

Improvements would include going to a center turn lane and two vehicle lanes rather than the current four-lane setup. Bioswales and planters would be constructed toward the pavement edge to provide separation between bikes and pedestrians from traffic. Currently bike lanes are adjacent to vehicle lanes.

Talent was awarded a federal grant in 2015 by the Oregon Department of Transportation for the restriping and resurfacing of West Valley View from Oregon Highway 99 to the Bear Creek Bridge.

A decision not to build would have resulted in the loss of the long-standing ODOT grant for $495,000 and $125,000 already spent by the city on engineering. ODOT had requested clarification from the city on its intentions.

In June, at City Council direction, city staff asked ODOT whether it would provide additional funds to conduct a traffic evacuation analysis. ODOT declined the request, sayings the money is designated for bike, pedestrian and vehicle safety improvements. Estimated cost for a city-wide evacuation analysis was up to $40,000, said Jordan Rooklyn, city manager.

Traffic congestion on the road occurred during the fire due to several factors, according to Rooklyn’s staff report. Those include closure of Interstate 5, the large number of vehicles, the natural bottleneck where four lanes of West Valley narrow to two at the freeway overpass, and panic by drivers. Congestion did make maneuvering emergency vehicles more difficult and hindered redirecting traffic.

Jackson County Fire District No. 5 Chief Charles Hanley asked whether the use of soft control devices such as flexible, ground-mounted delineator posts or rolled curbs might be considered rather than bioswales and planters with harder edges.

“With rolled curbs you have the ability to move traffic through,” said Hanley. “We don’t want to lose overall paving. We are talking about the ability to move traffic through in an emergency and also to get emergency vehicles on and off I-5 and access West Valley View,” said Hanley.

ODOT had found that flexible posts are often hit and damaged by cars and require frequent repair or replacement, said Jenna Marmon, active transportation liaison for the agency in Southern Oregon.

Safer access to the Bear Creek Greenway is one on the goals addressed by this project, said Marmon. People will drive a half-mile with bikes on their cars to get to Greenway trailheads rather than ride beside traffic, then go on a 20-mile bike ride, she said.

“I just want to make sure that we are clear on the benefits that are much more than just to pedestrians and bicycles. They are also a proven safety measure. That’s really why this program is funded,” said Marmon.

A center turn lane will reduce cars impeding vehicles from behind as they make left turns, said Marmon. The three-lane setup could also be used to move traffic in one direction on two lanes in an emergency. That occurred on North Main Street in Ashland on the three-lane setup during the Almeda fire, she said.

A cyclist was killed recently in Talent, Councilor Eleanor Ponomareff noted. Gregory Sterling of Ashland was struck by a vehicle at night Sept. 19 near West Valley View on Highway 99. The vehicle did not stop at the scene.

In 2018 the federal funds were switched for state grant funds, which allowed the city to manage the project and includes additional features. Among them were the bioswales and planters, addition of a flashing pedestrian beacon crossing near Wagner Creek and a deceleration lane for westbound traffic to accommodate possible truck-stop development at Hinkley Road.

In September 2020 a request for proposals to select a contractor was ready to go but never put out due to the fire.

Construction cost was estimated at $1,068,000 in May this year. Funds earmarked for the project include the ODOT grant, another grant for $50,000, $230,000 from the city’s capital improvement project fund and $122,000 from an interfund transfer. Councilors will need to identify additional funds for the project. ODOT’s deadlines for receipt of fund reimbursement requests is March 2023.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.