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Crews break ground on I-5 evacuation ramp

Photo by Allayana Darrow Construction began Tuesday on a new ramp to facilitate evacuation of residents in Ashland’s Mountain Avenue area onto southbound Interstate 5 in the event of a major emergency.

ASHLAND — Construction began Tuesday on a new ramp to facilitate evacuation of residents in Ashland’s Mountain Avenue area onto southbound Interstate 5 in the event of a major emergency.

Crews are slated to continue work to the fence line through Friday and toward the interstate into next week, weather permitting, according to Gary Leaming, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Residents are advised to watch for southbound shoulder closure and truck traffic near the Mountain Avenue overpass.

The Federal Highway Administration green-lit the $100,000 project in fall 2021. Located at milepost 17/Mountain Avenue, the evacuation ramp falls roughly halfway between Ashland’s two main exits, 14 and 19, and will be ready for the upcoming fire season, Leaming said.

“The ramp will not be like any other ramp on the interstate,” according to ODOT. “It will have a locked gate and the ramp will be graveled in the beginning. As funds become available, it will be paved.”

Six dump trucks cleared soil and surface material Tuesday, split between ODOT and city of Ashland resources. The state and city teamed up for the project to avoid spending extra time securing a contractor and to keep costs down, Leaming said.

Once completed, the ramp will undergo general maintenance and gate inspections on an ongoing basis.

Leaming said the “horrific nature of the Almeda fire,” its impacts to I-5, and the ramp’s limited emergency use supported the project through the process to justify the breach of access control onto a federal highway and clear the design with the FHWA in Salem.

“Depending on the catastrophe, this is a great option,” he said, noting changes to traffic patterns during major events and an alternate escape route across the overpass.

Leaming emphasized the need for residents to know their evacuation zones and routes, and the limited mid-city range for which the new ramp will be most useful, along Mountain Avenue’s heavily developed and narrow streets.

An interactive map of the city’s 10 evacuation zones is available at fireadaptedashland.org. Officials use Nixle and 1700 AM radio when advising evacuation zones during an emergency.

Gates will lock at both ends of the new ramp and emergency services staff will keep the combinations, according to Leaming.

“It would quickly get open,” he said, adding that numerous qualified personnel could unlock the gates. “We’re not talking just about a house fire down here; we’re talking about an Almeda-scale emergency.”

Nearby residents formerly preparing to break through the I-5 fence and evacuate down the ungraded hill in case of such an event were pleased to see planning and methodology fuel the ramp project, Leaming said.

Michael Morrison, facilities supervisor for Ashland Public Works, said details still in progress include defining the criteria necessary to open the gates and integrating the ramp into evacuation maps.

Morrison said the concept was under consideration as a means to evacuate a large population of senior residents in the area when the Almeda fire underscored the need — taking the project from planning to groundbreaking in about 16 months.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.