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Cornelius Pass Road's future potholed by congestion

Increase in traffic strains Multnomah County side of route


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT  - Heavy trucks from construction projects in Hillsboro and other parts of Washington County are busting up Multnomah County's portion of Northwest Cornelius Pass Road. But they are only part of the traffic increase that is expected to grow as the economy recovers.The debate on the need for a new major roadway to serve western Washington County is not over.

Recent emergency repairs on Northwest Cornelius Pass Road proves motorists are creating their own version of the Westside Bypass, the name given a proposed freeway project through the county that was killed by environmentalists and mass transit advocates in the 1990s.

Cornelius Pass Road runs north from the Southwest Tualatin Valley Highway in Hillsboro over the West Hills to U.S. Route 30. Multnomah County is closing its stretch of the road on three consecutive Fridays to patch asphalt that is breaking down because of increased heavy truck traffic.

County spokesman Mike Pullen says many of the additional trucks are working on the new semiconductor fabrication plant on Intel’s Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro. The work, which is scheduled to end May 17, is estimated to cost around $40,000.

But those trucks are only part of the story. According to figures provided by Multnomah County, annual average daily traffic counts on its section of the road are skyrocketing. They jumped from 5,945 vehicles a day in 1991 to 10,378 vehicles a day in 2011, the most recent year for which such figures are available. Pullen says many, if not most, of the vehicles are continuing into Washington County, drawn by its booming economy.

Washington County’s portion is not breaking down, however, because it has been repeatedly improved. More than $55 million has been spent on it since the 1980s, creating a modern four-lane thoroughfare through much of Hillsboro. Drivers are using Multnomah County’s portion to complete their vision of the Westside Bypass.

And traffic counts could increase substantially as the economy continues to improve. The average traffic count was the highest in 2006, the year before the Great Recession began. The county recorded 12,153 vehicles a day then, nearly 2,000 more than the most recent figure.

Federal, state and local officials have been worried about the condition of the Multnomah County portion of the road for a long time. It is only two lanes wide and twists through hills between Skyline Boulevard and Highway 30. There are few barriers along the steep ravines.

The worries were highlighted by the death of 17-year-old Taija Belwood in a single-car crash on that portion of Cornelius Pass Road in December 2008. The resulting public outcry led the 2012 Oregon Legislature to appropriate $9.5 million to improve safety there. The projects to be funded are still being decided.

Tammy Belwood, Taija’s mother, is thankful for the improvements but worries it is not nearly enough. She is very familiar with the road because she drives it every day.

“Cornelius Pass Road wasn’t designed to be the kind of road it is today,” Tammy Belwood says.

Despite her misgivings, Belwood says Cornelius Pass Road is the quickest route between her home in Scappoose and her job in Hillsboro. Driving through Portland to reach Highway 26 would take at least twice as long, she says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT  - Multnomah County closed its portion of Cornelius Pass Road on three consecutive Fridays to repair damage it blames on construction trucks coming Hillsboro. The patching is estimated to cost $40,000.

Idea dormant, not dead

The Westside Bypass project was killed before a specific route was ever proposed. But interest in the concept of a new westside transportation corridor never completely went away, especially as traffic congestion in Washington County has grown. According to Metro figures, average freight and commute times have increased 17 percent there since 1980 and are expected to increase another 22 percent by 2035.

The Hillsboro City Council broached the subject last November. It passed a resolution asking the 2013 Oregon Legislature to direct the Oregon Department of Transportation to study the need for a new transportation corridor to serve all of Northwest Oregon, including Columbia, Clatsop, Clackamas, Marion, Multnomah, Tillamook, Washington and Yamhill counties. Although no specific route was recommended, a conceptual drawing followed much of Cornelius Pass Road, helping to reignite opposition to the concept. Hillsboro responded by pulling back and reaching out to others in the region.

“We’re listening to a broad range of stakeholders and seeking funding for a study on how best to meet the next 50 years of transportation needs in Northwest Oregon,” says Hillsboro Assistant City Manager Rob Dixon.

But, as the increasing vehicle counts on Cornelius Pass Road proves, drivers are not waiting to create their own preferred route to and from western Washington County — even though the Multnomah County portion is in need of substantial work. Washington County has transformed most of its share of the road into a modern, four-lane thoroughfare. But most of Multnomah County’s portion is still narrow and twisty. There are many sharp drop-offs with no guard rails. Although some improvements were made after Belwood’s death, the entire stretch has not been repaved in several decades.

A significant percentage of those vehicles are commercial trucks, like the ones prompting the emergency repairs. Many of the trucks carry fuel and other hazardous materials. The Oregon Department of Transportation has banned them from traveling though the Vista Ridge Tunnel from Washington County because of safety concerns. Multnomah County has designated Cornelius Pass Road a freight route — making it the most direct heavy-truck connection between western Washington County and Highway 30.

Pullen says the lack of routine maintenance is largely caused by the county’s limited resources. Much of the county’s road work is funded by a portion of the state gas tax, which has not kept pace with inflation. The county prioritizes its paving budget every year, and other roads have rated more urgent. They include Marine Drive, which carries more traffic, including heavy trucks, than Cornelius Pass Road, Pullen says.

Similar funding problems are facing all Oregon counties, according to Mike McArthur, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties. He testified about the need to increase county road funding before the Oregon House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development on Monday, May 6. The 2014 Legislature is expected to consider a new transportation funding package.

According to McArthur, of the 68,128 road miles in Oregon, counties are responsible for 26,692 miles, or 39 percent. The costs of maintaining county roads continues to increase, he says. The cost of asphalt sealing oil has gone from $182 a ton in 2001 to $240 a ton in 2006 to $624 a ton in 2012. The cost of maintaining a paved road is about $30,000 per mile a year. The cost of maintaining a gravel road is about $5,000 per mile a year.

“Oregon county roads are a vital link in the state’s transportation system and a big piece of the economic infrastructure,” McArthur told lawmakers. “Today’s hearing shows the need for a collaborative work group on road finance.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRIS ONSTOTT  - Large trucks leave little room for error on Multnomah Countys narrow and twisty portion of Northwest Cornelius Pass Road.

Funding falls short

County road and public safety officials had been meeting about the growing number of accidents on Cornelius Pass Road even before Taija Belwood died. Her car slid off a curve and landed upside-down in a creek, where she drowned.

Her death prompted the officials to request that the Federal Highway Administration conduct a Road Safety Audit of the road. It identified 18 safety issues along the corridor and recommended a number of improvements. Some were funded with federal stimulus dollars in 2010, including rumble strips to warn drivers when they are nearing the outside edge of the road or crossing the center line.

After hearing from Taija Belwood’s family and friends, the 2009 Legislature authorized the development of design alternatives for improving safety on Cornelius Pass Road. The study — which involved the Oregon Department of Transportation, Multnomah County and a number of consultants — focused on a five-mile stretch of the road between Highway 30 and Northwest Kaiser Road. It found that 171 vehicle accidents occurred there between 2003 and 2009. The largest number, 50, took place at the Skyline Boulevard intersection. Other large numbers occurred at the Highway 30 intersection and along a number of curves between there and Skyline.

The study came up with 13 specific safety improvements. They range from adding lighting to improving the entire corridor to comply with 45-mile-per-hour standards. Costs range from $191,000 to $26.8 million. The total cost of all improvements is more than $60 million.

That much funding is not available, however. Instead, the 2012 Oregon Legislature authorized $9.5 million for the road. The county is in the process of prioritizing projects along the road for the available funds.

A separate ODOT project improving the intersection at Highway 30 is under way.