ODOT runs into scenic roadblock with commission

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has hit a roadblock for installation of a concrete safety barrier along a hazardous section of Interstate 84.

After months of wrangling with Multnomah County and Columbia River Gorge Commission staffers, ODOT officials are seeking a higher authority to establish the ground rules for “visual subordinance” when it relates to safety concerns.

At issue is whether about 1,000 linear feet of jersey barriers along a westbound turnout near the Corbett interchange will interfere with a view of the Columbia River from motorists. According to ODOT records, the metal guardrail has been heavily dented by numerous accidents in the past few years, with one car even going into the river in the early 1990s. Because of the repeated damage, ODOT contends that the wooden support posts for the guardrail are unable to be seated properly and the cost to repair each incident is about $800.

“We want to try and prevent trucks from going off into the river and possibly spilling hazardous chemicals,” said John Osborn, ODOT manager for Multnomah and Columbia counties. “This may be somewhat of a ‘what if’ scenario but it would only take one time for a disaster to result.”

ODOT is seeking a solution to the impasse within the next month since the clock is winding down on the bidding process for the 2002 construction season and the $50,000 of federal funds for the job could be lost.

However, Martha Bennett, Gorge Commission executive director, said safety is of utmost concern to the bi-state agency, but needs to be balanced out to protect the scenic vistas along one of the key freeway viewing areas.

“No one would ever compromise public safety but ODOT has demonstrated in other areas that they can do both,” she said.

With tourism increasing along the Scenic Corridor, ODOT officials decided the answer to the continuing safety problem seemed simple: spend available funds to install durable 42-inch-high jersey barriers while a major repaving project was already underway. But what seemed a simple solution became complicated when the public agency began to encounter resistance from Multnomah County and Columbia River Gorge Commission planners. Osborn said the two agencies first protested that the solid barriers would not meet the “visually subordinate” requirements of the Scenic Area land-use plan. Then when ODOT researched and came up with 10-12 darker paint options to make the barriers blend in with surrounding vegetation that still was not deemed acceptable.

Bennett said her office has attempted unsuccessfully to set up a meeting with ODOT officials to review what other aesthetic alternatives might be available.

However, Charlie Sciscione, ODOT district manager, said a rock wall or less stable choice of barrier would be unlikely to pass federal collision standards.

“I don’t think a rock wall would be deemed safe along a freeway where trucks and cars are traveling in excess of 65 miles per hour,” Sciscione said.

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