ODOT, local officials discuss Gorge transit

By SUE RYAN

News staff writer

January 31, 2007

A discussion on transportation issues for Hood River County took place Friday with top state officials.

Representatives from the Hood River Chamber of Commerce, ports, the city and county met with representatives from project management, planning, and maintenance with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Hood River falls within ODOT’s Region 1 district. This encompasses the Portland metropolitan area, all of Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Columbia and Hood River counties as well as eastern segments of Clatsop and Tillamook counties.

Jason Tell, the Region 1 district manager, said partly the meeting came about to discuss the status of current projects but also to bring several new ODOT people up to speed on concerns from the various governments.

“We need to develop some type of (ongoing) regional forum where we can look at all the issues collectively rather than each one individually,” Tell said.

Larry Nelson is the newest ODOT Region 1 representative, having started last week as District 2C maintenance manager. He replaced Bill Barnhart, who retired Friday. Planner Kristen Stallman began work last July. She works as the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area planner for ODOT.

Tell also began at the agency less than a year ago, in March, as the district manager. He was previously the Region 1 policy and planning manager.

“We won’t address all the issues today but it will be good to get all of them on the table,” Tell said.

While the issues were varied, many topics dealt with the interconnections between future projects and issues impacting Interstate 84 and city streets as well as the Hood River Bridge.

The Port of Hood River is currently working on doubling capacity over the bridge with its toll plaza improvement project. Four lanes will open for testing May 31 and to the general public in September, with two lanes using electronic passes and two using coin collection.

“With electronic tolling, capacity increases to 900, it’s now 500 an hour during peak times,” Bridge Manager Linda Shames said. “But a simulation model shows that even if we increase capacity to that extent over the bridge, the four-way stop becomes a constraint (on traffic flow).”

But port officials said they already know it won’t relieve pressure of traffic backing up on the interstate highway because of a pilot project conducted last summer.

Exit 64 is part of ODOT’s Interchange Access Management Plan to upgrade the ramps. The planning stage is still underway. Stallman said the agency is now looking at combining plans for Exits 62, 63, and 64.

“Because of a state requirement to protect investments required for all new improvements,” she said.

She explained that ODOT doesn’t want to finish planning for one exit just to find out that the needs in the area have accelerated past the finished project. Part of its scope is considering the interaction between the interstate, city, and Columbia River. Stallman said the process is expected to be finished by next March with construction going out to bid in 2008 and starting in 2009.

Shames and Port Executive Director Michael McElwee said the port was interested in knowing what the state could do to alleviate the congestion especially between now and the time the interchange is upgraded because of safety issues.

“There are certain pinch points where it is an issue,” said McElwee. “It’s a challenging situation.”

Shames said during the summer months additional traffic from fruit harvest, logging trucks, tourists and recreation adds to the regular commuting traffic between Hood River and White Salmon.

Hood River County Administrator Dave Meriwether said issues for the county include the proposed casino at Cascade Locks that would require a new interchange to access it, Highway 35, and potential effects from development caused by Measure 37 claims.

“Some (traffic) issues may come even without Measure 37,” Meriwether said.

Hood River City Manager Bob Francis said some of the issues impacting regional traffic would be the expansion of Providence Memorial Hospital and the new Columbia Gorge Community College campus. He also brought up traffic traveling through town north to Cascade Avenue.

Nick Kraemer, special projects manager for the Port of Cascade Locks, said the recent decision by Union Pacific Railroad to deny the port’s preliminary engineering plan for a marine park underpass have set planning back to phase one.

“It turns out the railroad has long-term plans for running double tracks clear through (Cascade Locks) and said they can’t even take away one of the side tracks during the construction phase,” Kraemer said.

Craig Schmidt, of the Hood River Chamber of Commerce, brought up the issue of the visitor’s center looking to relocate. He inquired if there was any possibility of a site on the scenic byway. The visitor’s center is being relocated due to its current home, the Expo Center, being developed for commercial reuse by the Port of Hood River.

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