Concerns about access

by: HOLLY M. GILL - Property owners filled every chair at the Dec. 20 meeting of the Madras City Council on the U.S. Highway 97-J Street realignment access plan. As the city of Madras moves forward on the south Madras highway realignment, business owners had questions and concerns for the City Council at a special meeting about the access management strategy.

More than two dozen property owners attended the meeting to find out the latest from the Oregon Department of Transportation on how access to their businesses will be affected.

In order to improve safety at U.S. Highway 97's intersection with J Street — which has been ranked among the worst highway crash sites in the state — the project will reroute the northbound lane of U.S. 97 to the east at L Street. The northbound section will join up with South Adams Drive just south of the fire department, and become one-way northbound from that point.

Mike Darling, project leader for ODOT, anticipates that the first phase of the project, expected to cost $8.2 million, will go out for bid in August and start construction when the bid is awarded.

The project addresses congestion on J Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets, by lengthening that stretch of road to about double its current length.

Since the last City Council meeting on Dec. 10, Darling said that they had modified the plan for accesses between Ding Ho and Napa Auto, eliminating the plan for a shared access, when they realized "it wasn't going to work."

At Erickson's Thriftway, semitrucks will no longer be able to back down into the loading ramp. Instead, trucks will park on the east side of the business and hand truck cargo down the loading ramp.

The first phase of the project will deal strictly with the northbound lanes on U.S. Highway 97 and the Fifth Street side of the project.

The owner of the Truck Stop, Allen Huang, expressed concern about the accesses to his business. "It's very hard for the trucker," he said. "They have no way to do it."

The Truck Stop will retain four access points, but two will be right in, right out. The middle access, at M Street, will allow vehicles to turn left to go south or right to go north, as will the access on the north end of the property, on L Street.

Truck Stop manager Felicity Haywood said that she believes the access strategy will cause more congestion by routing some of the southbound traffic north to J Street, where drivers would be able to turn back south.

"We're taking the congestion we have and making it twice as much," she said, adding that some trucks caravan, and could "get stacked up because they don't have room to turn."

Bev Schultz, of the Schultz dental clinic on Southeast Fifth Street, said that they did a massive remodel a decade ago, which will be affected by the highway reroute.

There are currently 20 parking spaces at the clinic, "and some days, that's not enough," she said, pointing out that there will only be 10 spaces after the reroute.

Since they will need to build a new parking lot on the north side of the business, she asked if there is any assistance available, and Mayor Melanie Widmer suggested that it might be eligible for impact funds from ODOT.

Mary Whitaker, senior right-of-way agent for ODOT, said that some changes are not considered compensable, such as when changes are made on the public right of way. "You were able to use it, but it was not your property," she explained.

Bob Powers, who owns a vacant lot on Fourth Street between Columbia River Bank and Sunny's Hair Salon, was concerned about losing the curb cut to his property.

"I'd like to maintain it, so I can maintain the property," he said.

ODOT senior traffic analyst Dan Serpico said that since they don't know how the property will be used, they don't allow curb cuts to remain for vacant lots.

The potential removal of the property's curb cut didn't sit well with members of the council.

Councilor Tom Brown asked ODOT to leave the curb cut.

"If I'm going to buy a piece of property, and I know there's no curb cut there, and I know I'm going to have to go to ODOT and get a permit, I'm going to buy a different piece of property," he said.

Councilor Walt Chamberlain noted that there is "virtually no flow on and off that lot."

"If it wasn't clear before, it should be now," said Councilor Royce Embanks. "The city doesn't control any right of way."

Several of those attending thanked the council for listening to their concerns before approving the updates to the access management plan.

"It's helpful to know our council hears our concerns," said Pastor Scott, of the Madras Free Methodist Church.

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