Our Opinion: Think bigger to fix Cornelius Pass
Cornelius Pass is closed — and it's about time.
We're not happy about the inconvenience it creates — and it is an inconvenience — by routing traffic onto Northwest Newberry Road, which isn't built for the kind of load it's likely to be under with Northwest Cornelius Pass Road closed.
We're not happy about the scope of the work, either. While we hope the safety improvements included in the project — new signage, upgraded guardrails, vehicle pullouts, wider shoulders, warning lights, et cetera — end up having a tangible effect on the number of crashes occurring along the windy commuter thoroughfare, we don't think they go far enough.
Does anybody really think that spending not even $6 million on Cornelius Pass Road will fix it?
We're talking about a major freight route that's one lane in either direction, with hairpin curves that would seem harrowing if they were being negotiated by cars and bikes on Council Crest. Then throw in the heavy trucks and buses traveling between Hillsboro, Portland and Scappoose, running alongside a creek that's already seen a few too many hazardous material spills, curving and rolling through the rugged West Hills, and you have a recipe for disaster.
This has been an untenable situation for years. Cornelius Pass Road sees far more traffic than it was designed to handle, and the mix of users — trucks with hazmat loads aren't allowed through the Vista Ridge Tunnels on Highway 26, so they often go over Cornelius Pass instead — makes it all the more challenging to fix.
The roadway has seen its share of fatal crashes and serious accidents as well. A 17-year-old girl was killed when her car left Cornelius Pass Road and crashed down a 75-foot embankment in May 2015. And a head-on crash between a dump truck and motorcycle just last month sent the motorcyclist to the hospital via Life Flight and temporarily shut down the pass.
We're glad Cornelius Pass is closed so that construction crews can do something about the dangers along the route. We just wish they were doing more — like digging up the entire roadway and rebuilding it.
No one wants to shoulder the expense of rebuilding Cornelius Pass Road, even though it's obviously the only real solution. It's cheaper to build a road that hugs the side of a steep hill than it is to raze the hill and build the road over it. But that's how we got those deadly hairpin turns. It's cheaper to work around old buildings, including homes and a shop, than it is to condemn them and build over their property, but that doesn't make the road safer — either for commuters or the occupants of those buildings.
Multnomah County has been planning this road safety improvement project since early this decade. Earlier iterations of the project suggested a roundabout at the intersection of Cornelius Pass Road and Skyline Boulevard, which can become congested and unsafe at rush hour. That was dropped due to cost — which gives you a sense of the level of commitment to improving Cornelius Pass Road, one of the most dangerous routes in the Portland area.
Even though Multnomah County's portion of Cornelius Pass Road will be transferred to the Oregon Department of Transportation sometime in the 2020s, this is still a county project. Of course, the county has a finite amount of money to work with.
We don't mean to be overly critical of Multnomah County's efforts. This road is a concern for the county government, it's been planning this project for a long time, and we trust that the traffic engineers, community advisory group and others who have been involved have identified how to get the most "bang" for the county's buck.
But when we're talking about ways to fix Cornelius Pass Road on the cheap, it's clear that the entire philosophy behind this work is backward. The goal should be to redo a route that is so fundamentally challenged that it will never function the way it should and it will always fall short of the basic standards for an arterial freight route. No one should plan on building the Taj Mahal along the way, but neither should the pursestrings be drawn so tight that a major intersection is ignored so the money can be spread out elsewhere.
That kind of commitment will take more than just Multnomah County.
The Oregon Legislature may still have a transportation hangover from 2017, when it finally got its act together and passed a statewide transportation package, which included a jurisdictional transfer of Cornelius Pass Road from Multnomah County to ODOT. But either when it comes back for a short session in 2020 or when it meets for a full session in 2021, we'd like to see our local lawmakers press for real money to be put toward Cornelius Pass Road and other troublesome routes in the region (Highway 6 comes to mind). A million dollars doesn't go as far as it used to, and a few million here and a few million there simply isn't going to do the trick.
Like everyone else, we'll grin and bear it while Cornelius Pass is closed, and we'll drive it once it reopens, hoping against hope that our safety concerns will be alleviated. But we know, you know and the government knows that Cornelius Pass Road needs more work than it's getting.
We just hope it doesn't take another tragic mishap for it to happen.
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