It's no secret that Highway 8 — better known for most of its 19-mile length as Tualatin Valley Highway — is both one of Washington County's most important roadways and one of its most maligned.
For stretches, especially in unincorporated Aloha and between Hillsboro and Cornelius, the highway lacks complete sidewalks on both sides. Outside of the commercial cores of the cities it connects, the highway is often poorly lit. There are long segments of the highway without safe places for pedestrians or cyclists to cross the busy road, which spans five or six lanes wide and has traffic in both directions except for in downtown Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove.
Now, with Congress and the White House focused on transportation and infrastructure, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici — a Democrat who represents all of Washington County in the U.S. House of Representatives — is asking for $4 million to go toward safety improvements along Highway 8.
Bonamici hopes to have that funding included in the bipartisan Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, which Congress is expected to take up and pass this year. (While related in some areas, that bill is separate from an infrastructure package being negotiated between President Joe Biden and key senators, the size and parameters of which have yet to be hammered out.)
'Earmarks' aid push for funding
"I'm going to do all I can to advocate for this project," Bonamici told Pamplin Media Group on Thursday, June 3, after meeting with community leaders and representatives from the Oregon Department of Transportation in Aloha.
Bonamici told the group — which included Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington; County Commissioners Nafisa Fai, Roy Rogers, Pam Treece and Jerry Willey; Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González; Mayors Steve Callaway of Hillsboro and Jef Dalin of Cornelius; and others — that she is "very optimistic" about the prospects for the $4 million making it into the bill.
She noted that Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Springfield Democrat, chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in Washington, D.C.
This year, members of Congress are able to "designate" projects they want to have funded — effectively a return to the tradition of congressional earmarks, which were banned in the House from 2011 to 2020 but have now been revived. Bonamici said that has given her an opportunity to seek federal dollars for Highway 8, which runs east-west through much of Washington County. That request is backed by ODOT, Washington County, and the city governments of Cornelius and Hillsboro.
"Our congresswoman recognizes that we do have multiple jurisdictions here," said Harrington after meeting with Bonamici.
Jurisdiction over Highway 8 varies, although as a state highway, it is maintained for most of its length by ODOT. The highway sees heavy traffic not only from cars, but also from buses on TriMet's popular Line 57, trucks and other commercial vehicles, as well as bicycles. Harrington noted that she has not just driven, but also biked and ridden the bus along the length of the highway, from Beaverton to Forest Grove.
"TV Highway is a lifeline," said González. "It's the backbone of our county."
A Metro transportation bond measure last fall included money for safety improvements along Highway 8. However, voters rejected the measure, which would have increased payroll taxes to pay for a plethora of transportation projects throughout the Portland area.
'We know where the needs are'
Largely built up in the mid-20th century, Aloha has noticeably poorer infrastructure than neighboring Hillsboro or Beaverton, which are incorporated cities. Neighborhood streets often lack adequate sidewalks, bicycle lanes or street lighting, and streetscapes along the highway and elsewhere are marred by overhead power lines and faded signage.
Harrington said it's a challenge both to upgrade older streets to modern standards and to find the money to pay for major investments in unincorporated areas, since the county collects a significantly smaller share of property taxes than cities — about 16.63 cents from each tax dollar, compared to 32.18 cents for city governments.
"We know where there are gaps. … We know where the needs are," Harrington said. "The issue is we don't have the money to put in the improvements everywhere it's needed."
Harrington and other local officials who gathered outside the Aloha Inn on Thursday to meet with Bonamici said they're glad for the possibility of financial support for Congress to come through for Highway 8.
Callaway and Dalin both noted, as did Fai, the fatal crashes that have occurred on the highway in recent years in their communities.
Last year, Pamplin Media Group reported on Cornelius-area residents' frustration with the safety conditions along Highway 8 after Leslie Schmadeke, crossing the busy highway just before dawn in on Jan. 14, 2020, to catch the bus, was struck and killed by a driver who didn't see her in time. Schmadeke lived on the north side of the highway, in between Hillsboro and Cornelius, where for 1½ miles, there are no crosswalks and hardly any streetlights.
Schmadeke was hardly the first person to die on the highway, whether as a pedestrian trying to get across the wide asphalt lanes or as a driver or passenger in a vehicle, many of which speed even in 45 mph zones. Callaway, a former school principal, said a former student of his died while crossing TV Highway as well.
"Lighting infrastructure is critical to ensure people are safe," said Fai, the county commissioner for District 1, who lives within blocks of the busy highway.
She added, "We really have to step up and do something about this."
By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
Follow me on Twitter
Visit the News-Times on Facebook
Subscribe to our E-News
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.