'Orphan highways' in WashCo receiving renewed attention
High-profile traffic fatalities in Portland and Washington County have brought renewed focus this year to so-called orphan highways.
While it's not a legal term, "orphan highways" generally include those that are state routes but now serve as city streets — essentially, a different use than that for which they were designed — and have safety concerns as a result.
Some local governments now say they want the Oregon Department of Transportation to hand over control of those roads to them. In some cases, state officials agree: That's a good idea.
But it's not that simple. Local governments, wary of the costs of upgrading a major road to address longstanding safety issues, want the state to foot the bill — and then transfer the improved road to local control. The state, on the other hand, is juggling the needs of "orphan highways" with other routes throughout Oregon that ODOT is responsible for maintaining.
In Washington County, the two biggest candidates to be transferred are Highway 10, signed for much of its length as Southwest Farmington Road, and Hall Boulevard, which is part of the unsigned Highway 141.
Karen Kain, 57, was killed, and her elderly mother was seriously injured, on Hall Boulevard on March 4 while crossing Hall at Southwest Lucille Court.
Officials in Tigard have been vocal about their displeasure with the lack of safety improvements on Hall Boulevard, and they've long been in talks with ODOT about transferring it to local control.
"Communities like Beaverton, Tigard and Portland continue to suffer the consequences of known safety deficiencies on these outdated and unimproved urban arterials," said Tigard Mayor Jason Snider in an op-ed published by Pamplin Media Group last month. "For some families, sadly, these conditions are deadly and life-altering."
His letter drew comparisons between the unsafe conditions on Southeast Powell Boulevard in Portland, where numerous deaths have been recorded — most recently of well-known chef and cyclist Sarah Pliner, 50, on Oct. 4 as she was riding her bike at Powell Boulevard and 26th Avenue.
"The conditions on Powell Boulevard that make it unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians exist all over the region — on Hall Boulevard, on Tualatin Valley Highway, on Pacific Highway, and on other so-called 'orphan highways,'" Snider continued.
Tigard officials in May walked along Hall Boulevard as a show of solidarity for those who have lost their lives or been injured on the stretch of highway. The walk was also a demonstration of how dangerous the road is for pedestrians, as even participants had near-misses with vehicles turning onto Hall Boulevard.
Snider and other local leaders have called for more funding for traffic safety improvements on suburban highways. The regional Metro Council even conducted a study in 2020 that looked at the best jurisdictional transfer candidates across all highways in the Portland metro area.
Stretches of Hall Boulevard through Tigard and Southwest Farmington Road were both identified in that study as prime candidates. Lower Boones Ferry Road, which is also part of Highway 141, is also being eyed as a potential transfer candidate.
The transfer of 3 miles of Hall Boulevard in Tigard is still being hashed out with ODOT. Officials sounded hopeful that the effort is in the final stretch, and there is a virtual open house scheduled in Tigard for Wednesday, Nov. 16, to get an update and to go over the city's plans for the street.
A stretch of Farmington Road, from Southwest 197th Avenue to Kinnaman Road, is already on its way to becoming a county-owned road. Washington County is finalizing an agreement with ODOT to take over responsibility for the route as part of its Farmington Corridor Framework Plan.
The county received a $250,000 federal planning grant to develop the plan, which includes a jurisdictional transfer with ODOT and designs for how to develop cross-sections of the road. County officials say they expect work to begin sometime in 2023.
However, sometimes the highway transfers go the other direction.
In 2021, Washington County finalized a deal with ODOT and Multnomah County for the state transportation agency to assume control over Cornelius Pass Road from U.S. Highway 30 to U.S. Highway 26. It was part of an effort by the Oregon Legislature in 2017 to shore up transportation projects.
"Area legislators felt ODOT was better suited to make future improvements to this section of Cornelius Pass Road, as traffic had increased in recent years," said Washington County's land use and transportation spokesperson, Melissa De Lyser.
Cornelius Pass Road is now in ODOT's inventory of state routes as Highway 127.
'It takes time'
An ODOT spokesperson stressed that jurisdictional transfers can take time, both because of the legal agreements involved and because, before a transfer can take place, the responsible agency has to make any necessary improvements to the road, the signage, lighting and other facilities on that highway.
When Washington County transferred Cornelius Pass Road to ODOT control, the county installed new traffic signals and made some intersection improvements as a prerequisite.
But ODOT takes the transfers seriously, longtime spokesperson Don Hamilton said.
Hamilton said the state hasn't abandoned transfer talks while it pursues other massive projects, like the interstate tolling system and freeway improvements.
"There's so many major efforts going on around there and that's gotten a lot of attention," said Hamilton. "And obviously that's not to say we're not paying attention to that other stuff that needs to be done, like these jurisdictional and orphaned highway efforts, which have been underway for a while. These efforts and conversations are ongoing."
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