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Public hearing set to gather feedback about deadly intersection with Highway 97

 - Jefferson County Commissioners and the Oregon Department of Transportation agonize over how to make traffic safer at the intersection of Bear Drive and Highway 97 south of Madras. Five people have died in accidents there over the past four years.

Five people died in collisions at Bear Drive on Highway 97 in the past four years. That intersection saw a total of 15 serious accidents in that period.

"Everyone to a person can say there's a problem," says Commissioner Kelly Simmelink, poring over pages of citizen feedback.

People traveling upwards of 65 miles per hour get caught off guard when drivers on Highway 97 slow to turn left on to Bear Drive. Rear end-collisions pose the biggest problem at this intersection.

"It's very dangerous and it's not going to be better any time soon," says Commissioner Wayne Fording. "Who could have predicted 20 years ago we'd see this increase in traffic?"

The Oregon Department of Transportation proposes closing Bear Drive and Eureka Lane and making improvements at Dover Lane to handle the increase in turn traffic. ODOT has spent the past few months soliciting feedback from residents, first responders and other stakeholders. ODOT will not take any action without the backing of the county commission.

"I don't want to go down the path of closure is the only answer," says Simmelink.

One after another, people lobbed suggestions. Robert Townsend, ODOT area manager for Central Oregon, answered back with logistical concerns.

"Have we exhausted every opportunity for turn lanes?" asked Simmelink.

"Left turn lanes do reduce accidents, but not to the extent you might think," says Townsend. "We'd still have as many conflict areas and we would continue to have crashes."

County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen pointed out because the intersection at Bear is misaligned, a left turn lane is not feasible.

"We will not put a left turn lane on Bear Drive, to be point blank," says Townsend. "Funding doesn't exist, and it is not the proper safety choice."

"Speed?" asked Simmelink.

"We cannot drop the speed below 55," says Townsend. "It becomes an enforcement issue. State Police and the County Sheriff do not have enough patrols to enforce those speeds."

"I think there's an opportunity to prevent left turns off 97 to Bear Drive," says Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins. "Place barriers to prevent left turns but allow right turns onto and off of Bear Drive."

"That's an option," says Townsend, "but not an economical one. People will go around those barriers and cause even more dangerous situations." Townsend says this solution means putting barriers down the center of Highway 97 and widening the road.

"Where do we go from here?" says Fording. "Typically, we've engaged the public."

The board decided to hold a public hearing Wednesday, April 28 at 6 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center.

This problem generates an urgency. More accidents could happen during the time it takes to act.

Commissioner Mae Huston said at an earlier meeting, "I just don't want to see another person die there."

Bear Drive Hearing

Jefferson County Commissioners invite public input on closing Bear Drive.

The Oregon Department of Transportation will be on hand to explain options:

Date: Wednesday, April 28

Time: 6 p.m.

Place: Madras Performing Arts Center, 412 Buff St.

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