St. Paul area residents share their concerns about road safety
By Justin Much
Newberg Graphic correspondent
Traffic issues that surfaced in northern Marion County in recent years remain a heated topic to area residents, with one significant addition to the conversation: the opening of the Newberg-Dundee bypass.
Several dozen residents joined various public safety and government representatives to discuss that traffic during a town hall meeting held Dec. 4 in St. Paul. It is one of a handful of meetings held in recent years. But this gathering held a somber overtone as the area saw yet another traffic fatality that morning when a Newberg woman was killed on McKay Road near St. Paul.
The fatal crash was on the minds of everyone, none more so than first response personnel.
"Since (this past) summer, we've been the first on the scene of a triple fatality, motorcycle fatality and then the one this week," St. Paul Fire District Chief Bryan Lee said, adding that McKay Road is an especially perilous area. "And there has been at least one other fatality in the area this past year."
During the town hall, the chief said flatly: "In six months we've seen five fatalities, including today. And I'm getting tired of it. These country roads are not designed to be used for what they are used for today."
McKay Road intersects Highway 219 between St. Paul and Newberg, just south of the Willamette River bridge. Just to the north of that river crossing, Highway 219 intersects the Newberg-Dundee bypass. McKay travels east and connects with two other country roads, Yergen Road and Ehlen Road, the latter of which intersects with I-5 and Highway 99E at the north end of Aurora.
One area resident, Hunter Wylie, equated that rural route to a bypass between Highways 99E and 99W.
Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) data indicates that traffic on Highway 219 between the river crossing and McKay Road increased 9 percent between October 2017 and October 2018. The bypass opened Jan. 6.
While the bypass lessened traffic congestion on the west side of the Willamette River, some east-side residents are concerned about increased traffic, especially on the country roads not designed for high-speed, through-way traffic.
"I don't think St. Paul was against the bypass; we just didn't want the traffic from the bypass to (affect) St. Paul," local resident Marcie Garritt said, describing a scenario where a motorist driving 70 mph crashed into cars when a local driver stopped to make a left turn.
Beyond seeing more vehicles, residents are concerned that the mindset of motorists, many of whom are commuters, is incompatible with country roads.
"Since the bypass has opened it's just gotten crazy out here," Newberg resident Lee said, adding that he has personally taken defensive measures several times recently to avoid a crash on Highway 219. "It's not just the amount of traffic, it's the people we're getting out here. We're seeing drivers who are just not used to driving in the country where you have farmers on the roadway, driving equipment between fields."
Marion County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Todd Moquin, who oversees a team of four deputies designated to patrol the region, said deputies made around 600 traffic stops over the past year in the area north of Brooklake Road and west of I-5, many for speeding.
During a March 2017 town hall addressing the same topic, MCSO Commander Eric Hlad said deputies issued 400 citations in the previous six months, 250 of which were speed related.
"When traveling on country roads the tendency we have seen is for motorists to travel over the posted speed limits and disobey traffic control devices," Lt. Chris Baldridge of the MCSO said. "County roads are often curvy with many intersections and homes with driveways that pull directly out onto the roadway."
Moquin said it's critical to get that message to drivers.
"I think we can do more on the education (element). ... That's where we are starting to lag behind," Moquin said.
The four "E's"
At the town hall, St. Paul Mayor Kim Wallis, Aurora Mayor-Elect Kris Sallee and state Rep. Bill Post were joined by MCSO personnel, firefighting officials and representatives from Marion County Public Works and ODOT to field concerns.
"It takes all levels of government to address this issue," said Greg Leo of Butteville, who is vice president of the Aurora Fire District Board and serves on the Marion County Sheriff's Advisory Board.
Sharing data generated by ODOT Region Traffic Section, department spokesman Lou Torres noted that crash rates across the state and region have been increasing recently, and that it's primarily due to increases in various types of driver distraction and impairment.
"Road authorities are tending to develop their road safety programs with a balance to low-cost, high-benefit systemic projects across corridors and more traditional hot-spot treatments focused on specific high crash locations," Torres said, citing rumble strips and intersections as examples.
The larger stop sign and reflectors installed at Butteville and Ehlen roads and similar visibility work at the intersection with Highway 219 and French Prairie Road are area examples.
Along with rumble strips, which alert motorists when vehicles stray from their lane, the intersection improvements are part of the engineering element of traffic safety. Engineering is one part of what officials call the "Four E" approach to traffic-safety: Engineering, education, enforcement and emergency response.
"The 'Four E's' (approach) comes, in part, from the Federal Highway Administration guidance for highway safety plans and is implemented at state, city and county levels," Brian Nicholas, interim county engineer at Marion County Public Works, said. "It's one foundation for traffic safety improvements that Marion County makes to its roadways."
The county public works department collaborates with the sheriff's office to apply the Four E's, while a dedicated traffic-safety team meets monthly to coordinate roadway safety efforts, discuss safety issues observed on the roadway, develop coordinated responses to hazards, establish enforcement priorities and coordinate community education efforts.
Nicholas said his department completed several traffic-safety projects in northern Marion County, including the mentioned intersection and signage improvements, and several more undertakings designed to mitigate hazards on county roads are either underway or completed.
Those include center-line rumble strips on Butteville, Yergen/Ehlen roads. Rumble strips will be installed on McKay Road in early 2019 and highly durable and reflective center-line striping will be installed on McKay/Yergen/Ehlen Road to enhance lane visibility, especially at night and during wet weather.
The county is installing 4,000 raised, reflective center-line pavement markers to improve night and wet-weather visibility. Other steps include a 45 mph transition speed zone entering Donald and similar speed-zone modifications entering St. Paul.
"In 2017, Marion County installed transverse rumble strips, advance warning signs and flashing beacons on Butteville Road to alert drivers approaching the Ehlen road intersection," Nicholas added. "We have received a safety grant from ODOT to install additional warning systems on Ehlen Road to further improve the safety measures at this intersection, which may be installed as early as 2020."
'No quick fixes'
While many safety measures are complete or in the works, the work itself is ongoing.
"We are preparing Marion County's new Rural Transportation System Plan (TSP) right now," Nicholas said. "This effort is long overdue and will identify locations of needed safety and capacity improvements across the county."
The TSP process lists several steps with data-driven analysis to determine projects, predictive modeling to determine the crash-reduction benefit and safety, and safety treatments based on the predicted benefit. Meanwhile, the issues press on with rural residents who are historically accustomed to quieter environs.
Wallis said that next to water and sewer issues, traffic and speeding are the biggest source of concerns and complaints in St. Paul and the surrounding area.
"The frustration level with speeding vehicles is high," Wallis said.
A new proposed slower speed limit on Main Street has gained traction with residents, as has the idea of installing one or more radar speed signs. The latter hinges on receiving a grant, for which the city has applied.
At the town hall, Moquin said his crew would ideally deploy eight deputies, but it's operating at half that. Baldridge noted that while the traffic team is budgeted for eight positions, the sheriff's office is experiencing a shortage of deputies, which means some would-be traffic resources are diverted to crucial emergency services instead.
"We are working very hard to hire deputy sheriffs and bring our staffing levels back up," Baldridge said.
"Residents are clamoring for more traffic enforcement, but because of the shortage of police at MCSO, and a lack of funding on the city's part, we have to primarily rely on the occasional patrols through town by the sheriff's office," Wallis said, noting that residents rejected a local option tax in November. "We certainly don't have the funds to create and operate our own city police department, which has been suggested by residents several times."
Wallis said the city continues to seek highly competitive grant money, with which it has improved sidewalks and crosswalks to enhance pedestrian safety, as it has achieved on the west side of Main and Church streets north toward St. Paul High School.
"Problem is, if you are able to obtain funding, it can take several years to implement it as you need to go through the lengthy engineering and permitting process before you even break ground," Wallis said. "No quick fixes there."
At the town hall, Butteville Store proprietor and Friends of Historic Butteville member Ben Williams expressed concerns about pedestrian and bicyclist safety; many of those individuals frequent Champoeg State Park and Butteville.
Williams said he moved to the area 20 years ago and at that time he didn't recall seeing white crosses that signify fatal accident sites staked on area country roads.
"You can't hardly go anywhere around here anymore without seeing white crosses on the side of the road," he lamented.