With the arrival of warm, summer-like weather, closure of main commute route looms

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - While Cornelius Pass Road is closed this summer, workers will make safety improvements such as widening shoulders and adding more signage for drivers.   In less than two months, Cornelius Pass Road will close for three months, cutting off a high-traffic route for commuters living in Columbia County.

Community members have long called for improvements to the road, which has been the site of many crashes, some fatal, in recent years.

In 2007, 17-year-old Taija Belwood died when her car hit a patch of ice and slid down an embankment. Another 17-year-old, Kerrigan Clark, died in a crash along Cornelius Pass in May 2015.

For years after Taija's death, her mother, Tammy Belwood, pushed for improvements to the road. Now, those improvements are on the horizon.

"Any improvements are going to make that road better," Tammy Belwood said, describing the potholes, tight corners and crumbling roads.

"It's not going to be pretty," Belwood said of the closure. "It's going to be very inconvenient. I just hope we can keep our eye on the prize and be patient and kind to other drivers."

The road is the fastest route to Hillsboro and surrounding areas, where large portions of Columbia County residents work. As traffic in Portland grows, the alternative of taking Highway 30 to downtown Portland and getting on Highway 26 is even less practical.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY TRANSPORTATION - While Cornelius Pass is closed, the detour route for cars will take drivers across similarly narrow winding roads.The recommended reroute is to take Highway 30 past Cornelius Pass to Northwest Newberry Road — which was recently reopened following repairs due to a landslide — to Skyline Boulevard, and then to Northwest Old Cornelius Pass Road — a little more than a six-mile trek from Highway 30. A temporary traffic light will be installed at Newberry Road and Highway 30, making it easier and safer for vehicles turning left onto the highway on their way back to Columbia County.

Large trucks, which are a considerable portion of Cornelius Pass Road traffic, are not permitted on the roads used in the detour route. Trucks will have navigate through downtown Portland, taking Highway 30 to Interstate 405 and getting on Highway 26. Highway 30 to I-405 will also undergo closures in the coming months, adding an additional hurdle for drivers.

When construction projects will impact traffic, agencies compare plans to try to avoid overlapping construction projects, according to Mike Pullen, a spokesperson for Multnomah County. In this case, the county and Oregon Department of Transportation were unable to avoid overlapping construction.

The Cornelius Pass road closure is scheduled to begin July 8 and end by Oct. 7.

Safe in the end?

Even with the $5.65 million the state and Multnomah County are putting into the road, many say Cornelius Pass will never be safe. Guardrails and other safety measures will help, but the narrow roads and tight turns around steep drop-offs will remain.

"That road will never be adequately safe for the amount of traffic that goes on the road," Tammy said.

Andrea Sanchez drives Cornelius Pass on her way from St. Helens to work in Yamhill. On her commute, she said she's seen countless collisions and had four flat tires and two broken windshields.

Sanchez doesn't think the construction will do enough.

"You can't fix a road when the issue is traffic," she said.

"I don't think they (can) fix blind spots or bad drivers," Sanchez said. "The scariest time to commute is the early a.m. People (are) often on phones, not paying attention, swerving into oncoming traffic and pulling out in front of you when they know it's not a safe distance but need to get to their destination," she said.

The decision to fully close the road for three months, rather than partial closures over a longer period of time, was partly due to how narrow the road is. Drivers and construction workers would be at unnecessary risk if they kept one lane of traffic open. The closure is the "fastest and least expensive option," according to Multnomah County.

The project will involve upgrading signage along the road, adding vehicle pullouts, upgrading guardrails and potentially adding new guardrails, and adding gravel to smooth pavement drop-offs.

At various points along Cornelius Pass, particularly at the most dangerous curves on the road, construction will include shoulder widening and improvements to visibility.

"We know it's not going to solve all the problems… but we worked to choose the best fixes we can do with the money we have," Pullen said.

Columbia County Rider's bus service to Portland Community College's Rock Creek Campus, the primary PCC campus for most Columbia County residents, currently travels along Cornelius Pass. During the closure, the Line 2 bus will reroute up Rocky Point Road.MULTNOMAH COUNTY TRANSPORTATION - Repairs on Cornelius Pass aim to improve safety, widening shoulders and improving visibility where possible. Rocky Point is another road with poor driving conditions, but Todd Wood, CC Rider transit administrator, says the drive will be manageable, particularly during the summer months when low ridership means they can use a smaller van.

The construction "shouldn't have any major impacts (on other bus lines). At least, that's the hope," Wood said.

Jessica Sanchez, who was friends with Taija Belwood and has since moved out of Columbia County, says the construction is long overdue.

"People have died on that road. People with families and loved one just like you and me, and still the powers that be refused to do anything," Sanchez said. "How many people had to get hurt or lose a life before it became serious enough to say, 'OK, maybe we can work this into the budget?'"

Sometime after the construction is completed, Cornelius Pass will be transferred from Multnomah County jurisdiction to the state of Oregon. According to Pullen, Sen. Betsy Johnson was an advocate for the change, which reflects the fact that although the road is located in Multnomah County, the road is used by residents of other counties, particularly Columbia County.

Multnomah County officials are planning a public meeting at Scappoose High School on June 11 at 6 p.m., where representatives will explain the construction plan and answer questions.

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