$460 million project remains unfunded, but agency pushing ahead with planning

GRAPHICS COURTESY OF HDR - An illustration shows how ODOT might approach the rock cutting that will be necessary to widen the freeway.Passing through the various science fair-style stations at an open house June 5 at the West Linn Adult Community Center, it would have been easy to assume that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) was nearly finished with planning a project to widen adjacent sections of Interstate 205.

There were colorful, detailed concept drawings showing the various aspects of the project, and even animated videos depicting the overall scope of work and changes in traffic flow. One display board showed a timeline projecting that preliminary work would begin as soon as 2019.

But according to Steve Drahota, a consultant with the Portland-based HDR firm that is leading the ODOT project, planning is only about 25 percent complete. And there's still one giant missing piece.

"All of this depends on funding, and right now there is no construction funding for the job," Drahota said during a presentation at the open house. "There's a lot of energy being put to, 'What are the various ways to find funding?' Our direction, though, is to progress as if there is."

The $460 million project would add a third lane in both directions of I-205 between Stafford Road and OR 213, while also seismically upgrading the Abernethy Bridge and eight other bridges on the freeway so they can withstand a major earthquake.

"There's a gap in the three lanes of I-205, and this project is really about filling that two-lane gap," Drahota said. "As part of that, it will eliminate bottlenecks, it will help congestion, it will reduce crashes and really create safer conditions out there."

The seismic upgrades are considered a necessity given I-205's status as a "lifeline route" in the event of a major earthquake.

"It's really important that, as you prepare for this very large earthquake that's coming, at least one freeway at this point is ready to be there to serve emergency response vehicles to get people in and out," Drahota said.

On a local level, the project would involve changes at three bridges inside city limits and at the interchange of Highway 43 and I-205. The Sunset Avenue and West A Street bridges would be taken out during construction and rebuilt at their current locations, while the Broadway Street bridge would simply be removed.ODOTs plans currently call for the installation of a new roundabout near the Highway 43/I-205 interchange.

Meanwhile, ODOT proposes to install a roundabout on Highway 43 near the interchange while eliminating the I-205 northbound on-ramp accessed by traffic going north on Highway 43. Those drivers would use the roundabout to access the northbound loop ramp that is currently used by southbound traffic on Highway 43.

But ODOT is still looking for feedback as planning continues.

"The input we're gathering from these sessions and as we reach out to neighborhood associations can really inform how we want to take the project forward," Drahota said.

According to ODOT spokesperson Kimberly Dinwiddie, the agency is also coordinating with the City of West Linn to make sure its plans don't interfere with the City's riverfront redevelopment efforts. Transportation improvements have been pegged from the beginning as a significant aspect of that redevelopment.

"The improvements we make won't preclude future improvements (by the City)," Dinwiddie said. "We're sharing our plans with the City and having regular meetings about the design."

The open house June 5 attracted dozens of residents who shared an array of thoughts on the project. West Linn resident Rick Larson was most concerned about a concurrent ODOT initiative to explore the possibility of congestion pricing in the Portland metro area. One of the scenarios under consideration is to toll only on the Abernethy Bridge, which Larson felt was unfair.

"(It's) a heavy impact just to West Linn and Oregon City," Larson said. "It's going to create a lot of problems because people would divert over the old bridge into downtown Oregon City … and I think it's an unfair economic impact as well.

"I think widening and doing improvements to the bridge is a good idea. If they want to toll the whole section of the road or something like that, I wouldn't be opposed to that."

Another West Linn resident, Deanna Hess, grew up in town and was a teenager when I-205 was built in the 1960s.

"I remember when they built the freeway and all the damage it did," she said. "They had a lot of earthquakes … things falling off walls up by Sunset.

"I wondered how it was going to affect that, if the blasting was going to be as strong."

She said she also wanted to know more about the timeline for the project.

"I do think it's needed — I thought it should have been done when they (first built the freeway)," Hess said. "We told them that at the time — 'You've got the property, now do it.' Especially when the rest of the freeway was (three lanes)."

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