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Project to add I-5 auxiliary lane near Wilsonville receives public hearing; community leaders make their case

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Oregon State Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation listened to testimony last week about a bill that would fund an I-5 southbound auxiliary lane near Wilsonville and seismically retrofit the Boone Bridge.

In recent months, Wilsonville representatives have worked behind the scenes to convince legislators to address the choke point that halts I-5 traffic and clogs Wilsonville streets.

And last week — though legislators didn't outright endorse a bill that could help solve the issue — advocates at least got the chance to plead their case in an official setting and hear feedback from those with the power to move the project forward.

The state Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation held a public hearing Wednesday, May 15, on Senate Bill 1021, that would direct the Oregon Department of Transportation to complete a $120 million project that would add a southbound auxiliary lane from the Wilsonville Road I-5 exit on-ramp to the Exit 282A exit ramp and seismically retrofit the Boone Bridge.

Though the bill put forward by Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, would fund the project in its entirety, Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, proposed an amendment to the bill that, if approved, would only fund a $3.5 million engineering and design study through gas tax revenue.

The committee did not address whether it would approve the amendment, but state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Mayor Tim Knapp, among others, supported it.

"I think it (the engineering study) is more realistic at this point," Thatcher said during the hearing.

Committee members did not say whether they would move the project through the legislative process, but some acknowledged the problems posed by traffic congestion along I-5. However, as Committee Co-Chair Lee Beyer said, "the issue really is money and funding."

But state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, said ODOT has some money left over that it could use for the project that would not require the passing of legislation.

"I'd like (to) appeal to you (ODOT highway division administrator Kris Strickler) and the (ODOT) director, in the kindness of your heart, to look at this because I do recall we have about $8-10 million extra coming in, in a use tax, right now," Boquist said. "I would suggest we could probably take some sort of action in the end (to fund the project), but there's also other sources out there that we know."

Hoping to address the recent congestion along the section of I-5 near Wilsonville, the City and ODOT completed an analysis of traffic in the area last year. The study showed wildly unpredictable travel times for those commuting during rush hour, that the problem will continue to worsen, and that an auxiliary lane would greatly increase travel speeds.

ODOT combined the project with the Boone Bridge seismic retrofitting with the assumption that the projects would receive more funding interest together than apart.

The rationale behind the engineering study is that if the state garners a better cost estimate and a more precise scope of what the project would entail, the U.S. Congress would be more likely to fund the project through a major transportation package.

"The federal government needs to see state investment in order to support these projects," Neron said in the hearing. "In order to attract federal investment into this essential seismic and capacity upgrade for our region, I believe it's imperative that Oregon includes these projects as investment priorities this biennium."

On the other hand, Olsen told the Spokesman in April that studies often don't lead to completed projects.

"That's typical government speak. 'Let's study it.' Not for me," he said.

As a representative of Clackamas County cities on the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, Knapp recently visited Washington, D.C., and said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, who serves as Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, expressed interest in passing a transportation package.

"Congressman DeFazio went further and indicated a strong interest in funding, specifically, a program for the rehabilitation of I-5 bridges," Knapp said.

Beyer was less optimistic about the potential for a federal transportation package that would infuse the state with transportation revenue.

"We're all very hopeful that Rep. DeFazio is very successful and Congress passes a big transportation package that would really help with all of these. The record is not really good on that history," he said.

During his testimony, Knapp said the Boone Bridge is one of the most traveled bridges in the state and carries more freight traffic than the Columbia River Crossing north of Portland. Beyer, for his part, has noticed that the addition of auxiliary lanes in certain areas can relieve congestion.

"I was somewhat skeptical when we talked about doing the auxiliary lanes from (Highway) 217 down to (I)-205, and ODOT has proven that that really works," he said. "That's really made a difference on that section of the highway."

Charbonneau resident Bill Wallace hoped that the project would have a similar effect.

"If we get that addition of the ramp to ramp access it will mean faster and safer travel for those of us living in Charbonneau," he said.

Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Ferrasci O'Malley said businesses and employees in the region are hindered by the choke point.

"The current Boone Bridge bottleneck is a major concern for small, medium and large businesses alike," he said. "It seriously impacts employee community time and causes costly freight shipment commuting delays."

Advocates of the bill also outlined potential deleterious effects if the Boone Bridge collapsed in the event of a natural disaster and said seismic retrofitting would lessen this risk.

"We can predict that a large portion of the state and region would be paralyzed if the bridge suddenly became impassable," Neron said. "A bridge collapse would block access to vital emergency services and have a crippling long-term effect throughout the state."

To close his testimony, O'Malley described Wilsonville as a forgotten "middle child" in Oregon and asked the Legislature to throw the city a bone.

"We understand you have big picture issues to deal with, but I would submit it's a regional choke point and that small amount of money gets us further down the road instead of

delaying another 20 years," he said.

The committee considered the bill during a work session again Monday, which was after the Spokesman went to press.

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