Motorists who drive the dangerous Highway 20 corridor between Albany and Corvallis are getting some relief.
Oregon Department of Transportation officials have announced plans for $8.4 million in safety upgrades to be completed between 2017 and 2021.
“I got goosebumps and was elated when I heard the news,” said Christine Kramer, who lives on Northeast Merloy Avenue. Kramer was one of the community members who lobbied ODOT and other public officials to find solutions for the corridor. Kramer, who lives two doors down from the highway, got involved after a February 2014 crash that killed 29-year-old Dominic Schlundt.
Here are the projects that are planned:
• Installing a continuous two-way left turn lane on a half-mile stretch between the Children’s Farm Home and Merloy. Cost: $4.2 million.
• Adding a rural left turn lane with a concrete traffic separator from Granger Avenue onto the highway and adding a buffer area between the through lane toward Corvallis and the right-turn lane to Granger. Cost: $2.35 million.
• Widening the shoulder and installing guardrails in the area near Garland Nursery. Cost: $1.66 million.
• Adding curve warning signs throughout the corridor. Cost: $91,000.
• Signal upgrades at the Circle Boulevard and Conifer Boulevard intersections. Cost: $80,000.
ODOT officials said the goal was to find and fund smaller projects because widening the highway to four lanes was not in the cards.
“Given that there is so little funding available for larger projects, ODOT is always looking for lower-cost ways to improve safety and efficiency,” said Angela Kargel, traffic manager for ODOT’s Region 2, which covers Lane, Linn, Benton, Lincoln, Polk, Marion, Yamhill, Tillamook, Clatsop, Columbia, southern Clackamas and western Washington.
The ODOT announcement followed a safety study and a series of public meetings as well as a high-profile visit by a legislative team Oct. 24, a day that included a two-hour bus tour and a public meeting at Linn-Benton Community College.
During the tour, state Sen. Sara Gelser, who was involved in an injury crash at Granger in March, talked about the issues on Highway 20.
“This is crazy. Why are we even calling this a highway?” was one of the comments Gelser heard on the tour, which included a left turn from Independence Highway onto Highway 20 that started with the back of the bus on the railroad tracks.
“People were saying ‘Wow!’ ” Gelser said. “It really helped to go back to the meeting that night and talk about the issues.”
ODOT officials said Gelser, a Corvallis Democrat, helped sell agency officials and legislators on the urgency of the situation.
“You did a great job on the tour … explaining the needs of this very busy Highway 20 corridor,” said Frances Brindle, ODOT’s south area manager in Region 2, in an Oct. 28 letter to Gelser announcing the funding decisions.
Gelser, meanwhile, gave a lot of the credit to neighbors such as Kramer and Pete Bober, who kept the issue alive by pushing for meetings and organizing a Facebook page that included photos of crashes.
“The funding would not have happened without the work of the neighbors,” said Gelser, who noted the impact of the Facebook photos. “A rear-ender on Highway 20 is really different than one on Circle and 29th,” she said.
State Rep. Andy Olson, Republican in District 15, who has the dual perspective of involvement with the issue as a legislator and during his 29 years with the Oregon State Police, agreed that the outcome was a winner.
“ODOT really responded,” Olson said. “They heard the concerns, and I’m glad to see them respond.”
Olson also urged the State Police to increase its presence in the corridor.
“People obey the law and pay more attention when law enforcement is out there,” said Olson, who noted that there are three "Es" that are critical for highway safety: engineering, enforcement and education.
“If you plug all three of those things in you will prevent crashes, save lives and improve the movement of traffic,” Olson said.
Bober, who emailed his thoughts to the Gazette-Times from a sister city trip in Ukraine, said “what I think is the most important story beyond the decision is that the system worked. We have responsive legislators as well as ODOT staff. Did it take some persistence? Yes, it did, but ultimately you had citizens who made a difference in their community.
“In the current environment where there is oftentimes a somewhat cynical view of politicians, government and the media it is refreshing to see these results.”
All involved agreed that there remains more to be done. Gelser is urging ODOT to look at ways to extend the continuous left-turn lane from Merloy to Conifer, an additional 1.2 miles.
Gelser and Olson also advocate ways to make the highway safer for agricultural businesses, with one possibility being a local connector or frontage road that would link Granger or Independence with an intersection that includes a traffic light.