Bypassing solutions that might actually work

"$100 million for 62 bypass? County doubts plan's logic"

— Nov.10 Mail Tribune headline

Good. Some serious doubt is long overdue.

But it takes guts for local officials to voice doubts about money that's headed their way. One of my first phone calls after being sworn in as a county commissioner in 1987 was from an upstate commissioner who was leading a campaign to pry millions out of the legislature for county roads and highways. He called to congratulate me and let me know he was certain he could count on me to lobby Jackson County legislators to vote for the proposal.

And will some of that money be available for public transportation and other alternatives? I asked, showing all the savvy of a commissioner with about two hours of experience under his belt. I may have imagined it, but I think the veteran commissioner began to speak more slowly to make sure I could follow. No, he explained, all of it would have to go to widen and expand highways. I told him that didn't sound very smart to me, that my county's growing fast, and the number of cars on the road is growing faster. Wouldn't it make more sense to invest in programs that offered alternatives to single-car travel, ways to get from A to B that don't lock us in to more and more pavement, air pollution and oil addiction?

"Of course it would," he answered. "But that's not how money and transportation work in this state. Come with me strong on this one, and we'll work together on the things you're talking about down the line."

It's now 22 years down the line, and if anything we're more hostage to the one car/one driver model that clogs up Highway 62 than we were then. What I was suggesting in that old phone conversation isn't even legal today, because we've since passed a ballot measure, lavishly funded by highway contractors, that ties every single gas-tax and auto-registration dollar to road construction. It's a law almost designed to demonstrate that famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again (paving over more ground) and expecting different results (relieving traffic congestion for more than a few years). What part of expensive temporary band-aid don't we understand?

This particular $100 million would build a road parallel to Highway 62 from somewhere near Fred Meyer toward White City to handle a portion of the traffic. A few trifling details, like the number of lanes and where it would start and end, are up in the air; a four-lane bypass all the way to White City would cost about $450 million.

The uncertainty is part of what irks local leaders. "I don't think it's the best project for the entire community of Jackson County," said Commissioner Jack Walker.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour, unimpressed by projections that just 27 percent of traffic would use the new road, said, "If all that comes out of this is a permanent bypass that goes from Vilas Road to Ace Hardware, not a lot is gained."

That doesn't sound exactly grateful to state legislators who secured the funding. "It's not spending money for the sake of spending money," said Ashland's Peter Buckley.

Medford's Sal Esquivel: "We fought very hard to allocate the money for this project."

Which sounds like you folks in power are flexing your muscles for serious negotiations ("Commissioners wanted more assurance the bypass highway would be four lanes, not two lanes," the article reported). But before you hunker down, take a deep breath and tell us this: do you believe this bypass will decisively deal with traffic congestion in that part of the Valley, or just take off the edge for five or seven or 10 years, when we'll fight for $300 million to $800 million to build a bypass bypass? We'd like a candid answer before firing up the bulldozers.

Are there better $100 million solutions? Probably not under current Oregon law. But states without our transportation-spending handcuffs are trying new bus/van/bicycle interfaces, electric rail, coordinated carpooling, staggered workshifts, and land-use incentives to reduce work and shopping commutes. Closer to home, the Rogue Valley Transportation District developed and then had to shelve plans for an express bus service (eight stops) from Eagle Point to Ashland that would run every 30 minutes for most of the day. The projected cost to taxpayers of $1 million each year could (and "could" is all we can say) drop over time as riders get comfortable with the route and gas prices take off again.

Lots of coulds, maybes, strategic and technical puzzles ahead to figure out. What we already know is this: the "realism" we've been accepting, this We'll do the bandaid now and work on the real solution later mode, is killing us. It's already later.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at

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