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2018: Bend's year of transportation woes...and fixes?

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Head north on Highway 97 in the morning and you can't help but notice the line of commuters driving into Bend from Redmond. It wasn't like that 15 years ago.

Take to pretty much any street during the height of the summer tourist season and you'll find cars backed up at intersections and roundabouts that used to easily handle the traffic.

Bend's roads are overwhelmed. Some of the busiest local intersections and streets see 20,000 vehicles per day or more. They weren't designed for that.

The year 2018 will be Bend's year of transportation.

City, regional and state planners are figuring out how to ease congestion, make roads safer, serve multiple modes and accommodate future growth. What they decide will shape the community in obvious and subtle ways, and the community has a seat at the table.

Traffic congestion

"Transportation is like the weather: It's something everyone talks about. Unlike the weather, we can do something about how we manage it," says Joette Storm, vice chair of the Boyd Acres Neighborhood Association.

As one of the city's largest neighborhoods, Boyd Acres has some of Bend's most challenging traffic problems. With apartments going up, businesses expanding, a new sports complex on NE 18th Street and Bend-La Pine Schools program changes, things stand to get worse.

"All those people who drive trucks and deliver goods and services, they know where the snarls are and where the shortcuts are," Storm said.

The city's growth fuels traffic congestion. Since 2000, the city's population has grown from 52,800 people to 86,765 last year. It's forecast to hit 115,000 in the next decade.

"We're kind of in the gangly teenager stage of whom we're becoming as a city," said Katy Brooks, president of the Bend Chamber of Commerce.

Despite a brief dip during the recession, vehicle miles traveled in Bend increased 13 percent from 2010 to 2016, compared to only 8 percent statewide, according to figures collected by the City of Bend.

It's not just growth, though. History and past city councils also are partly to blame for the current state of the transportation network, too.

City Growth Management Director Nick Arnis points to southeast Bend as an example of past decisions creating problems today.

"In southeast, there's a road system that isn't very well connected because of the land use patterns that developed over the years," he said. Subdivisions went in over time, without a lot of thought about how they should interconnect to ensure traffic flows well, he says. Creating better connections between them would improve traffic flow.

Bend Mayor Casey Roats continually points out the city has limited resources and many core services to pay for. Every dollar going to police or fire is a dollar not available for pavement or capital improvements. "We've had to make tradeoffs, and it's fair to say that the transportation system has been shortchanged over the years," he said.

Physical barriers exacerbate the situation.

"We're a city that wasn't laid out with a grid system to start," Roats said. "Beyond that you have a river, a railroad and buttes that disrupt potential traffic routes."

The recent expansion of the city's Urban Growth Boundary further increased pressure to take a fresh look at transportation plans.

"Transportation and land use planning go hand in hand," Arnis said. As development occurs in annexed areas, the city must provide infrastructure.

That's an important element for City Councilor Bill Moseley, who says planning and building new roads facilitates construction of new residential units to meet demand. "If we want to keep housing prices in check, we have to make it possible to build homes," he said.

Still, the city's transportation system must match its character. "When we build roads, it impacts livability. I don't think we need giant five-lane roads all over the place," he said.

Transportation planning

This year, pretty much every entity that deals with transportation issues in Bend will update its transportation plan. The city, Metropolitan Planning Organization, Cascades East Transit and the Oregon Department of Transportation all are taking a fresh look at roads.

For the city, it comes down to the Transportation System Plan. The city has tweaked the plan over the years, but the last substantial overhaul was adopted in 2001.

"It's been well over 10 years since we've had a serious discussion with the community about transportation. Given the growth we've had, it's time for another," Arnis said.

Since 2001, the population has grown and the urban growth boundary, which dictates where development can occur, has been expanded. A public transit system has opened. The city fell in love with roundabouts. And large capital projects such as the Bend Parkway and the Healy Bridge were completed.

The city will coordinate with the MPO, also updating its own plan. The MPO is a federally designated transportation planning organization created in 2002 after the city surpassed 50,000 residents. Its borders differ only slightly from the city limits.

"We'll take a lead on looking at what the needs are on the highway system and the major roadway system over the next 10 to 20 years," said MPO Manager Tyler Deke.

Higher up the government ladder, ODOT is looking at highway plans, especially north Bend. Improvements to both U.S. 97 and U.S. 20 are in the works.

U.S. 97 and Highway 20

The U.S. 97 North Bend Corridor plan, now in the planning phase, received a big boost from the Oregon Legislature last year, with $50 million dedicated for improvements at Hwy. 97 and Cooley Road. ODOT hopes to leverage those funds and some from the city to secure federal grants for bigger projects.

"It needs to function for local traffic as well as interstate traffic," ODOT Community Liaison Abbey Driscoll said. "There's a lot happening in our community. Depending on what funding becomes available, it could be a lot more."

On U.S. 20, ODOT is in the design phase for significant improvements between Empire and Greenwood avenues. Changes will include better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, upgraded signals and an upgraded Empire-Parkway interchange area. ODOT also has funding from the city and a private developer to build a roundabout at U.S. 20 and Cooley Road, where a Fred Meyer is planned. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2019.

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Alternatives to Driving

Cascades East Transit is also revamping its transit plan in light of funding approved by state lawmakers.

"The [State Transportation Infrastructure Fund] funding will be used for enhanced transit service throughout Central Oregon," said Derek Hofbauer, outreach and engagement administrator for Cascades East Transit. "A robust planning process will begin this spring that will seek input from communities across our region to identify areas that have high potential for new and increased transit services. A main focus of the bill is serving low-income populations."

There's even a private-sector transportation plan in the works. Four westside developers who will build homes on land brought in during the UGB expansion are figuring out how they will handle the traffic, according to Dale Van Valkenburg, director of planning and land use for Brooks Resources.

One risk of so many transportation plans updating at once is that they will wind up contradictory.

What ODOT wants to do with the Parkway might not mesh with the city's vision for moving traffic on and off the highway. MPO's Deke said conversations are underway to ensure everyone's aligned.

"If we have places where there is overlap, we're asking who should do what in terms of the difficult technical work. We're trying not to duplicate efforts," he said. "The intention is that through these planning efforts, we will work with elected officials, with city, county and ODOT staff to have consensus about the issues and not adopt plans in conflict with each other."

The Public's Input

Transportation plans are complicated. Engineers pore over data to figure out not just what changes need to happen today, but what will work in the future.

City officials could just assign staff to develop a plan and run with it, but people today demand more of a voice.

"Everyone's an expert when it comes to transportation," said Brooks Resources' Van Valkenburg.

Environmentalists and mobility advocates would have the city invest heavily in transit, bike lanes, trails and sidewalks—even at the expense of car traffic.

Others view anything but the most modest expenditure on alternative modes as an insult to taxpayers. Just shutting down a few streets to cars for a few hours as part of the popular Open Streets event was dubbed a "war on cars."

The Bend City Council wants to hear from both extremes and everyone in the middle. It's created a 25-member Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee to help shape its—and the MPO's—plans.

Van Valkenburg is one of the 25, bringing not just development expertise but also experience in how the city works. He was a city planning manager during the early 2000s.

Other members of CTAC represent a broad cross-section of the community. Neighborhoods, businesses, advocacy groups and more are represented. The Bend Chamber's Brooks is on the committee, too.

"We really want to make sure that we have our finger on the pulse of what people in Bend are willing to pay for," Mayor Roats said.

Both Roats and Van Valkenburg likened CTAC to the Sewer Infrastructure Advisory Group, on which both served. The city formed that committee a few years ago to tackle an equally challenging and technical issue.

It worked so well, that the city used the model a second time, with the urban growth boundary expansion.

"It's a unique Bend kind of thing," Van Valkenburg said. "The committees create opportunity for conversation and compromise. The UGB expansion would never have happened the way it did without this approach."

Roats said that the committee will be able to review all of the ideas the public has—with the help of experts—and figure out which ones are feasible for Bend.

Not everyone is a fan of the CTAC, though. Moseley voted against it based in large part on the cost. The city will spend more than $1 million on a facilitator and related services for the committee to complete its work over the coming months.

"If you want to list the top 20 intersections in town that need to be fixed, you don't need a committee for that. People drive them daily and complain about them," he said. "I hope we don't spend our time on a lot of dialogue for things that are obvious."

CTAC won't be the only group looking for transportation solutions. Move Bend, an arm of the community engagement coalition, Bend 2030, is aiming to "educate, engage and empower residents," as the group's treasurer, Lou Capozzi, put it. It will hold listening sessions and other events to hear from as many people as possible. The group counts about 30 organizations as coalition members including Bend Park and Recreation District, Deschutes Brewery, Mt. Bachelor, St. Charles Medical Center and Oregon State University–Cascades. Capozzi also serves on CTAC.

Move Bend is seeking government financial support for its work in the form of a $20,000 grant from the MPO. The MPO Policy Board has asked the group to revise its application and will make a determination in the coming months.

"We come at this from a completely dispassionate and independent point of view. We also represent a broader range of community input than anyone else in town," Capozzi said. "The first step in building confidence and a positive attitude in the community is to ask their opinion."

Paying for roads

Building public confidence will be key, if the city hopes to pay for roads. Voters in 2016 overwhelmingly rejected a gas tax for transportation.

Councilor Moseley suggests residents lack trust in the city's ability to manage expensive projects. He points to the Reed Market Road project, which didn't deliver everything the public thought it would get, and street maintenance funds, which after years of the city's "crying poor" suddenly materialized, as contributing to the mistrust.

He added that transportation capital needs are much greater than a few million dollars for repairs. "We have a backlog of $250 million of new construction that needs to be done," Moseley said. "Voters have to decide if they want to pay more property taxes. Otherwise, we aren't going to have these roads."

Mayor Roats agreed that the city must rebuild trust with voters. "There is not enough political capital on city council—on any city council in a long time—to make the heavy lift. If there were, we would have already made the investment," he said.

The city charges developers about $5,200 per home they build to help pay for new roads, bridges and other improvements. Those transportation system development charges generate only $6-7 million per year, far short of what's needed.

"SDCs are not very stable. In good times, we bring in a lot of revenue. In the downturn, we weren't bringing in much money, and we were barely covering our debt," Arnis said.

Other options for funding include a bond measure, fees and another try at the gas tax. How much money the city might seek will depend on what projects and plans come out of the CTAC and other community outreach efforts.

Storm at the Boyd Acres Neighborhood Association hopes the funding strategy that emerges is spread around.

"How do tourists contribute to the maintenance and updates? We want the City Council to figure that out," she said.

Nearly 20 years ago, the city went in big on roundabouts, and they've become a special element of the city's character. What happens this year will determine the next big innovations.

"It's going to be an amalgamation of a lot of different needs and not a lot of money, so there will be a certain element of creativity to this, of figuring out solutions that are sustainable to keep Bend moving," Brooks of the Bend Chamber said. "It will be silver buckshot rather than a silver bullet."


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