Proposals to expand roads across the Portland region drew a cool reaction from some Metro councilors today at a briefing about proposed amendments to the region's transportation plan.
The proposals – specifically two road widening projects in Hillsboro, one on Interstate 5 near Tigard and another along Interstate 205 in East Portland – raised questions about how wide is too wide for Portland region roadways.
The Metro Council has to vote on the proposals as part of its role overseeing the region's state and federal transportation plans.
Hillsboro may be one of the region's jobs centers, but not all of the employees of Intel and the other big Silicon Forest firms choose to live on the westside. That leads to lengthy backups on Cornelius Pass Road, particularly in the afternoons, as drivers wait for their turn to get on Sunset Highway toward Portland.
To accommodate those drivers, as well as employees expected to work at Intel's new chip fab in Hillsboro, that city wants to widen Cornelius Pass Road by one lane, in each direction between Cornell Road and U.S. 26. That project is expected to cost $8.6 million.
A separate $9 million project would widen Brookwood Parkway between U.S. 26 and Evergreen Road. A planned road underneath U.S. 26 at 174th Avenue would be delayed to fund the road widenings.
"The ongoing expansion of Intel Ronler Acres campus has created the urgency for these improvements in order to provide the needed mobility and safety for the anticipated increase in traffic," wrote Hillsboro transportation planner Brad Choi in a request for the transportation plan amendments.
But the Portland region shies away from surface streets wider than two lanes in each direction. The adopted Regional Transportation Plan says regional boulevards like Cornelius Pass and Brookwood should be four lanes plus turn lanes.
"You don't send a signal that it's open season on these design criteria," said Councilor Bob Stacey. He said he recognized and appreciated the "enormous employment opportunities and existing employment demands to serve critically important growth areas," but pointed out that studies show that crashes primarily occur on major streets like the two Hillsboro wants to widen.
"The larger, the wider (the road), the faster the traffic, the more dangerous it is," Stacey said.
Councilor Shirley Craddick wondered how many Portland region roads are as wide as the proposed width for Brookwood and Cornelius Pass.
While common in other parts of the west, the Portland region has very few roads with six through lanes – the list includes Sunnyside Road in Happy Valley, Airport Way and McLoughlin Boulevard in Portland and not many, if any, others.
Councilor Craig Dirksen pointed out that the afternoon traffic means the added lane proposed for Cornelius Pass Road wouldn't really do much for through traffic.
"The outside lane is effectively not a travel lane, it's a stacking lane for the entrance on Highway 26," he said. "It's not six travel lanes. It's really four with stacking lanes for onramps and offramps."
Dirksen's main concern was placing the bike lane immediately next to a travel lane, a concern shared by Councilor Kathryn Harrington. Harrington, whose district includes Hillsboro, suggested the road have buffered bike lanes, but said she wanted to be more flexible with Hillsboro planners than to direct a specific solution – in Dirksen's case, suggesting the bike lane be moved out beyond the landscaping strip.
When is a lane not a lane?
The Oregon Department of Transportation is asking the region's transportation plan be amended to allow for new exit-only lanes on I-5 and I-205. But one of the exit-only lanes is so lengthy that some councilors and planners suggested they might be freeway expansions that go beyond the region's lane limits.
ODOT wants to spend around $8 million to extend a lane that stems from Highway 217 another half mile southbound, past the exit ramp to Lower Boones Ferry Road.
That lane would then be two miles long before exiting to Nyberg Road in Tualatin, and Interstate 5 would then be seven lanes wide at Lower Boones Ferry.
The adopted RTP says freeways should be six lanes, plus auxiliary lanes, the technical term for lanes between onramps and offramps that typically are marked exit-only.
"The general idea is we have a six-lane network," Stacey said.
In its application, ODOT says the project would increase average speeds in the area to at least 40 mph, and reduce the bottleneck in the area to less than an hour.
But several councilors worried about the precedent of allowing for wider freeways.
"It seems to me that we're moving forward to a new policy," Craddick said.
Metro Council President Tom Hughes argued that approval wouldn't necessarily be a new precedent, if there was a procedure in place that allowed for exceptions.
"If each individual amendment (proposed project) meets the standards that you've set for yourself, you've not created a precedent," he said.
ODOT's other proposed exit-only lanes are on northbound I-205 from Powell Boulevard to Stark Street, and on southbound I-205 from eastbound Interstate 84 to Division Street. To offset the costs of building those projects, ODOT would delay its planned reconstruction of Oregon 217's interchanges with Allen Boulevard and Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway.
Other projects on the list
While the two widening projects were the main focus of discussion Tuesday, other road projects are also on Metro's docket. Transportation plan amendments are lengthy and are usually done in bundles; a last-minute request was granted for rebuilding Scholls Ferry Road between Roy Rogers Road and Teal Boulevard. That $12 million project, to widen Scholls Ferry to two car lanes in each direction, plus one bike lane in each direction and a center turn lane for cars, is set to go out to bid soon.
Beaverton asked for a minor change to its Crescent Street project; Metro is trying to make changes to start building out the East Metro Connections Plan, and Portland is looking for authorization to proceed with its North Williams bikeway plan.
All the proposals must be approved by the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation and the Metro Council, with votes scheduled for mid-May.
Note: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect number of lanes planned for Scholls Ferry Road. The project plan is for two lanes in each direction. This version has been corrected