Officials agree downtown traffic is a problem,

but no solution in sight

In October 1993 a headline in The Daily Astorian asked "Astoria Bypass: Now or Never?"

The bypass wasn't built then, and there's virtually no chance it's going to be built anytime soon. And the chance of it ever breaking ground remains uncertain.

To gauge the prospects for the long-awaited project, and discuss more immediate transportation concerns, Clatsop County Commission Chairman Sam Patrick convened a meeting Tuesday of local and state agency officials and representatives from Oregon's congressional delegation.

Despite the many apparent obstacles in the path of the project Patrick said he still hasn't abandoned hope that a bypass linking Oregon Highway 202 with U.S. Highway 30 can not only be built but can be completed in time for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration.

"The number one problem is how to get traffic through downtown Astoria," he said.

But other participants said a major project like the proposed bypass, which faces numerous funding and regulatory hurdles, shouldn't eclipse efforts to come up with short-term solutions to the traffic problems that Astoria and the rest of the county will face in the upcoming celebration, which begins next year and is expected to peak in Clatsop County in 2005.

"I would hate to see us not do things now that we can afford, and put all our efforts into a major project that may not happen anytime soon," said Kathy McMullen, area manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

State Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, warned that state funding will be very tough to come by for the $54 million project. The Legislature still faces a budget hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole, while many other pressing, and expensive, transportation needs exist just within her district, she said.

"The state partnership is a thin reed to hang on," she said.

The bypass, also known as the Astoria Truck Route, was left off a list of projects funded by $400 million recently approved by the Legislature. For that list the state gave first priority to projects that could proceed with a minimum of preliminary planning and study, Johnson said.

In the early 1990s considerable effort went into the bypass, including a $400,000 environmental impact study, and the project was included on the state's construction schedule. But it was later dropped from the project list, and has not returned to funding schedule.

The studies and data collected a decade ago for the bypass effort are out of date, McMullen noted. One notable change is that the volume of truck traffic in downtown Astoria has dropped significantly since the first bypass studies, which took place when considerable traffic was still coming and going from the Port of Astoria.

Discussion also focused on the more immediate concern of handling the extra traffic volumes expected for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, although how many more vehicles are expected hasn't yet been nailed down.

Oregon State Police Lt. Duane Stanton presented state traffic projections that show dramatic increases in the number of vehicles on highways 101, 26 and 30 coming into the county during the celebration. Along with the congestion they'll cause, the visitors are coming to an area where the total police presence has remained at the same level or even dropped for the past several years, he said.

Astoria Public Works Director Mitch Mitchum questioned some of the traffic forecasts, noting they appeared to be extrapolated from the 1998 visit of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, and McMullen said new state projections put the number of Bicentennial-generated traffic much lower than originally forecast.

ODOT has been studying ways to ease some of the worst potential areas for congestion, McMullen said. An agency team, for example, has proposed some fixes to the notoriously tight corner at Eighth and Commercial streets.

ODOT is also studying traffic control systems in Warrenton, specifically the installation of a signal on Highway 101 at the Marlin Avenue intersection to serve Fort Clatsop traffic.

Three major projects are scheduled for Astoria this summer - construction of the roundabout at Smith Point, repaving of Marine Drive from Smith Point to 33rd Street, and completion of the Old Youngs Bay Bridge renovation project.

Patrick said he would like to see some improvements to Highway 202 between Astoria and Jewell, to enable to the road to serve as an alternate route.

Johnson, who leads the state's Lewis and Clark organizing committee, volunteered to convene an action group to tackle the Bicentennial traffic issues and come up with some recommended solutions.

The group discussed other projects designed to reduce congestion, from the restoration of passenger rail service to Astoria to the use of shuttle buses.

Roger Rocka, director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, said shuttles are a good idea, but the system put in place for the last month's Crab and Seafood Festival faltered when the buses got stuck in the same congestion they were intended to help visitors avoid.

Clatsop County Sheriff John Raichl said the federal government needs to take a bigger role in the Bicentennial - the celebration is a national event.

"We keep running into the problem of, 'there has to be a local match, a local buy-in' - we understand that, but everybody is already stressed with their public resources," he said. "This is almost an act of desperation for us."

Jan Mitchell, from the local Bicentennial organizing committee, said she gave up the idea that a bypass would be pursued in time for the Bicentennial a few years ago. She's been frustrated by the federal government's lack of involvement in celebration planning, but said she's had some success working with ODOT to plan some local improvement projects.

Patrick said he was encouraged by the discussion, which allowed some state officials the chance to hear the county's concerns first-hand.

"I think they were left with a sense of urgency," he said. "We need to set our minds to finding solutions, rather than sitting around and asking why things can't be done."

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