Seven years ago, 74 percent of Seaside's residents voted in favor of highway expansionSEASIDE - The Oregon Department of Transportation and the city of Seaside are still negotiating the details of the U.S. Highway 101 project before they sign an agreement, Mayor Don Larson said.

"There were a lot of questions we couldn't answer and ODOT couldn't answer," Larson said, adding that neither side wants to pay for moving utilities.

"We are researching on how to get the costs on to ODOT."

ODOT Area Manager Carole Richardson said Oregon statutes do not allow the department to reimburse the city for utility relocation. However, ODOT employees are looking for ways to decrease the costs - currently estimated at $387,000.

Richardson said despite construction impacts, loss of parking and more difficult access to local businesses, the new highway will bring an economic boost to Seaside.

"I really believe the project, with additional travel lanes, new sidewalks, bike lanes, planting strips and other updated features, will show off Seaside in a positive way and reduce frustration for drivers." Richardson said. "There will be construction impacts. There's just no way around it. It's kind of like working out: No pain, no gain."

The new highway will split into two one-way roads at the south part of town to avoid affecting Coho salmon in the Necanicum River. The plan includes six-foot-wide sidewalks with openings on to side streets.

"The sidewalk and the curb are sunk, so the curb is level with the street," Larson said. "There will be no blockage whatsoever."

The project is estimated to take 31/2 years, starting in 2007, and cost $44.5 million. The Oregon Transportation Investment Act and federal funding are supplying $38 million. However, to secure this funding, the city and ODOT must sign the agreement by the end of November.

Money followed voteFormer Mayor Rosemary Baker-Monaghan said Seaside is at the top of a long list of improvement projects.

"There are a lot of people who would like to have this money spent on their highway," she said.

Monaghan said 74 percent of Seaside citizens voted in favor of a highway expansion seven years ago, and because of that, she acquired the $38 million in funding.

"It's a quick turnaround on the economy to get some jobs going," she said.

Councilor Diana Schafer said ODOT insists on the lowest bidder and gets shoddy workmanship. She said ODOT officials have lied to her frequently in the past.

Richardson said she is not responsible for what her predecessors did.

"I'm trying to re-establish credibility," she said. "The studies generally show that the impacts are not as bad as people expect them to be. As human beings, we're kind of worrywarts."

Richardson said there was a slim chance the project might start before getting full funding, but she hopes to get federal money.

"We have 85 percent of the money already, and we're in a pretty good position to get the rest," she said.

Project Manager Jamie Barclay said ODOT will buy $14 million in land from Seaside property owners first. Being able to demonstrate the project is started will make it easier to get federal funding.

Some residents are skeptical.

Property owner Al Wexler of Everett, Wash., believes the project will have funding even if the agreement is not signed, while Seaside business owner Tita Montero said buying land should not start until all money is secured.

"There's no guarantee that the federal government will cough up the other $7 million that is needed," she said.

"One summer of lost business could close a business permanently," Seaside Helicopters owner Gary Truel said.

However, he said the improvements are necessary. "I see the frustration of the drivers," he said. "Some of them swear they're not coming back."

Reduce hazardsRichardson said accident rates in some areas of the proposed project are in the top 10 percent in the state. Studies show building a median and limiting access points can reduce vehicle accidents by 40 percent and pedestrian accidents by 78 percent. Business owners object to the median because it will prevent customers from turning left into their businesses. However, medians enhance safety.

"The highway has a job here; it's not just a local street," Richardson said. "It's job is to move large volumes of traffic ... The more access points you have to a highway, the higher your crash rates are."

She said side streets can be designed to direct traffic into businesses.

"The main reasons we're doing the project are to reduce congestion and manage the highway for the next 20 years," Richardson said.

Citizens are complaining that parking space areas, which are primarily where ODOT wants to buy land, are required for zoning ordinances. Larson said the city will exempt the properties from the zoning requirements. But if the property use is changed, that exemption goes away. Also, the value of the business is decreased when fewer customers can find parking say critics like Wexler.

Compensation will be paid for the physical land ODOT buys and any improvements made on that land, as well as damages to the remainder of the property. But this is measured in damages to the property, not in loss of business.

"Oregon does not pay for loss of business," said Leslie Benckendorf, a Universal Field Services regional manager under contract to ODOT's contractor HDR Engineering to buy the land for the highway project and liaise with property owners. She said ODOT will relocate a business if it is no longer viable.

"I'm hired to help the property owners out and make sure they get what they're entitled to," Benckendorf said. "I always treat people like it was my mother."

Universal will subcontract appraisers to set a fair price, but property owners are required to sell the land. The government can acquire private property for public use as long as they pay just compensation, Benckendorf said. Citizens who feel they are treated unfairly can sue or use mediation, but she hopes people will give her a chance first.

"We do this all over the place, and most of the time we're successful in getting everything resolved," Benckendorf said. "I'm an advocate for the process. I think it works."

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