To the relief of local government officials and business owners on the North Coast, the Oregon Department of Transportation has shelved a proposal to increase the height of the Dennis L. Edwards Tunnel on U.S. Highway 26 and will only repair the structure.

The decision means the tunnel will not be closed completely for up to nine weeks as had been proposed if ODOT had gone ahead with its plans to raise the 69-year-old tunnel's height to accommodate large freight trucks.

U.S. Highway 26 is the most direct route for traffic between the Portland metropolitan area and Seaside and Cannon Beach and surrounding coastal communities.

Local officials and business owners feared that the tunnel's extended closure and traffic detours would have had a dire impact on visitors to North Coast communities.

Jason Tell, ODOT Region 1 manager, acknowledged those concerns in a March 16 letter to coastal community leaders, business owners and residents announcing ODOT's decision to forego increasing the tunnel's vertical clearance component.

"We recognize concerns about the fragile economic conditions along the coast, and potential impacts to tourism-dependent communities from public perception of a lengthy road closure," Tell wrote.

ODOT still plans to perform tunnel repairs, including relining, upgrading the drainage system and replacing the lighting.

That repair work is not expected to begin until the end of this year and to be completed before the summer 2011 tourist season begins, Tell said.

During the repairs, the tunnel will be closed about 10 hours a night from Sunday through Thursday for 12 weeks, but will remain open on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as during daylight hours weekdays, weekends, holidays and during spring break.

Local officials were relieved with ODOT's decision and applauded state transportation officials for having an open mind and listening to the concerns of the local communities, which not only have had to weather the recession, but also have been economically impacted by severe weather that has limited travel to the coast over the past several years.

"It has probably been the most wonderful back and forth discussion on such a controversial issue I have been involved with in seven years as mayor," Seaside Mayor Don Larson told the Coast River Business Journal. "We talked and ODOT listened. We started these meetings between ODOT and local officials last January and they were always done in a professional and respectful manner by everyone," Larson said.