South County business owners protested the?Oregon Department of Transportation's proposal to add vertical clearance to the Dennis L. Edwards Tunnel on U.S. Highway 26 at a public hearing Monday.

You might even say they raised the roof.

About 60 people attended a meeting of the Northwest Oregon Area Commission on Transportation at Seaside's Bob Chisholm Senior Center, where all eyes were on ODOT's tunnel improvement project plans.

The project, which would require at least partial tunnel closures, has upset and worried business owners in Clatsop County - particularly those in south county, where much of the economy depends on traffic coming from Portland via U.S. Highway 26.

The 800-foot Dennis Edwards tunnel, located about 27 miles west of Portland, was built in 1941, and the structural timbers inside are rotting and need to be replaced.

David Kim, ODOT's Metro Central area manager for Region 1, said a project to reline the tunnel, upgrade the drainage system and add lighting to alert drivers to bicycles is not optional, and it will require at least partial tunnel closures.

But a secondary project to add vertical clearance to the tunnel is also being considered to allow trucks with taller loads to pass through without straddling the center line. That project, advocated by the?Oregon Trucking Associations, is optional and would add about $2 million to the cost of the other tunnel improvement work.

Kathy Kleczek, owner of La Luna Loca in Cannon Beach, was one of many who argued against the secondary project, questioning the risk of the work taking too long and extending into the summer tourist season if the state attempts to raise the portal while also completing the other work.

"None of us can afford to lose a penny given the way the economy is," she said. "That highway is our lifeblood. It's not just a project or something we'd like to do. It's our life blood."

ODOT recently completed a review and found both projects will require tunnel closures, and the relining and lighting work must be done next year.

Based on the findings, the agency has put together three options for moving forward:

? Option 1:?Complete the "base project" only, relining the tunnel, upgrading the drainage system and replacing lighting. This option would require a seven-week total closure for $9.3 million or 12 weeks of weeknight only closures (tunnel would be open on weekdays, weekends and holidays) at a cost of $11.1 million.

? Option 2:?Complete the "base project" and raise the bridge portal 2 1/2 feet to add vertical clearance. This option would require specialized masonry work on the historic stone portal, which would have to be removed and put back into place at the higher level. It would require eight weeks of total tunnel closure for $11.2 million or 13 weeks of weeknight closures for $13.3 million.

? Option 3:?Complete the "base project" and lower the floor of the tunnel 2 1/2 feet to add clearance. This option would leave existing portals and stone masonry inside the tunnel intact, but it would require a nine-week total closure of the tunnel at a cost of $13.79 million. No partial closures would be available with this option.

ODOT will decide by the end of the month which option is best.

Kim said ODOT will work around events on the coast when deciding when to close the tunnel for the work.

Seaside Mayor Don Larson asked: "Can you assure us you will not close it at night during spring break?"

Some debate ensued about how long spring break actually lasts, given the various weeks that different schools have off, and ODOT Area 1 manager Larry McKinley said if there are four weeks of spring breaks the agency might have to look at the "break even point."

"Just listen to us and work with us," said Larson. "That's all we're asking."

Dan Nichols of the 40-member Manzanita Business Alliance, Jeff Jewell of the 260-member Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, Rich Hayes, manager of the City of Cannon Beach, and Cannon Beach Mayor Mike Morgan chimed in to speak out against any project that would increase truck traffic on Highway 26, including raising the portal on the tunnel.

"I'd ask that you look more closely at option 1," Morgan said.

A detour route for use during tunnel closures would take cars around the tunnel through Vernonia, combining 10 miles of Timber Road and 13 miles of Oregon Highway 47. It would increase driving distance by 15 miles and add 20 minutes of driving time.

Additional public comments on the issue will be taken from 6 to 8 p.m. March 10, at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center, 415 First Avenue, and on March 16 in Banks.

The project is scheduled to begin in early 2011 with the goal of being completed before summertime.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson suggested the state use Travel Oregon funds to put out public service announcements letting people know when the highway is open and promoting events on the coast.

Normally ODOT would be required to accept the lowest bid on the project, but Kim said he's working to get an exception to that rule so the state can hire an experienced contractor that can get the job done as quickly as possible and avoid disrupting tourist traffic.

Kim said the relining project offers a rare opportunity to increase the tunnel's vertical clearance at a lower cost. If the clearance project doesn't go forward next year, it may be 50 to 70 years before ODOT can consider it again.

Robert Russell, president of the Oregon Trucking Associations, said his organization is advocating for option 2 partly because it's expecting freight volume in the state to double in the next 20 years.

"That means a significant increase in high loads and a significant increase in tunnel closures unless we raise the portal," he said. "You don't have any rail service. That means everything you've got comes by trucks."

Trucks lower than 14-feet, 4-inches can make it through the tunnel, but those that are higher must move to the center line, taking the entire road and creating unsafe conditions, Russell said.

Last year, 103 trucks got one-time permits to move to the center line, but other contractors have annual permits to do it more frequently. Some questioned the need for raising the portal, arguing the loads needing higher clearance are few and far between and frequent drivers of Highway 26 have never noticed the tunnel being closed because of taller truck loads.

Russell cited several types of freight that need higher clearance, including logging and construction equipment, electrical transformers and manufactured homes. The number of trucks needing more vertical clearance has shot up since 2003, jumping from 12 trucks in 2003 to 103 in 2009.

Many in the audience Monday advocated using U.S. Highway 30 as the primary trucking route, where unlimited height clearance is available, and reserving space on U.S. Highway 26 for tourist traffic. But flooding and landslides in the winter often cause delays on Highway 30, Russell said, and having a second route to the coast is especially important after storms.

For more information see ODOT's Web site on the project at (www.dennisedwardstunnel.org)

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