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Money from Congress could fund safety improvements for Aurora Donald Interchange

Statesman Journal

At least 12 people died in traffic crashes on roads going to and from the Aurora Donald Interchange in the first two years after the nearby Dundee Newberg Bypass was partially completed in 2018.

The interchange, Interstate 5 exit 278, was built in the 1960s. Now, about 32,000 vehicles use it each day. All those cars and trucks enter and exit the freeway by one-lane ramps. There are no signals to aid drivers trying to make nearly blind turns.

Crashes on the interchange are frequent.

Traffic on it was bad in 2017 when the Oregon Legislature appropriated about half of what was needed to make improvements.

It’s getting worse.

The state is seeking the remaining $20 million of $48 million it needs, and it's hoping to get it from Pres. Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

Congressman Kurt Schrader said the state and Marion County have put an emphasis on the project.

“I think that helps us sell these types of projects," Schrader said. "That makes it more attractive to the powers that be here in Washington, D.C. to get that project over the finish line.”

Plans to start construction next year

Oregon Department of Transportation spokesperson Lou Torres said the first stage of construction at the Aurora Donald Interchange is scheduled for this fall. The state will remove trees to build a noise wall between the off-ramp and the Aurora Acres RV Park. 

The rest of the first phase of construction includes a new, wider Interstate 5 bridge with southbound lanes realigned to the east; ramps widened and signalized; and Ehlen Road, Bents Road and Delores Way realigned for better sightlines. That work is scheduled for 2022.

The interchange will be a diverging diamond design, which has non-freeway cross traffic move to the opposite side of the road.

“We will be constructing some of the items that will have an immediate benefit to the safety and congestion issues being experienced today at this interchange,” Torres said.

Torres said the design of the interchange won’t be altered if full funding isn’t in place before construction starts. He said ODOT could continue the project in 2023 if funding is available. If not, it will have to wait to complete it, and no one knows how long that would take.

Hope in the infrastructure package

The Senate on Tuesday passed the federal infrastructure plan Biden has championed. It includes $110 billion for roads and bridges.

The House is scheduled to vote on the blueprint for the bill when it returns Aug. 23.  Along with the initial $3.4 million in state funds, ODOT says it has the funds to complete planning and construction of the first phase at Aurora Donald with the $25 million the Legislature appropriated in 2017.

Hank Stern, a spokesperson for Sen. Ron Wyden, said Marion County didn't ask the Appropriations Committee because the $20 million needed was higher than the maximum awards it was taking.

In June, Schrader testified to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure about the importance of the project, and $20 million in funding for Aurora Donald was earmarked by committee chair Peter DeFazio as a member-designated project.

But it's not a done deal.

“Once that Aurora Donald Interchange is complete, and if we can get it done in one phase, we’ll save money," Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said.

Traffic spikes on interchange 

Traffic on McKay/Yergen/Ehlen Road – it changes names three times in the seven miles between Highway 219 and I-5 – increased 27% from 2017 to 2019, according to statistics from ODOT.

Since the first phase of the Newberg Dundee Bypass – a four-lane road connecting Highway 99W south of Dundee to Highway 219 – opened in Yamhill County in January 2018, more cars connect with Interstate 5.

In October 2017, there was an average of 9,330 trips a day on McKay Road, according to ODOT. By April 2018, that increased to 10,920. And in October 2019, it was up to 12,740 per day.

That increase in traffic and crashes led Marion County to establish the McKay/Yergen/Ehlen Safety Corridor, the first of its kind in the state.

The county installed centerline rumble strips and larger signs, and added pavement markings and no passing zones. It also plans to add flashing beacons and traffic signs, increase intersection lighting and driver speed feedback signs.

“When they didn’t complete the whole bypass, all that traffic started coming into Marion County,” Cameron said. 

The state needs about $200 million to fund the rest of the bypass. ODOT doesn’t have funds for that, either.

Economic development made possible

In 2015, a $72.3 million reconstruction of the Interstate 5 interchange at Woodburn was completed.

Now, more development is coming to Woodburn.

Amazon is building a 3.8 million-square-foot logistics center next to the existing 1 million-square-foot WinCo distribution center.

Schrader said eliminating the choke point at the Aurora Donald interchange would aid cities including Aurora, Canby, Donald and Molalla.

Those cities, once considered rural, are now bedroom communities for people who work in the Portland metro area and commute through the interchange.

“Now our job is to see if we can’t get this, the Donald Aurora Interchange, in this project,” Schrader said. “That’s not easy.”

Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at bpoehler@statesmanjournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler.