By Scott Hammers

The Bulletin

The Oregon Department of Transportation has released its newest design for the U.S. 97 Bend North Corridor Project, an expansive plan to rebuild U.S. Highway 97 and several adjacent roads from Empire Avenue north to the outskirts of the city.

Peter Murphy, spokesman for ODOT in Central Oregon, said the new plan, included in an Environmental Impact Statement to be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration today, differs primarily from older versions on the north end.

Where older plans called for placing an interchange to connect the highway and an extension of Third Street near Bowery Lane — affecting several nearby rural residences — the new plan ends roughly two-thirds of a mile farther south, with the two roadways joined by a stoplight a short distance south of Deschutes Memorial Chapel & Gardens.

Murphy said if everything goes according to plan, the Federal Highway Administration will approve the plan within about a month. Submittal of the Environmental Impact Statement is one of the biggest steps in 10 years of planning the project, Murphy said.

“This is the end of the beginning,” he said. “This essentially opens the door to federal money.”

The current estimates put the cost of the entire project at between $150 million and $250 million, all of which is expected to be covered through federal highway funds. Murphy said ODOT is planning construction projects for the 2015-18 time period and is unlikely to obtain federal funding and begin construction before the 2018-20 window.

Studies conducted by ODOT suggest traffic volumes along the stretch of Highway 97 from Empire Avenue through the shopping district to the north are already at or above the road’s capacity. The highway intersections at Robal and Cooley roads rank among the top 5 percent to 10 percent of the most dangerous in the state.

Traffic projections suggest the number of vehicles traveling through the area will grow by more than 40 percent by 2035 — and, if nothing is done, average travel speeds will drop to 2 mph in some areas.

The most significant alteration of current traffic patterns called for under the new plan is the relocation of U.S. Highway 97 as it passes by the Cascade Village Shopping Center and other retailers. Under ODOT’s plan, the current highway would be turned over to the city to provide access to the shopping areas, while a new highway would be constructed a short distance to the east alongside the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail line, cutting through multiple business properties.

At Cooley Road, an underpass would be constructed to allow east-west traffic on Cooley to pass under the new highway. Cooley would meet with an extension of the old highway — redesignated Third Street — a short distance west of the underpass, and motorists would have to travel north or south to access the new highway.

Two roundabouts are proposed in the new plan, one at the intersection of O.B. Riley Road and Cooley Road, and one north of Cooley at the intersection of Loco Road and the Third Street extension.

A portion of the current U.S. Highway 97 just east of Lowe’s home improvement would be eliminated. The Third Street extension would veer west at this point, traveling across the former KOA campground before meeting up with Clausen Drive at Loco Road. Clausen would be expanded to serve as the Third Street extension and would rejoin the highway at a stoplight south of the storage units just south of Deschutes Memorial Chapel & Gardens.

The U.S. 97 Bend North Corridor Project has been of particular interest to Bend city government, as development prospects at nearby Juniper Ridge are closely tied to highway access.

City Manager Eric King said although the proposal would make getting on the highway from Juniper Ridge — located east of U.S. Highway 97 and north of Cooley Road — slightly more time-consuming, having a plan on paper should be reassuring to industrial businesses considering locating at Juniper Ridge.

“It definitely helps,” King said. “The plan just provides us with some certainty and a blueprint of how we handle development on the north end, and particularly at Juniper Ridge.”

John Heacock, technical center manager for ODOT, said the project was designed to be constructed in stages. Although nothing has been identified as the likely first stage, he said several portions of the project, such as those along Empire Avenue that would allow traffic coming from Sisters to access the southbound parkway, could help move traffic before other portions of the project are completed.

“We want to be able to make incremental improvements that provide some relief, improve the transportation system and encourage economic growth, and all those things,” Heacock said. “If we get all the funding at once, that would be great, but if we don’t, we’ll invest it in ways that get the greatest value.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,