Changes to the Bend Parkway may include moving pedestrian crossings above or below the road, moving bikes to an off-highway route and eliminating some intersections.

During a recent meeting, consultants shared a high-level analysis of safety and traffic on a 13.5-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 97 between Tumalo Place and Baker Road with the Bend Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board, a group of city, county and state officials who handle regional transportation planning around Bend. While the organization is moving ahead with plans for a project that would reshape the north end of the parkway, improvements to the south are in the earliest stages of planning.

Ultimate goals of parkway improvements include decreasing the number of accidents on the road and creating more traffic reliability, which will allow drivers to know how long it will take to get to a destination.

Between 2011 and 2015, there were 689 reported crashes on the parkway. Two people were killed, and five were severely injured. Four of these accidents involved bicyclists, two involved pedestrians, 26 involved alcohol and 27 involved animals.

Most crashes occur on weekdays between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m., when traffic on the road is highest. Significantly more crashes occurred during November and December, when roads are wet or icy and the sun sets earlier, project manager Rick Williams said.

“Every year, our first couple of weather events, people forget how to drive,” Williams said.

Bend city Councilor Bill Moseley, chairman of the policy board, said he’s noticed during the past 20 years that traffic on the parkway has become more dense while cars continue to travel at the same or even higher speeds. The area studied had speed limits between 45 mph in town and 65 mph outside, but many drivers speed in Bend.

“As that road becomes increasingly congested and full, should we expect more crashes?” he asked.

Two sections of highway had the highest number of crashes: from the north end of Bend to Robal Road and between Powers and Murphy roads.

The north corridor is the target of a $250 million project to reroute the parkway that is expected to begin construction by 2020. The high rate of crashes in the southern section may have been mitigated by removing an intersection at Pinebrook Boulevard and building a new interchange at Murphy Road, according to the consultants.

The intersections of U.S. Highway 97 and Pinebrook Boulevard, Cooley Road and Powers Road are in the top 10 percent of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s safety priority index system, meaning they see more crashes and are priorities for safety improvements.

Pinebrook has seen improvements; Cooley is included in the north corridor project, and the Powers intersection, which includes a traffic light and a jug-handle-shaped exit loop, will likely lose its traffic light.

Changing the Powers light may cause complications for pedestrian crossings south of the intersection, Oregon Department of Transportation Area Manager Gary Farnsworth said.

“We’re interested in removing that signal and getting a bridge crossing there,” he said. “Once we do that, there will be no gaps; there will be potential for higher speeds, and it will make these types of crossings more unexpected.”

There are a handful of other crosswalks on the parkway, marked with flashing yellow lights. These made sense as an interim solution, consultant John Basket said, but crosswalks on tunnels under the parkway or pedestrian bridges over it will be a safer long-term fix.

Drivers on the parkway often aren’t prepared for pedestrians to cross, said Bend city Councilor Barb Campbell, a member of the policy board.

“My concern is that because there are fewer pedestrians, these things are less safe,” she said. “Drivers aren’t used to seeing pedestrians crossing.”

Most of the Bend Parkway includes bike lanes that double as shoulders. These shoulders meet the minimum width of 6 feet required for bike lanes, but they’re not wide enough for incident management or law enforcement — standard shoulders are 8 feet on the outside.

“If somebody loses a mattress off the back of the truck and you want to pull it off, there’s not a lot of space for that,” Basket said.

Bicycle safety advocates support separated bike paths or separate routes on heavily trafficked, high-speed roads like the parkway. Few cyclists ride on the parkway, and road improvements may include establishing a separate, parallel route that bikes can use instead.

Other improvements could include removing intersections, such as the right turns at Lafayette and Hawthorne avenues.

Thanks, in part, to these unmarked intersections, the parkway has nearly twice as many interchanges as is standard on such a road, and consultants noted aggressive driving and disproportionately high numbers of sideswipe, rear-end and turning crashes at many intersections.

Along with safety improvements, changes would focus on improving the reliability of travel time. It’s reliable in the central portion of the parkway and moderately reliable in the southern portion. But travel time fluctuates wildly in the northern portion.

The policy board is looking at ways to reduce congestion and create more reliability in the north section, but it won’t include adding more lanes, Farnsworth said.

The parkway is seen as a barrier separating Bend, he said, and nobody wants a six-lane freeway in the middle of town.

However, improvements might include trying to shift more local traffic to local streets, while keeping large trucks and other vehicles traveling through Bend on Highway 97.

“This corridor is an extremely valuable asset for everybody, and we want to keep it that way. But we do have to recognize that it has U.S. in front of it,” Farnsworth said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com

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