By Ted Shorack

The Bulletin

A group of state lawmakers toured parts of Bend on Thursday with local leaders and officials to get a sense of the region’s transportation needs ahead of the 2017 legislative session, when a transportation funding package is expected to be up for consideration.

At a public hearing after the tour, state representatives and senators heard firsthand from members of the community about the need for improving the highway system in Central Oregon, bolstering public transit and providing a safer environment for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Kaylin Landry, a student at Central Oregon Community College and OSU-Cascades, told lawmakers during the hearing that she missed a bus transfer that day and was soon an hour behind schedule.

“Right now, it’s nearly impossible to be a student and not have a car,” said Landry, who hasn’t had a vehicle for several years.

Landry said the lack of affordable housing in the region is interconnected with the need for more robust public transportation.

“We need a better transit system and more affordable housing, and it’s literally killing our diversity,” she said.

The public hearing was held at Wille Hall at the COCC Bend campus. Dozens spoke during the comment period. The hearing was the sixth held so far across the state by the Joint Interim Committee on Transportation and Preservation and Modernization. The committee plans to hold four more hearings before reconvening for the upcoming legislative session.

Prior to the hearing, 12 of the 14 members of the committee toured by bus three locations in Bend where several local speakers from both the public and private sector expressed how important transportation funding from the state is to projects in Central Oregon.

The tour included the newly completed Murphy Road project in south Bend, the Cascades East Transit Hawthorne Station and the Cooley Road intersection with U.S. Highway 97 at the city’s north end, where ODOT plans to revamp the highway corridor to improve safety and relieve congestion.

Alana Hughson, CEO of the Central Oregon Visitors Association, spoke about transportation often being a “hot button issue” as the region continues to grow and tourism booms. Transportation is key to the visitors’ experience, she said.

“It is absolutely imperative that we work with our state and local officials,” Hughson said about partnerships such as the city of Bend and ODOT on the Murphy Road work.

The project included the Murphy Road crossing over U.S. Highway 97, ramp connections and a roundabout at Murphy and Parrell roads.

Speakers on the tour emphasized and continued to reiterate the importance of partnerships in getting projects done.

Becky Johnson, vice president of OSU-Cascades, told lawmakers there is more need for transportation funding as the university tries to create incentives for students to use public transportation or bike and walk to class.

“I think your goals are our goals,” Johnson said.

Ken Mulenex, mayor of La Pine, spoke about ODOT projects on U.S. Highway 97 benefiting his city, including a newly installed stoplight at the northern end.

“ODOT has been one of our best partners of all time,” Mulenex said.

At the evening hearing at COCC, many speakers touched on the city’s ever-growing population and the need for a transportation system to accommodate the influx of vehicles.

Vic Martinez, the board chairman of the nonprofit Bend 2030, which studies issues associated with the city’s growth, said transportation has risen to the top in priorities during a pivotal time in Central Oregon, with the population expected to continue increasing.

“We are experiencing traffic that we didn’t see five years ago,” he said.

Tom O’Shea, managing director of Sunriver Resort, said the work being done on U.S. Highway 97 by ODOT has been phenomenal and important in increasing tourism. He said, without the improvements he didn’t think the resort would be as successful as it has been. O’Shea encouraged lawmakers to do everything they could to improve highways in region.

The sentiment was echoed by Jamie Christman with the Bend Chamber of Commerce. She told legislators that Highway 97 is crucial to local businesses like Bigfoot Beverages and Deschutes Brewery who use it to transport their products. Their biggest frustration is congestion, she said, especially at the Cooley Road intersection.

The north corridor ODOT project calls for relocating the highway to the east, closer to the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail line. An underpass would be constructed for traffic on Cooley Road to travel east and west. The plan was approved two years ago but has lacked enough funding to be completed.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,

tshorack@bendbulletin.com

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