Julia Shumway
The Bulletin

Highway exits that would deposit drivers directly into the heart of downtown Bend aren’t likely, no matter how much downtown business owners might want them.

The Oregon Department of Transportation will spend the next two years developing its 20-year plan for the Bend Parkway, which is also U.S. Highway 97 as it passes through the city. It will include ways to remove or modify some of the entrances. The Downtown Bend Business Association wants those modifications to include turning Hawthorne and Lafayette avenues into full highway on-ramps and off-ramps, a proposal transportation department Senior Planner Rick Williams said seems unfeasible from engineering, safety and cost standpoints.

However, many intersections, like those at Hawthorne and Lafayette that require a right-hand turn to get on or off the highway, are likely to change, he said. Some intersecting roads may become one-way roads and some may dead-end at the parkway instead of letting drivers make risky right turns onto an increasingly busy road.

“Congestion’s terrible now, but it’s going to get worse,” Williams said. “The limited gaps you have to turn into traffic today are just going to get smaller.”

That congestion causes the Hawthorne Avenue exit to back up several blocks during peak times, said Mindy Aisling, marketing and events coordinator for the Downtown Bend Business Association.

The association’s board members, all representatives from downtown businesses, unanimously voted to have Aisling push the Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board — which contains representatives from the city of Bend, Deschutes County and the state transportation department and will oversee the parkway plan — to consider adding on-ramps and off-ramps at Hawthorne and Lafayette.

“The congestion and the traffic are going to get worse, and that would make it harder to access downtown,” Aisling said. “If we’re going to spend the money to redo the parkway, we need to look ahead. Making downtown accessible to everybody is important for everybody.”

The parkway now has short deceleration lanes for drivers exiting at Hawthorne and Lafayette avenues, but drivers who enter from those roads make right turns directly onto the highway, where vehicles often move far faster than the posted 45-mph speed limit. If they’re willing to drive just a few blocks from the downtown core, drivers can also enter or exit the parkway from interchanges at Revere and Colorado avenues.

Hawthorne and Lafayette avenues are less than a half-mile apart, and that short distance would make adding acceleration lanes a safety problem, Williams said. When interchanges are too close together, speeds fluctuate and more drivers weave across lanes.

And there isn’t really space to add an on-ramp or an off-ramp. A county office building abuts the parkway on the south side of Lafayette Avenue, and a crowded parking lot that serves the main county and state offices at 1300 Wall St. is to the north. A small city-owned vacant lot separates buildings from the parkway on the north side of Hawthorne, but an office building across the street is only a few feet from the highway.

“You have major buildings all the way up to the back of the sidewalk and then the railroad on the other side,” Williams said.

Much of the parkway is bordered to the west by development and to the east by railroad land, so expanding it into a six-lane divided highway isn’t an option. Instead, the department will have to plan for the next 20 years of anticipated growth and higher traffic by adjusting other aspects of the parkway.

By winter 2019, the department should have an idea of how changes would affect safety and travel time reliability, or the concept that drivers will know how many minutes it will take to get to a destination. It will use that data to develop a list of investments for the next 20 years.

Part of that analysis involves looking closely at each intersection with a right-hand turn to determine whether it should be closed or changed and when that would need to happen, Bend Metropolitan Planning Organization Manager Tyler Deke said.

“We don’t have a safety issue yet at any of those intersections, but there’s a concern that with the increase in traffic volume and the smaller amount of time to get on the parkway there will be,” Deke said.

Already, rear-end crashes are more common where Hawthorne and Lafayette avenues intersect the parkway than in similar intersections. Between 2010 and 2014, there were 23 rear-end crashes in the Hawthorne area and 10 in the Lafayette area. No one was badly injured in those collisions, but 15 of them resulted in nonserious injuries.

Some of those crashes occurred on the parkway itself, Williams said, but most collisions take place in the queue of people waiting to get on the parkway.

“From a safety standpoint, we observe people driving aggressively and taking chances, and Hawthorne and Lafayette are examples of that,” Williams said.

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