U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, told Bend and Deschutes County leaders he would support their request for $66.7 million in federal grant funding to reroute U.S. Highway 97 north of Empire Avenue.

The $171 million project is the top priority for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Region 4, which covers a broad swath of land east of the Cascades. Most of the region is in Walden’s district.

“This is the No. 1 priority for Region 4, which makes it my No. 1 priority for the district,” Walden said. “It doesn’t get cheaper the longer we wait.”

The region is seeking federal funding through the federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program. A similar application last year was unsuccessful, but local officials said they’re optimistic it will succeed this year.

If the area receives federal funding, it will have the money it needs to shift Highway 97 east, beginning north of the Empire Avenue exit, turning the existing parkway into an extension of Third Street. The new highway, as well as BNSF railroad tracks, will be elevated above Cooley Road.

Right now, the highway hits stoplights at Robal and Cooley roads on its way north out of Bend. Shopping centers with big-box stores including Target, Lowe’s and Home Depot are in the area, and the combination of shoppers and people traveling through Bend results in through traffic getting bogged down, Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Henderson said.

“During the last boom, we really didn’t have the same kinds of problems we have now,” Henderson said. “It’s really only in the past three, four years that the whole north side’s become a traffic jam.”

Without the improvements, the Department of Transportation expects that by 2040, traffic will move at an average of 5 mph during the most congested periods. During that period, Bend’s population is expected to increase to more than 150,000 residents.

“This location will continue to feel that pain significantly, and it will compound itself if we’re not addressing these issues,” said Gary Farnsworth, regional manager at the department.

Construction could be completed within two years, according to the department.

The highway is secondary only to Interstate 5 when it comes to north-south traffic in Oregon, Bend Mayor Sally Russell said. It runs south from the U.S.-Canada border through Central Oregon and to Weed, California, where it meets I-5.

Highway 97 will grow more important if and when a major earthquake occurs in the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Oregon coast, Russell said.

“If we have the Cascadia event, this becomes the primary route,” she said.

Improving the highway also is necessary for fully developing land in Bend’s northernmost urban growth boundary expansion area, as well as the Juniper Ridge industrial area that’s still primarily owned by the city.

“There’s a lot of housing lands that can be unlocked with this improvement,” city Councilor Justin Livingston said.

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

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