Chuck Chiang / The Bulletin

Should U.S. Highway 97 in Oregon be a four-lane freeway from the Columbia River to the California border?

That's the question some Central Oregonians are asking after a state transportation official broached the subject last week.

Stuart Foster, chairman of the Oregon Transportation Commission, said during a workshop in Bend that he would like U.S. Highway 97 in Oregon to be four lanes.

The comment has spawned local discussions about the feasibility of a freeway through Central Oregon.

Some business representatives say it could provide a major boost to local industries. Others aren't so sure.

”I think it makes economic sense,” said Jeff Nielson, vice president of legislative affairs and communications at the Bend Chamber of Commerce. ”Anything that helps move freight faster (in and out of the region) is a good idea.”

The state has no current plans to undertake a full-scale widening of the highway, said Patrick Cooney, communications director at the Oregon Department of Transportation. Even if there were, state and federal funding isn't sufficient to support the project.

It costs about $1.5 million per mile to widen a two-lane highway into a four lanes, according to ODOT. The department's Region 4, which includes Central Oregon, has an annual budget of $4 million.

But Cooney said toll roads, which ODOT plans to examine as a way to pay for road projects near Portland, could provide the monetary answer if officials ever decide to widen U.S. Highway 97.

The key, he said, will be whether Oregonians are ready to pay tolls.

”The more tolling that is available to us means the more projects we could get done,” Cooney said. ”We just have to find out the public appetite for it.”

Oregon has no toll highways today.

Several local businesses said a four-lane highway linking Central Oregon to California would be a major boon for the region.

Stewart Bennett, owner and president of Redmond-based trucking company Sterling Transportation, couldn't quantify his savings if U.S. Highway 97 were four lanes, but there's no doubt he would save, he said.

”Just going through Redmond, it's 15 minutes (added to the transit time),” Bennett said, referring to the current configuration that mingles the highway with city streets. ”Each time you stop a truck, that's five to seven minutes of additional travel time, and all that adds to the cost.”

Bennett estimated that 98 percent of his truck time is spent on U.S. Highway 97.

”Right now, traffic gets shut down entirely every time there's an accident,” he said. ”And if it's a fatal accident, the road would be closed anywhere from two to five hours. That kind of delay is less likely with four lanes.”

For tractor maker TYM-USA, which runs a distribution center in Redmond, a four-lane highway would significantly increase business, especially during winter, said company Vice President Dale Owen.

”It would help tremendously,” said Owen, who ships tractors to 11 states. ”Sometimes in the winter, it is difficult to get trucks to Central Oregon because there isn't a freeway coming into the region.”

Others share his support for a four-lane highway, he said.

”If you call any Central Oregon business that ships goods in and out of the area, I can guarantee that they would say the same thing (about having a four-lane highway here),” Owen said.

Owen and Bennett would accept a reasonable toll.

Not everyone, though, supports tolls for widening.

”Tolls are a thing of the past,” said Scott Mueller, a Bend resident in the real estate business who travels the highway often. ”I wouldn't support it. There should be federal money for (widening the highway).”

Rose Alsbury, executive director at the La Pine Chamber of Commerce, said any plans for highway widening would need major review by the towns through which the highway passes.

”(It) would be great for people traveling through, but it would absolutely kill businesses and divide the town,” Alsbury said, worrying about the effect on towns like La Pine, Redmond and Madras.

U.S. Highway 97 passes through the center of all three, although plans for a bypass are under way in Redmond.

”I don't know if I would prefer (a bypass),” Alsbury said, noting that businesses along the highway depend on its traffic. ”Would people completely bypass the community?”

She added that a toll would severely limit the mobility of lower-income individuals, many of whom travel daily to Bend and beyond for work.

Ken Egan, who moved to Bend from Los Angeles, fears that a poorly planned four-lane highway would damage Central Oregon's tranquil nature.

”Yes, it concerns me,” Egan said. ”You really have to think about how much it would change a town's character.”

Officials should look at other options, such as increased flights or a regional mass-transit system before committing to a Central Oregon freeway, he added.

”We don't need that highway today, I don't believe,” Egan said. ”If we can have more planes and more mass transit, maybe a four-lane highway isn't the only answer. Any area can be visionary (on transportation solutions). Why don't we try to be visionary here?”

To gauge local reaction to the widening suggestion by Foster of the state Transportation Commission, the Bend chamber surveyed members about a toll highway through Central Oregon.

The results, tallied late Wednesday, surprised the chamber's Nielson.

”A slight majority said, yes, they would want a four-lane highway and, yes, they would pay (tolls) for it,” he said. ”A handful of people wanted the highway but didn't want to pay, and only three people said the highway shouldn't be four lanes.”

Ultimately, Nielson said the key will be to improve Central Oregon's freight links to the outside world, whether by a four-lane highway or other options like railroad expansion.

”If there's one message that came across loud and clear (during the workshop with the Oregon Transportation Commission last week), it was that, with Bend growing as fast as it is, the traffic congestion in the region is going to get worse,” he said. ”Just anything that would help move goods and people would be good.”