Highway 20 safety upgrades continue, drivers need to be ‘extra cautious’ in inclement weather

Each phase of Highway 20 safety reconstruction, starting with Phase 1 on the major bend of the highway and ending with Phase 2, which will redo the road between Merloy Avenue and Conifer Boulevard.   

Sukhjot Sal, News Contributor

In response to the high volume of crashes on the U.S. 20 Highway between North Albany and Corvallis, the Oregon Department of Transportation is designing a Safety Upgrades project, which will add various improvements to improve driver visibility and limit crashes. 

The Phase 1 improvements for U.S. 20 are planned for between the northeastern curve approaching the Garland Nursery entrance and Independence Highway, starting in early 2022.

The project is focused on making the highway safer, not adding more lanes for traffic, said ODOT Project Manager Julie GaNung. She also said they are currently in the right-of-way acquisition phase for Phase 1 improvements and are in communication with property owners.

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“Our projects follow National Environmental Protection Agency requirements to avoid, minimize or mitigate impacts of our projects in that order,” GaNung said. “We have done our best to design any widening within [the] existing right of way first and then minimize impacts to adjacent properties.”

In comparing the crash data from 2010-2014 and 2015-2018, GaNung said there were three fatal crashes in each of those four-year periods.

However, fatalities are just part of the reason why safety upgrades are being implemented. 

“We’re averaging about three crashes per month this year; we’ve responded to 37 crashes so far this year,” said Jaimi Glass, crime analyst for the Benton County Sheriff’s Office. 

More specifically, she said this year’s 37 crashes were made up of 11 injury crashes, one fatal and 25 non-injuries. There were 33 crashes in 2019, 44 in 2018, 66 in 2017, 46 in 2016, and 40 in 2014.

In the last 10 years, Glass said they have investigated 8 fatality crashes. Past fatalities included three head-on collisions – one due to Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants drugs, two vehicles that drove off into the Willamette River near Hewlett-Packard where there is no guardrail, one drove off the highway and hit a railroad crossing for unknown reasons and two failed to yield at intersections.

However, Glass noted that statistics show crashes have actually gone down over the last couple of years, even with more people working from home or unemployed due to COVID-19. 

“First, this decrease may be due to the cell phone law Oregon enacted at the end of 2017,” Glass said. “Second, ODOT added motion-sensor lights that blink when you approach the intersection of Independence Highway a couple years back. Lastly, our last couple of winters have been mild in regards to snow and ice.”

A few of the proposed improvements for parts of the highway include upgrading signing and striping on roads, adding rumble strips, improving stormwater treatment, widening shoulders, adding center two-way left turn lanes and where possible, removing fixed objects like trees or poles near a curve of the highway.

According to John Maher, Region 2 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program coordinator, all of the funding for this project comes from state and federal fuels taxes.

For all phases of the U.S. 20 Safety Upgrades project, ODOT received $20 Million from Oregon House Bill 2017 Funds – State funding- and approximately $8.2 Million from the STIP.

“We are continuing to make steady progress and have not experienced any significant delays associated with COVID-19 nor are we anticipating anything delaying the project construction starting in 2022,” GaNung said.

Glass noted that most crashes occur during morning and afternoon commutes. The most dangerous intersections this year are Granger/Hwy 20 with nine crashes, followed by Circle/Hwy 20 with six crashes and Independence/Hwy 20 with five crashes. 

“Weather is always a factor, including ice and decreased visibility due to fog,” Glass said. “The harsher the winter, the more crashes we respond to.”

Ganung advised all drivers to be extra cautious and patient during inclement weather and peak traffic periods, and to stay alert and avoid distracted driving or speeding.

The ODOT project webpage provides a comprehensive look at the safety issues in the corridor, as well as an online open house to answer questions for the public.