Jackson County will use new state funding to improve dangerous rural roads that were built decades ago when cars were slower and there was far less traffic.
As in many counties, the bulk of Jackson County’s road network was built in the 1930s and 1940s, said John Vial, director of the county’s roads and parks department.
Narrow, winding roads without much shoulder worked back then, but times have changed, he said.
“Now we have much larger vehicles. We have much faster vehicles. We have a lot more people on these roads. We have a road network that was not built for the vehicles it’s handling,” Vial said. “The issue with narrow, windy roads is they’re very unforgiving. If drivers make mistakes — and we all make mistakes — the results are catastrophic.”
Drivers roll their vehicles, slam into trees and have other types of crashes that leave them injured or dead, he said.
When the logging industry was strong and Jackson County received millions of dollars in shared timber revenue off federal land, the road department had enough money to maintain and improve the road network, Vial said.
In 2007 alone, the road department got $4 million in timber revenue, he said.
But when logging declined and the payments to counties dropped, Jackson County had to cut its spending on roads, Vial said.
The county lost about one-third of its road funding, he said.
“We made a lot of changes, but the biggest change we made was we eliminated our capital construction program to build new roads, replace bridges, widen roads and improve roads. If we could get grants, we would do those projects. We shifted our resources to maintaining our existing system,” he said.
That situation is now changing, thanks to a bill passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2017.
The state gas tax will creep up 10 cents by 2024, with the largest increase — 4 cents — hitting drivers this year, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Other revenue will come from a $15 fee on adult bicycles that cost more than $200, fee increases for electric and hybrid vehicle owners and dealers, and a payroll tax that costs the average worker $1 a week, according to ODOT.
Half of the new revenue will go to ODOT, with counties receiving 30 percent and cities getting 20 percent, Vial said.
Vial said estimates show Jackson County will receive $1.1 million in extra revenue this year, $3.6 million in 2019 and $4.5 million in 2020.
The added annual revenue will reach an estimated $7.3 million a decade from now, he said.
Jackson County will be able to widen, straighten and flatten existing roads that are too curvy, hilly and narrow, Vial said.
Wider shoulders on the sides of roads will create room for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles that break down, he said.
Foothill Road, Vilas Road and Wilson Road north of Medford will be among the high-priority roads for Jackson County’s road department, he said.
“It’s going to make the transportation system for everyone in Jackson County safer,” Vial said. “This funding is very welcome and it’s greatly needed.”
With its 50 percent share of the new transportation revenue, ODOT says it plans to maintain and fix roads and bridges, widen highways to reduce congestion, improve public transportation, improve railroads and ports, offer rebates on electric vehicles and add sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks and paths.