The state of Oregon wants to spend $100 million to improve traffic flow on Highway 62, but Medford and Jackson County officials say the "gift" comes with some expensive strings attached.

The state of Oregon wants to spend $100 million to improve traffic flow on Highway 62, but Medford and Jackson County officials say the "gift" comes with some expensive strings attached.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing a bypass route around the most heavily traveled stretch of Highway 62 in the area of northeast Medford. As part of the deal, though, ODOT is prodding the city and the county to take over portions of Highway 62 from about Poplar Drive to Corey Road and to assume the maintenance.

Medford City Manager Michael Dyal said the city already is falling behind in maintenance of its street system, so taking on the extra financial responsibility of a section of Highway 62 would definitely strain city coffers.

"Why would the state think we are financially capable of taking over a highway?" Dyal asked.

The 3.5-mile bypass route, which faces more review before it's adopted, would start just east of Poplar Drive in Medford, follow the old Medco Haul Road and then end just south of White City near Gregory Road.

Transportation officials will need to start the project by 2013 to qualify for $100 million in state funding. The entire project is estimated to cost $140 million, and ODOT calculations say it could create or save as many as 2,100 jobs.

ODOT calculates the bypass could divert about 50 percent of the traffic off Highway 62, one of the most heavily traveled roads in the valley.

"The bypass is a good idea," Dyal said. "It's an idea we could get behind."

But he questioned ODOT's estimates that the bypass would take about 50 percent of the traffic off the current highway route. He said it remains to be seen how much traffic would be siphoned off, suggesting that would depend on how convenient the new route would be for motorists.

The more traffic that remains on the existing Highway 62, particularly truck traffic, the higher the maintenance costs for Medford and the county.

Art Anderson, area manager for ODOT, said his department is in the early stages of negotiations with the city and the county over the jurisdictional exchange of the highway corridor from the state to the county or city.

Anderson said when a bypass is built, the Oregon Highway Plan mandates an exchange of jurisdiction of the existing roadway, provided the new roadway diverts a significant portion of the traffic.

"If we build a bypass, we expect a jurisdictional exchange to happen — if the bypass is doing what it's supposed to," Anderson said.

The debate will be over the word "significant," which isn't clearly defined in the Oregon Highway Plan, he said.

Cost estimates for the county and the city to take over different portions of Highway 62 haven't been completed, Anderson said.

He said he understands the reservations both the city and county have about taking over a roadway that has traffic volumes of 47,000 vehicles a day in the Poplar Drive area.

Anderson said he couldn't comment on whether a rejection of the exchange by the county or city would jeopardize the bypass project.

"That's above my head," he said.

Cory Crebbin, Medford's public works director, said if the bypass took 50 percent of all traffic, but diverted 80 percent of the trucks, it might be worth it. However, if it failed to divert a large share of the truck traffic, its value would be questionable.

He said the city has to consider the value of the bypass against the cost of maintaining the roadway into the future, which will be part of the discussions with ODOT.

"How do we do this without breaking the back of the city bank?" Crebbin asked.

John Vial, director of the Jackson County Roads Department, said a lot of conversations will occur about what traffic will be diverted.

"The definition of 'significant' is not very clear," he said.

A big concern for both the city and the county is how much truck traffic would use the bypass.

Trucks on Highway 62 commonly turn at west at Vilas Road to reach the Interstate 5 interchange at Central Point, he said.

Because the plan for the bypass doesn't include an interchange at Vilas, Vial said the concern is that trucks would just avoid the bypass altogether.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.