ODOT denies public comment on widening Highway 126

By Claire Roth
January 13, 2022

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently claimed they are not allowed to request public comments on potential environmental impacts before seeking federal approval to widen Highway 126 between Veneta and Eugene.

During a presentation to the Lane Area Commission on Transportation (LaneACT) on January 12, ODOT explained that they will complete a study of the environmental impacts of the project in winter or spring 2022. They will then submit the study to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approval—without first inviting public comment.

ODOT asserted that federal regulations actually require them to pursue a streamlined process known as a “categorical exclusion.” They say that process does not provide an opportunity for public review.

Nonetheless, members of LaneACT—including BEST executive director Rob Zako—asked to see the completed study before it is submitted to FHWA.

Whether or not the federal government requires a public review of such a large project, Oregon has a great tradition of open government and public involvement. Especially given the size, cost, potential environmental impacts of the project, ODOT should publish the study and invite public comments before seeking federal approval.

A costly solution to a real safety problem

The stretch of Highway 126 between Veneta and Eugene is dangerous. There are a growing number of crashes. BEST supports Vision Zero, the goal of zero traffic deaths or life-changing injuries. In particular, BEST supports effective actions to make Highway 126 safer for all travelers.

ODOT’s proposed solution is to widen the section of highway from the current 2 lanes to as much as 4 lanes, plus a center turn lane, 2 shoulders, a separated multi-use path for people walking or bicycling, and possibly roundabouts a some intersections.

Crossing Fern Ridge Reservoir — Veneta to Eugene: OR 126 Road Widening NEPA Study. Source: ODOT

ODOT estimates it will cost $250 million to 350 million to construct the seven-mile project. The cost is so large that it could be years or even decades before sufficient funding could be cobbled together to complete the project. During that time, we can expect to see more tragedies.

But with funding for transportation constrained, a decision to proceed with this project could take monies away from other needs in Lane County, including projects to protect other lives.

Possible impacts on wetlands and the climate

There are wetlands on both sides of the highway, which include three endangered plants: the Willamette Daisy, Kincaid’s Lupine, and Bradshaw’s Lomatium. There is also an important habitat for the Fender’s Blue Butterfly, an endangered species.

ODOT is looking to widen the highway not only to make it safer but also to support more traffic. But motor vehicles burning fossil fuels are a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

BEST looks forward to seeing the completed environmental study to better understand the problem, ODOT’s proposed approach, and its impacts.

Learn more about BEST’s efforts around Highway 126 West.