Nick Meltzer, transportation manager from Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments, watches School Board members Joe Dealy, center, and Karen Skinkis, right, place stickers on an image of the crosswalk at 19th and Applegate. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Those who drive, walk and cycle around Philomath with some frequency can likely identify a number of traffic areas that they would call challenging. Congestion at 19th and Applegate, pedestrians using the crosswalk at 17th and Main or issues related to big rigs rolling through town might be among those that come to mind.

When students going to and from school are thrown in the mix, concerns about safety rise to the top.

In 2019, the Corvallis Area Metropolitan Planning Organization — commonly known as CAMPO — awarded the city of Philomath regional transportation funds to complete a school traffic circulation study. COVID interrupted the process but the effort has started back up again in recent weeks through a stakeholder meeting, community survey and on Monday night, a meeting at City Hall that included members of the Philomath City Council and Philomath School Board.

City Manager Chris Workman headed up the meeting, which revolved around awareness and input.

“One was exposing the City Council and School Board members to some of the issues identified in the survey and by the stakeholder group that has met — just bringing that to awareness with all of these problem areas,” Workman said. “And then giving them an opportunity to weigh in on where they see opportunities to make some improvements.”

In addition to city councilors and school board members, others in attendance included city staff — the police chief and public works director were among them — three representatives from a Portland-based traffic engineering firm that’s providing consultation services, and a handful of interested individuals in the audience, including Planning Commission members and a school crossing guard.

“It’s nice to have everyone around the table to be able to discuss the safety of our kids and come up with some concerns,” Philomath Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday said. “We know on a couple of occasions, we’ve been lucky, just very lucky in a lot of situations to be able to have our students be safe, but also our staff, our crossing guards.”

Halfway through the meeting, everybody in the room participated in an exercise designed to identify the most problematic areas. City staff had taped photos of various intersections and traffic sites on the walls around City Hall and those in attendance placed stickers on the ones that they felt should be a priority.

Workman went through the top four areas that attracted the most attention:

• The intersection at 19th Street and Applegate Street.

• The intersection at Main Street and 17th Street.

• The Clemens Primary School student dropoff/pickup area on 19th Street.

• The crosswalks at 19th Street and Main Street.

The group shared their views on those areas and others through a meeting that lasted a little more than two hours. The scope of some of the suggestions ranged from simple to complex.

“Some of those are low-hanging fruit where there could be some minor changes that you can make or minor modifications that you can do,” Workman said. “Some of those solutions may be a lot bigger and more expensive and they’re going to take some time to plan and to save money and look for some grant funding or whatever the case might be.”

The project’s scope, specifically, is to “identify areas of high vehicle, bike and pedestrian traffic that cause safety concerns around Philomath schools during dropoff and pickup times” and to “analyze traffic patterns and recommend modifications to best mitigate these concerns.”

The funds from CAMPO were awarded to Philomath in 2019 when the late Buzz Brazeau was in the school superintendent’s office.

“We got the allocation about three years ago and I had some preliminary conversations with the (school) superintendent at the time,” Workman said. “It was about the time we were ready to bring a consultant on board that everything stopped with the pandemic so we just didn’t go any further.”

But with school now back to a normal schedule, the project regained momentum.

“I put in to get the money allocation extended and we got some more time to get that money done — everybody was very supportive and CAMPO obviously understood the need to delay this project,” Workman said.

The project kicked off on Sept. 26 with a stakeholder group meeting. Those involved included several people from the school district, city staff, a local parent organization, the county’s traffic engineer, the local fire chief and a representative from the bus transportation company that serves Philomath.

The group took an initial look at the project’s scope and planned how to proceed with public outreach. A number of questions were decided upon and presented to the community through an online survey.

The survey ran from Oct. 1-16 and brought in 205 responses.

The next step in the process will be for the Kittelson & Associates traffic consultants to go through all of the information that has been compiled to date — stakeholders group input, survey results and the traffic engineering firm’s own notes from Monday’s meeting.

Workman said the firm will “couple all of that with what they saw with their own eyes on site today with their visit and come up with their own list of what they feel are the most important projects that we can take on,” Workman said.

The consultants were in Philomath observing various traffic patterns, including student pickup and dropoff times.

“They’ve been given instruction to look for both big picture problems as well as to look for smaller things that we can do, so we don’t get stuck with a document that’s just going to sit on the shelf as we make plans for the next 10 years,” Workman said. “The idea is for this to give us some action items that we can move on fairly soon to improve safety right away.”

Workman anticipates another meeting to occur possibly by the end of this year or early next year to start making some real plans.

“We’ll come back and have a work session and go through the report, talk through some of the higher recommendations,” Workman said. “We’ll talk to the School Board — based on the report — about these are the priority projects and how do we get from where we are today to get the project completed?”

The city will be looking at updates to its strategic plan early next year and then it will be time to go through the city budgets.

“If there are some smaller things that we can do that don’t cost a lot of money, it may be able to get in next year’s budget and be able to do things as early as next summer,” Workman said. “Other things may take more time.”

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.