The proposed couplet for downtown Brookings will soon become a reality, but the exact route has yet to be decided.

The Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) Wednesday approved $5 million for the first phase of the project. The money is part of a $400 million package for state road and bridge projects to be completed in the next six years.

Work on the Brookings couplet is expected to start in spring 2003, said Brookings Mayor Bob Hagbom.

Now that its approved, well be seeing some exciting things happening in the next couple of years, he said.

The couplet, estimated to cost $10 million to $15 million, calls for routing northbound traffic in three lanes on Chetco Avenue and diverting southbound traffic to what is now Railroad Street.

The first phase, which is estimated to take six to eight months, will be to reconstruct Chetco Avenue, said Mark Usselman, southwest area manager for Oregon Department of Transportations office in Coos Bay.

The work will include a new base, new pavement, curbs, sidewalks and landscaping, Usselman said.

The second phase will be the connection of Chetco Avenue to Railroad Street and related street improvements, he said.

The original plan was to divert southbound traffic to Railroad Street through the area of Northgate Center, where Hennicks Hardware store is located, and have it reconnect to Highway 101 in the vicinity of Dairy Queen.

The connection at Dairy Queen is still likely to happen, but there has been talk of moving the northern connection south to Fifth Street, said City Manager Leroy Blodgett.

The public will get a chance to voice an opinion about the final route during a series of future public hearings, he said.

For the Railroad Street portion of the project, ODOT will move forward with an environmental assessment and preliminary engineering, Usselman said. ODOT is considering hiring a consultant to oversee that process, which could take one to two years, he said.

We need to refine the plan and take public input before we do anything on Railroad Street, he said.

Blodgett attended the OTC meeting in Salem Wednesday to represent the city.

They pretty much approved the couplet without hesitation, he said.

OTCs only concern, he said, was whether the city should or would come up with matching funds or participate in the project in some way.

To ease that concern, Blodgett said the city would turn over the right-of-way area it owns along Railroad Street to the state and organize and host public hearings about the project.

OTCs approval was a coup for Blodgett and Hagbom, both of whom made a concerted effort to lobby the commission, Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Oregon Department of Transportation to get the couplet off the back burner.

The couplet wasnt on OTCs list of consideration in August, but became a priority after the city complained.

Not being on the list was a blessing in disguise for us, Blodgett said.

We were forgotten and we did something about it and brought it to the top of the list.

Curry County Commissioner Lucie La Bont, who represents the county to the Southwest Area Commission on Transportation, praised the City of Brookings for its efforts in getting the couplet approved.

Leroy Blodgett and Bob Hagbom deserve a lot of credit for this, she said. I think it will be a great benefit to the city. They have been very careful in making sure its planned to enhance business.

Vikki Nuss, president of Businesses for a Better Brookings, a nonprofit group representing many downtown businesses, was pleased with OTCs decision.

The improvements to Chetco Avenue will be great, she said. There will be come inconveniences because of the construction, but in the long run it will be a big improvement for the businesses.

The couplet came out of a federally-funded South Coast Transportation study conducted in 1995-96 that looked 20 years into the future to identify traffic problems that might occur and plan on how to deal with them.

The study considered three options on handling the projected increase of traffic on the Highway 101 corridor.

Those options were to make no improvements, to widen Chetco Avenue to six lanes, or to provide the one-way couplet using Highway 101 and Railroad Street.

The study determined that without changes to the corridor, Chetco Avenue would experience severe traffic congestion from the citys upper portion of the existing Urban Growth Boundary to the Chetco River bridge.

The study predicted the population of the Brookings-Harbor area would more than double by the year 2015. Daily traffic on Chetco Avenue was 16,000 per day in 1995 and by 2015 it would be 27,800.

ODOT and city officials have said that a one-way couplet is the best way to go. They said widening Chetco Avenue to six lanes would negatively impact businesses and would not eliminate the expected congestion.

The couplet, however, will provide sufficient capacity to accommodate long-term traffic growth and would support future land use development opportunities in the downtown area, officials said.

In the past, the business community has supported the proposed couplet and city officials such as Leo Lightle, community development director, have said it will help avoid congestion and encourage people to stop at businesses.

In a reader survey conducted by The Pilot last year, a majority of people said something needed to be done to ease traffic congestion and improve parking in downtown Brookings.

Opponents, however, point to what they believe are failed couplets in other communities Coos Bay, Crescent City and Grants Pass. At least one reader cited some of those same couplets as successful projects.

Some said a couplet would double the size of the business district; others said a couplet would kill the existing business district.

The $400 million approved for the couplet and other state projects is coming from the Oregon Transportation Investment Act, passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor last summer as House Bill 2142.

The act uses the proceeds from truck and automobile title fees to finance the sale of construction bonds.

The projects approved by OTC will be added to the $600 million to $700 million in transportation projects ODOT already accomplishes annually.

Blodgett said because of the limited amount of funds authorized this spring by House Bill 2142, only two of the prioritized projects for the Southwest region would receive funding.

The Southwest region includes Curry, Coos and Douglas counties.

In addition to the couplet, a $3 million project in Coos County on Isthmus Street and Cemetery Road should get funding.

The Brookings couplet project was the only one ranked in the top five from Curry County by the Southwest Area Commission on Transportation.