The widening of Highway 34 is credited with bringing jobs to Lebanon.
The Highway 34 improvement was a tremendous boost to Lebanon’s economy, said former Lebanon public works director Jim Ruef.
Warren Beeson, business owner and former executive director of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, said Lebanon wouldn’t have Lowes Distribution Center, Laticrete and Pace American without the widening of the highway to four lanes.
It also has been good for ENTEK, Pennington Seed and Linn-Gear, said Mayor Ken Toomb. For example, in the past several years, ENTEK replaced its warehouse in Tangent with one in Lebanon and has expanded other operations here.
But it took local leaders nearly 20 years to convince the Oregon Department of Transportation it should be done. In the end, Linn County tipped the scales in Lebanon’s favor by contributing funds for the job.
Lebanon city and business leaders began lobbying ODOT for a wider highway early in the 1980s.
From the beginning of the effort, people such as longtime mayor Bob Smith said that widening the highway was key to opening the town up economically.
Retired insurance agent Ronn Passmore remembers that Highway 34 was an issue when he was first elected to the city council in 1981.
“Initially it was an uphill battle to get ODOT to consider the project for funding or get it on the ‘plan,’” Passmore said.
The plan he refers to is the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, known as STIP. It is ODOT’s multi-year plan for roadway capital projects.
Widening Highway 34 had support from the community, and also from the Highway 20/34 Association. The Association was composed of representatives of cities and towns from Sweet Home to Newport, Beeson said.
“We had meetings at least quarterly, sometimes monthly,” he said, “to set project priorities to send to ODOT. Everyone on the corridor would advocate for the same set of priorities.”
“We all supported each other, whenever they had highway hearings, everybody would go,” he said. “Bob Smith was at every one, and he’d get up and advocate like everybody else.”
By the mid-1990s, Lebanon was increasing the pressure on ODOT to widen Highway 34 and getting a favorable response. ODOT proposed widening the highway in its 1993-98 STIP.
Then, in a speech before the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce in late February 1994, Rick Sjolander of ODOT said the agency had to reduce its planned projects by 20 percent because revenue from federal funding and the gas tax were down. Further, he said, economic factors — the reason local leaders wanted the road widened — were not a high priority for highway projects.
When ODOT held an informational meeting about the STIP on March 24 at the Lebanon Boys & Girls Club, 60 people attended.
State Senator Mae Yih and Lebanon City Administrator Joe Windell encouraged people to attend an upcoming hearing in Corvallis with a message that economic development should be a criterion for highway projects.
Windell said not including economic development in the criteria for the project was “stupid.”
Smith said two or three businesses that looked at locating in Lebanon decided not to because of the highway.
According to a story in the March 30, 1994, Lebanon Express, ODOT said it would do a less expensive overlay project on the highway instead of widening the road.
Windell said the city would have to make the best of it, but “at the very least, ODOT needs to be told there are dangerous intersections along Highway 34, and that these intersections need to be improved.”
Lebanon had almost 70 people among the 150 who attended the March 29 hearing in Corvallis. Twenty-three of them testified, some about safety and others about economic development.
The large volume of public input from Lebanon appeared to help. ODOT agreed to put more money into Highway 34, enough to add left turn lanes at some intersections, but still not enough to widen it to four lanes.
That’s where matters stood when Linn County got involved.
The Linn County Commissioners asked ODOT officials how much was budgeted for the overlay and safety improvements, said County Administrator Ralph Wyatt. Then they asked how much more it would cost to widen the highway.
In January 1996, the Linn Commissioners announced that the county would contribute $2.75 million to the work on Highway 34, enough that ODOT would widen it.
In the Jan. 24, 1996, Lebanon Express, Larry Johnson, then a commissioner, said, “The state had proposed to dress the road up for $6.65 million, from Lebanon to I-5, but it would remain two-lane. They admitted it probably wouldn’t come up for more work in 20 or 30 years, so the county contacted the state and asked how much more it would be to go four lanes.”
“It is a major shift in the county’s position to contribute money to a state project, but if we didn’t step up, there was no one else that was able to do it,” he said.
Darren Lane, now Linn County Roadmaster, was an engineering associate when the county was talking to ODOT about the Highway 34 project. The money came out of the Linn County Road Fund as a cash contribution, he said.
“It was a pretty significant contribution,” he said, and at the time one of only a few road projects to get a local funding match. Later, the practice became more common as a way for local governments to get projects done, he said, but at the time, the project was showcased as a way local agencies and the state could partner on projects.
The actual work took two construction seasons. It began in spring 1998 and was completed in late 1999.
Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in a series of stories about how, over a 30-year period and more, the city, business community and local individuals took actions that established the foundation for a diverse economy in Lebanon.