HERMISTON - The federal government is likely to withdraw more than $3 million it earmarked to pay for the last stages of a local street improvement project, according to area officials and a report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

More than $4.5 million has already been spent on the project to upgrade traffic signals and widen streets along an evacuation route planned for residents living near Umatilla Chemical Depot.

FEMA's move will increase the evacuation time for Umatilla and Morrow county residents, but the risk would be negligible compared to the cost, according to a draft risk analysis report undertaken by FEMA.

With the funding, 90 percent of the general population near Hermiston and the Highway 395 corridor could be evacuated in two hours. Without the funding, the time increases to three and a half hours, according to Rodney Boast, the local FEMA contact working with Umatilla and Morrow counties on the project.

The risk reduction was slight, changing from one in 1.44 million chances of a fatal injury to one in 16.8 million chances of a fatal injury, for just one subsection of the Hermiston area if the improvements to the roads were made, according to Boast.

He also said FEMA's decision to withdraw the $3 million isn't official yet, and there is a chance the risk analysis could change.

"The decision is pending, no one has said that there will be no funding," he said. "But there is a report on the table that doesn't justify the funding."

The idea of cutting $3 million from the project is not new.

Last year at this time, FEMA tried to pull $3 million from the project's second stage, saying it needed further study of the risk reduction compared to the cost.

After a local outcry from emergency responders and local government representatives, FEMA awarded the $3 million, but warned then that it would seek the reduction within the last stage of the project.

This time, however, local community leaders are in disagreement on whether the funding is, in fact, necessary.

Morrow County commissioners have endorsed delivering the funds. Umatilla County commissioners have not.

In a county commissioner meeting Tuesday, Umatilla County Commissioner Dennis Doherty said the risk reduction that would result from continuing the project didn't justify spending such a large amount of public funds.

Commissioners Emile Holeman and Bill Hansell agreed.

Morrow County Commissioner Ray Grace said he doesn't believe the funding should be stopped in the middle of the project, and that his colleagues are in agreement.

"We don't understand studying a project to death after you already start the project," Grace said. "We asked for (the money) last year, and we're no less interested this year."

Much of the work left to be done, known as "phase three" of the project, is scheduled to take place on Umatilla County roads - upgrades and additional signage along Feedville Road and Sheridan Road. Highland Avenue in Hermiston was also scheduled for improvements.

Casey Beard, director of Morrow County's Emergency Management and lead on the counties' joint-evacuation project, said he is revising the original evacuation plan to adjust for the $3 million loss.

"If phase three doesn't happen, it's not ideal, but we're still going to get a tremendously valuable project," Beard said, at a governing board meeting Wednesday of staff members of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program.

The primary evacuation route takes Morrow County and west-end Umatilla County residents east on Highway 730 through Umatilla and east on Elm Street in Hermiston.

Work on the streets to improve traffic flow started in March 2003, and all traffic signals in Umatilla and Hermiston are now linked by a computerized program and closed-circuit television.

Three intersections are also being upgraded to meet U.S. Department of Transportation standards: Highland Avenue and Highway 395, Highway 395 and Highway 730, and Elm Street and Diagonal Road.

Last fall, Umatilla Chemical Depot began destroying its stockpile of about 7.4 million pounds of chemical nerve and blister agents stored in a variety of munitions, about 12 percent of the national cache of chemical weapons.

Officials there estimate all the weapons will be destroyed by 2012.

CSEPP transportation evacuation plan

In 2002, Morrow County contracted SCM Consultants, Inc., for the development of a transportation evacuation plan away from the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

"Phase I" is expected to be completed in 45 days. "Phase II" began last year. Preliminary planning is finished, but construction is on hold until the fate of $3 million for "Phase III" funding is decided.

Phase I

Cost: $1.5 million, funded in 2003

• All traffic signals in Umatilla and Hermiston are linked via a computerized program and closed-circuit television.

• Computer model optimizes signal timings to maximize traffic flow in desired direction.

• Closed-circuit television allows emergency personnel to monitor traffic and deploy limited personnel to needed positions.

Phase II

Cost: $3 million, funded in 2004

• Enhancement of the Elm Street and Diagonal Road Corridor.

Phase III

Cost: $3 million, 2005 funds waiting to be distributed

• Highland Avenue upgrade.

• Feedville Road upgrade.

• Sheridan Road upgrade.

• Additional ancillary road upgrades.

• Additional Umatilla County Fair and Farm City Pro Rodeo parking.

• Interstate 84 and Highway 395 improvements.

• Additional signage.

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