The Oregon Transportation Commission took a significant step forward Thursday in its plan to transfer ownership of 82nd Avenue from the state to the city of Portland.
The commission unanimously approved a plan presented by Oregon Department of Transportation financiers to fund $185 million in safety and modernization along the urban highway that runs through Portland’s eastside.
That includes $70 million allocated by the transportation commission from Oregon transportation department funds, $80 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars dedicated by the state Legislature and an additional $35 million pledged by the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
The conversation surrounding the transfer of responsibility to maintain and improve 82nd Avenue has lasted a decade.
The Avenue of Roses stretches from the Portland International Airport at its northern terminus to the Clackamas County line at its southern end. It originally served the Portland area as a dirt farm-to-market road, before being designated, in 1932, as state Highway 213. That designation brought federal investments aimed at allowing the road to facilitate regional and statewide movement.
Since the construction of the Glenn Jackson Bridge and Interstate 205 in the early 1980s, 82nd Avenue’s significance as a regional highway has slowly dwindled.
In recent years, the discussion around 82nd Avenue has focused on safety concerns from people who live and work along the corridor. They cite accessibility problems and a lack of both bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including the absence of sidewalks, protected crossings and ADA ramps.
Many drivers still treat 82nd Avenue as an urban highway, ignoring speed limits and creating unsafe conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has worked in recent years to lower speed limits in some corridors, particularly after a pair of pedestrian deaths shocked the city.
Community members have advocated for more local control of the road for years, leading the city to initiate conversations with Oregon Department of Transportation regarding serious investment in safety improvements as part of a 2020 bond proposal that was ultimately rejected by voters.
Then House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, stepped in with an idea crafted with help from Portland-area lawmakers whose districts include portions of 82nd Avenue. They include House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, Sen. Michael Dembrow and Rep. Khanh Pham, all Democrats. The lawmakers’ push to get extra federal cash helped get the deal between the city and state across the finish line.
During a legislative session earlier this year, Kotek asked city and state transportation departments to work together to determine what it would take to transfer jurisdiction of the road from the state to the city.
The city expressed great interest in taking control of 82nd, but only if the deal included significant dollars to help make necessary improvements to the road that local communities have been advocating for in recent years.
From a highway to a city street
At Thursday’s transportation commission meeting, Portland transportation director Chris Warner and Rian Windsheimer, who oversees the Portland metro region for ODOT, outlined a funding plan to finance those safety and modernization investments in coordination with the city.
“With the $80 million of ARPA funding in addition to ODOT and the city’s commitment, we are now in position to ask city council to consider the transfer in early 2022,” Warner said.
According to Windsheimer, approximately $3.35 million was recently invested in improvements such as speed feedback signs, lowering speed limits in certain corridors, rapid flashing beacons, pedestrian islands and other crosswalk infrastructure.
Windsheimer said these improvements are aimed at changing the context of 82nd Avenue from a highway to a city arterial street.
Another $4.65 million of ODOT’s $70 million pledge will be made available immediately upon execution of the intergovernmental agreement. Those funds will come from a pot of statewide road improvement funds that have become available due to savings on other projects thanks to favorable bids.
The rest of the $185 million will be broken down into investments over the next 13 years, with the $80 million in federal funding being spent beginning in 2022 and available to the city to make improvements through 2026. Those federal dollars have time requirements that will force them to be spent first.
The other approximately $100 million in city and state money will kick in beginning in 2027 and be used for continued improvement.
City transportation spokesperson Dylan Rivera said Portland’s immediate priority is to establish about a half dozen new pedestrian crossings along 82nd between NE Alberta and SE Knapp Streets, as well as other infrastructure to protect bikes and foot traffic.
“As for the federal dollars, that money needs to be spent by the end of 2026, so we’re really focused on delivering projects using that funding as quickly as we can to make the most of those dollars that will be expiring,” Rivera said.
The city will be responsible for providing status reports required by those federal funds infused in this package.
Transportation commission vice chair Alando Simpson said he views this deal as a step in the right direction for the Portland Bureau of Transportation and ODOT after hearing years of concerns around speed and safety from community members.
“To me, it’s just exciting to see this start actually moving forward and coming to fruition in doing something more transformative with that part of the region,” Simpson said.
Kotek said she views modernizing 82nd Avenue as an equity issue.
“Improving safety on this state highway will build a safer future for the communities of East Portland. I pushed to make a game-changing investment to support this transfer, and I have tremendous appreciation for the local advocates who never gave up,” she said.
Transportation commissioner Bob Van Brocklin said that the infusion of federal cash set up the state and city to make this transfer happen at this moment. He said he expects this will spur conversations within the state transportation department to look at transferring jurisdiction of other highways statewide that are similar to 82nd Avenue.
“I hope we are able to do others like this around the state to improve situations that continue to decline and also modernize the system by making it truly multimodal,” Van Brocklin said. “You have a lot of people in this area — as we do in all areas of the state — that don’t own cars that are reliant on other modes. And we need to remember that, recognize it and work toward solutions like the one we have here.”
All four of the current transportation commissioners voted to approve the funding plan which will come up for approval by the Portland City Council in coming months.
The five-member commission is one member short following the departure of Maurice Henderson who stepped down earlier this year to join U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig’s office as a senior advisor.
University of Oregon Law School Dean Marcilynn Burke was confirmed by the Oregon Senate as the commission’s newest member earlier this week. She’ll begin her tenure in the coming weeks.
According to Warner, the state transportation director, the city’s target date for approval of the agreement was supposed to be January 2022, but could end up being later.