Think Out Loud

Death of Portland cyclist renews calls for greater bike safety and city control of Powell Boulevard

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Oct. 11, 2022 5:22 p.m. Updated: Oct. 11, 2022 8:21 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Oct. 11

File photo of a bicycle symbol painted on a road. Portlanders are calling for more bike safety in the city after a fatality last week.

File photo of a bicycle symbol painted on a road. Portlanders are calling for more bike safety in the city after a fatality last week.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

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Last week, a prominent chef was killed after being hit by a truck near Cleveland High School in Portland. Sarah Pliner was riding her bike on Powell Boulevard, a state-owned road without bike lanes. In response to the fatality, Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler issued a statement yesterday.

“Powell Boulevard (U.S. 26) was originally established and designed as a highway to move freight and people through Portland quickly and efficiently,” he said. “Recent incidents on Powell, including a tragic death on Oct. 4, are evidence that this road cannot, and should not, function as a traditional highway anymore.”

While some roads in the city remain under state control, others, like 82nd Avenue, are now under city ownership. Advocates have called for a similar transfer to take place on Powell Boulevard. We learn more about road safety from Chris Warner, the director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

A community forum will be held on Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. at Cleveland High School. Representatives from PBOT, ODOT, Portland Public Schools and TriMet will be there, according to ODOT.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: A prominent chef was killed after being hit by a truck one week ago at the corner of Southeast Powell Boulevard and 26th Avenue. Sarah Pliner was riding her bike. According to Bike Portland, she was the 10th traffic fatality on Powell between 24th and 62nd Avenues in just the last five years. Even though Powell cuts right through the heart of Portland, it’s owned and managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Yesterday in response to outrage from residents, elected officials and civic groups, the director of ODOT said it is time to make changes to ensure the safety of all users. Meanwhile, many Portlanders, including the Commissioner of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, are renewing their calls for Powell to be transferred to city control. That’s what happened with 82nd Avenue over the summer for more on the near term and the longer term future of Powell Boulevard. I’m joined by Chris Warner. He is the director of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation. Chris Warner, welcome back to the show.

Chris Warner: Thanks Dave.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the conversations that have gone on between your bureau and ODOT over the last week?

Warner: Well, Dave, last week we engaged with them yesterday and we continued to engage with them on many levels. I was heartened to see Director Stickler’s call to make these changes, evaluate any possible options and quickly transform Powell into a safer roadway. We are ready to help implement those changes.

Miller: We actually asked ODOT to join us for this conversation. They declined, but they did put out a lengthy statement from the director. Let me read part of it: “Powell Boulevard, US 26, was originally established and designed as a highway to move freight and people through Portland quickly and efficiently. Recent incidents on Powell, including a tragic death on October 4th, are evidence that this road cannot and should not function as a traditional highway anymore. It’s time to make changes to ensure the safety of all users. I have directed our team to evaluate possible options to quickly transform Powell into a safer roadway. Last year, we reduced the speed limit on Inner Powell to 30. We built pedestrian islands and signalized crosswalks that helped make the currently-designed road function more safely by making bicyclists and pedestrians more visible. But the truth is that the design of the facility is so focused on traffic movement that more changes are needed. To keep our community safe, no change is off the table. If changes result in slowing traffic down, I believe that is an acceptable trade-off. My hope is that most people would make the same choice.” The statement ended by noting that there will be a community forum next Thursday evening the 20th at Cleveland High School. Were you surprised, Chris Warner, by anything in that statement?

Warner: I’m not surprised in the sense that ODOT recognized that this is a problem. It’s something we’ve been working on with them for many years. But I welcome the statement. It is something that Director Strickler feels strongly about and it is really  positive movement in the future in terms of what we do with what we call these orphan highways which are highways that are in the middle of urban areas. They don’t function as a highway anymore. They need to function as a street so that’s why we’re willing to dig in and make the immediate safety changes and then work with the state in terms of bringing Powell Boulevard under city control.

Miller: Last week, a spokesman for ODOT, Don Hamilton, told Bike Portland that it was premature to blame the agency for what happened. He said, “We need to know if Powell played a role and if so what role before we can decide if there’s anything further we can do. I don’t know if conditions on the road can be seen as a factor.” That was just one week ago and now we have this pretty broad statement saying Powell is a problem and we’re going to make major changes as a result. What do you think happened at ODOT in just a couple of days?

Warner: I believe it was elevated to Director Strickler’s level to see that these tragedies have to stop. We’ve seen them over the pandemic where there have been more and more traffic fatalities on our street. I guess that I’m glad that Director Strickler is there , to really recognize and let’s take it to the next level. We will be there to work with them and to figure out ways to make the streets safer now and not and not talk about whose problem is. We need to make these changes now.

Miller: What is your own diagnosis for what is wrong with Powell?

Warner: Powell was designed as a state highway and it has too many lanes. Its crossings are too far away. They are not marked well. People drive too fast on Powell. There are numerous changes, for instance, things that we’ve made on the Outer Division, which was a very wide street with five lanes of traffic. People could turn left coming out of intersections. There are a multitude of things that we can do to make this more of a city street as opposed to an arterial on a highway. So there are a multitude of changes that we can make including lighting and more crosswalks. There are so many things that we can do that we really want to dig in on that.

Miller: What you’re describing. It seems to me that there’s a really wide variety of timelines for the changes you’re putting forward there. Lighting might be a nearer term solution or say painting some green paint to put back a bike box at 26 which was removed a couple of years ago. Getting rid of lanes is a kind of change that might take longer, but just for a second to focus on that one. What are you suggesting, how many lanes should there be for Inner Powell?

Warner: I’m not an engineer so we would need to study that but certainly access in terms of how people turn on Powell, those are the kind of things that we would need to study as we move forward. But immediate changes in terms of changing the speed limit, creating a speed zone, green paint for the bike lanes, deciding signalization so pedestrians can cross before cars, high visibility crosswalks, and some plastic speed bumps for turning. Those kinds of things can be done shortly and so those are the things that we want to implement as soon as possible.

Miller: Let’s say that overnight management of Powell was transferred to the city and we can talk about this process and why that can’t happen. But let’s just say if it were to happen, what would your first order of business be if you could no longer plead with the state to make changes, but it were in your own bureau’s control. Where would you start?

Warner: I would start mostly at the key intersections and obviously in front of Cleveland High School. That’s something that needs to be addressed immediately. I would look at every one of the intersections where people cross in the Inner Powell area. I would work to reduce speeds even more. I know that some businesses use 26 in order to move some freight. I would look at ways to move that back to Holgate and onto McLaughlin and not use 26 as a throughput on that. And I would also look at some speed cameras as something that we’re trying to fix. Speed cameras are something that we probably need to implement and we’ve talked to ODOT already about implementing fixed speed cameras to get the speeds down on Powell.

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Miller: What do you think it would take to have agencies like ODOT or the Portland Bureau of Transportation, for that matter, to make the kind of public statements about being willing to make major changes on roadways and to actually be willing to do those changes? What would it take for those kinds of changes to happen without people having to die first?

Warner: Well, that’s a great question. Certainly we are using 82nd Avenue as a model in terms of what can be done in the realm; 82nd Avenue is Highway 213. We’ve taken control of that. We have a system of improvements that we are making with safer crossings with more pain and more signage. Those are the things that we want to do and..

Miller: If I may interrupt just one second. I mean, since you brought it up, apropo of my question, 16 people died on 82nd Avenue just between 2007 and 2018. That sadly is more evidence behind the question I was asking. We can talk about the changes that are going forward there, but it’s one more place where in fatality after fatality, the structure of the road made it so human beings died.

Warner: Absolutely. And that’s why part of what we need to do is have a statewide policy and that’s why I’m excited for this community forum. We’ll have Senator Taylor, Representative Nosse and Representative Power there. So this is a broader conversation. I would love to take every one of the orphan highways that are within the city of Portland and bring them to the Portland Bureau Transportation so we can make these transportation changes. The other piece is that it’s going to cost a lot of money to do this and so that’s why we need to have the state as a partner in terms of making those transformational changes. Not only is it just policy but it’s also an investment by the public.

Miller: Can you remind folks, it’s been a little while since we talked about this weird quirk of transportation law, but what is required before a transfer can happen?

Warner: Well, what we have worked on in terms of transfers is to get it to what we call the “state of good repair.” It doesn’t really do any good for the state to transfer inadequate facilities to the city if we don’t have the funding or the source of funding to make those improvements. So the agreement generally is to bring that facility up to what we call a “state of good repair” and then we will take responsibility for it. So that’s normally the process.

Miller: So for 82nd, if I’m not mistaken, that meant getting $80 million dollars in federal pandemic relief money. And then it was matched with $70 million of state money that the legislature allocated and then the city coughed up $35 million. Do you have a sense for what would be required for Powell to follow that same route and to eventually go under city control?

Warner: That’s part of the discussion that we will need to negotiate with ODOT. And “state of good repair” is something that each agency will bring and say, here’s what we think it should be and then we can finally agree to a number. That’s what happened on 82nd Avenue and I presume that’s what would happen on Inner Powel. I do want to add that the state did make significant improvements to what’s called Outer Powell in the 2017 legislative session. They’re doing those improvements right now and once those improvements are done then the city will take control of Outer pal.

Miller: With Inner Powell, is it fair to say that we could be looking at it in terms of a ballpark way a similarly-large amount of money would need to to be cobbled together from various sources before that transfer could happen, maybe more than $100 million?

Warner: I don’t know the number. It could be, but certainly, we’re really focused on the kind of incremental safety improvements that can be made immediately and that’s why we really want to work with ODOT making sure those things can get done.

Miller: What’s the timeline for the immediate changes that you are expecting based on the conversations you’ve already had with ODOT officials?

Warner: I think that they will continue in the next couple of weeks, but I see this is not a matter of like six months or something. But immediate changes can be made within weeks or maybe a couple of months. That is the goal is to get them in the ground as soon as possible.

Miller: So let’s turn back to 82nd because it’s the case that we have this other example of a long-awaited and then finally happening transfer not that far east of that intersection at 26th and Powell. What are the city’s plans right now for improving 82nd.

Warner: We have a couple of buckets. The first is what we call the near-term critical fixes on 82nd. That will include street lighting, safe crossings, corridor safety improvements, some pavement and curb ramps and some traffic signals. And that’s in the range of $80 million that PBOT will be delivered within the next few years. And then we’re also looking at additional investments from the $70 million that’s coming from the state that will come in chunks; we will use that money for some of the pavement work, additional safety work and then we’ll also be investing dollars to investigate the use of high frequency transit on that corridor as well.

Miller: It’s my guess that most Portlanders don’t actually care who technically owns any given road. Whatever form of transportation people use, they want to be able to do so safely and efficiently. Do you think that can happen on Powell with ODOT in control?

Warner: I do. I am optimistic that at least in the short term we will get those fixes. But I also want to work with our state legislative delegation to bring this into city ownership so we can make those kinds of transformational investments as soon as possible.

Miller: Why is it that in the end the city would be better equipped to manage these highways than the state if the state were doing a good job?

Warner: I think you would have to look at whether or not it’s a street or whether it’s a state highway. So throughput is one of the things and moving people and moving freight is one of the things that ODOT focuses on. We are really more in trying to integrate that into a city street, which has the cityscape, that has the kind of things that you would think more of a city street as opposed to a highway, which it was. Powell was a highway much like 82nd was a highway; Lombard is a highway. Barbur Boulevard…

Miller: Macadam, which I’m looking at right now.

Warner: Yes, Macadam, correct. That’s another one. That’s so they are there and they are a legacy from the time past and we want to continue to work with our partners at the state to ensure that these roads can be made safer as quickly as possible.

Miller: Chris Warner, thanks for your time today.

Warner: Thanks. Dave

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