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Regional Interests

‘Not one more death’: Advocates want local control of Portland’s orphan highways

A sign displaying the speed limit on Northeast 82nd Avenue in Portland on May 12, 2021.
A sign displaying the speed limit on Northeast 82nd Avenue in Portland on May 12, 2021.

Last month in separate Portland incidents, two men were killed as they were trying to cross the same stretch of Northeast 82nd Avenue.

The street is technically a state highway, OR 213, owned and managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation. It’s among a handful of so-called “orphan highways” that have remained in state control even as the city has expanded over the decades, preserving these fast and aging roadways in increasingly dense urban areas.

Following outcry from elected and community leaders about the safety issues, ODOT announced plans to lower the speed limit and put in improvements along a stretch of 82nd Avenue for more safety on this road and others like it.

Sarah Iannarone, the interim executive director of The Street Trust and a candidate for Portland mayor last year, told Think Out Loud on Tuesday the road has been far too dangerous for far too long.

“Two tragedies within a month was not unlike many intersections along 82nd Avenue,” she said. “This one, in particular, looks a lot like other stretches where you have a little bit of commercial use. You have parking lots, you’ve got residences right along that street and you’ve got people riding that very popular No. 70 TriMet bus.”

She added that the Columbia Boulevard industrial area, with a high concentration of jobs, crosses 82nd Avenue not far from where the two men were killed last month.

“You’ve got Helensview School there, which serves a really trauma-impacted and already marginalized group of young people, who are either formerly incarcerated or struggling in your more standard learning environment,” she said. “They have some students there who actually bring their kids to school and they’re trying to figure out, ‘What bus do I take and how do I get across Killingsworth or Lombard or 82nd?’”

ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton also joined Think Out Loud, to discuss what traffic officials have learned about those two fatal crashes.

“This was an area that, the lighting is not great,” Hamilton said. “In the months ahead, we’re going to be putting in some additional lighting in these areas.

“These were some pedestrians trying to cross the road, if I understand correctly, where there were not any crosswalks, which is always dangerous.”

He said it’s a complex traffic control problem for a roadway that not too long ago was considered the eastern edge of the city.

“And it’s now sort of a very, very busy community that’s grown up a lot in recent years,” Hamilton said.

Safety advocates and the Portland Bureau of Transportation requested a year ago that the speed limit on 82nd Avenue be reduced from 35 mph to 30 mph, and they’ve wondered why it took so much time and two more deaths before ODOT took action.

“We expect to have this sorted out within the next couple of weeks,” Hamilton said. “We should be getting the signs up pretty soon and we’ll certainly coordinate with the police to make sure that the enforcement takes place.

He acknowledged it has taken a long time and said the delay was partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, citing the stay-at-home order and the impact of reduced traffic volumes on ODOT’s data collection.

“We can’t just wave a magic wand and have everything improved,” he said. “But we had to get ready to go to the Oregon Transportation Commission, as we’re going to be doing Thursday, to get the additional funds that we need to make this work.”

Hamilton said the changes have been in the works for months, but Iannarone said what finally spurred action was pressure from the community.

“It’s a testament to the power of community organizing,” she said. “Organizations like Oregon Walks, Verde, APANO, The Street Trust, the leadership of Rep. Khanh Pham (D-East Portland). When we come together, we can really shape outcomes. We’re tired of coming together to fight ODOT again and again and again.”

Iannarone said the approximately $3.5 million ODOT plans to spend on repairs to 82nd Avenue represents “just a drop in the bucket” when other estimates show it would take up to $200 million to bring the street up to acceptable standards of improvement and accessibility.

“There’s just basic ADA compliance that we’re talking about, let alone interventions that acknowledge our new mobility future of people walking, biking, rolling, riding transit because it’s affordable and accessible and reliable and convenient,” she said. “So they’re not even up to the present standard, let alone getting our communities ready for the future.”

She also said any jurisdictional transfer — handing control of the road over from ODOT to PBOT — should include sufficient funding from ODOT to handle the improvements.

ODOT has already spent almost $30 million on 82nd Avenue in recent years and Hamilton said the agency plans to spend another $30 million on a number of improvements within the next five years. In addition to the speed limit changes, rapid flash beacons, new crosswalks and safety islands for pedestrians will be installed. He did not have an estimate for the total cost of repairs and upgrades.

Iannarone pointed to ODOT freeway expansion projects that cost upwards of $500 million in the name of safety and argued that more people have died in a month on 82nd Avenue than in 10 years at the Rose Quarter interchange.

She said while ODOT should be held liable for the state of disrepair on the metro area’s orphan highways thus far, it’s time for local agencies to take over control and put the focus on accessibility and initiatives like Vision Zero: “It’s about saying that the epidemic of traffic fatalities is 100% unacceptable, that not one more death will be allowed, and really realigning our budgets to reflect that moral position, frankly.”

An evaluation on the matter of jurisdictional transfer, via Oregon HB 2744, is expected to be presented to the Joint Committee on Transportation by next fall.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting