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PSU traffic engineer adds new criticism of ODOT’s Barbur analysis

Posted by on September 13th, 2013 at 4:19 pm

PSU transpo researcher Chris Monsere
PSU’s Chris Monsere in 2010.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Two days after a Metro engineer publicly called out the Oregon Department of Transportation for allegedly misrepresenting traffic data in a memo that sidelined a bike safety proposal for Southwest Barbur, another expert is adding new skepticism.

The latest critic is Chris Monsere, a Portland State University associate professor and nationally recognized expert in the effects of restriping roads to reduce auto travel lanes. In addition to questioning ODOT’s conclusions, Monsere questioned the agency’s priorities and said he was “disappointed in the way the analysis is framed.”

“Vehicle speeds are way too high on Barbur, safety is poor, and bicycle / ped accommodation is substandard,” Monsere writes. “Road diets have generally been shown to improve safety for all users. Motor vehicle delay at the peak hour shouldn’t be only decision variable.”

Barbur currently forces auto and bike traffic to merge into the same 45-mph travel lane as it crosses two narrow bridges. Neighborhood safety advocates have suggested removing one of two northbound travel lanes in order to have room for a continuous bike lane in each direction. ODOT has countered with a proposal to instead add flashing lights to a “bikes on bridge roadway” sign.

A traffic analysis earlier this year found that without further changes, a restriping would slow travel times in the morning rush hour and cause some traffic to divert onto Corbett, Terwilliger and other roads. ODOT said Thursday that these are the relevant findings from its examination of a road diet.

Monsere first shared his thoughts in a comment beneath our Thursday post. On Friday I contacted him directly to confirm the statements.

“I’d consider both analyses preliminary enough that 20 to 40 seconds of delay in the current condition is not significant to completely derail the road diet option,” Monsere added in an email. “A vehicle could easily be delayed 20 seconds by the new crosswalk beacon south of Hamilton that went in early this year (or for that matter the signal at Hamilton or Terwilliger).”


In his comment Thursday, Monsere also asked exactly which stretches of Barbur were analyzed for possible restriping. The lack of specificity on this in our previous coverage is in part my own fault — ODOT’s documents didn’t specify, and I didn’t ask. Here’s the answer, from Metro engineer Anthony Buczek.

Road diet proposal map (click to enlarge).

“The road diet was proposed and therefore assumed from 1/4 mile north of the signal at SW 3rd/Miles to 1/4 mile south of the signal at Hamilton,” Buczek wrote Friday. Also, here’s a project description from Metro that offers a map of the road diet area (at right), which is actually divided into two segments.

The stretch doesn’t include any traffic signals, which Buczek has said are the significant chokepoints to road capacity on Barbur. This means that removing an auto travel lane on this stretch wouldn’t significantly reduce actual traffic capacity — it’d mostly mean that faster-moving northbound vehicles wouldn’t be able to pass slower ones during rush hour.

Monsere is director of PSU’s Intelligent Transportation Systems lab, co-chair of the national Transportation Research Board’s Safety Data, Analysis, and Evaluation committee, sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Transportation Safety and Security, and was a member of the TRB Task Force to develop the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Highway Safety Manual.

Monsere concluded his comment Thursday night with a professional reflection.

“I can’t help but reflect on the assigned reading I give in class from the father of road safety analysis, Ezra Hauer,” Monsere said. “He wrote ‘Is it better to be dead than stuck in traffic?’ I think we know the answer to that question.”

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Comments
  • Andrew N September 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Jason Tell should be imprisoned for his role in the corrupt Columbia River Crossing. Unlikely, I know. At the very least he should be fired immediately for his regressive and cowardly Region 1 leadership. The example being set for the rest of Oregon is not even close to “platinum”-level — plenty of BS whenever he’s speaking to Bikeportland, far too little action to balance the playing field away from our unfortunate multi-decade experiment in auto-centrism.

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  • Dave September 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    That last statement is exactly why this general attitude from ODOT makes me so upset.

    The fact that they would refuse to do anything about a current situation in which *people are dying and being seriously injured* because it *might*, in *20 years* cause motor vehicle traffic an additional 4 minutes over a several mile stretch (but it might only be 80 seconds)! Dear god, how will you live without that 4 minutes, 20 years from now? Better than Henry Schmidt, who’s in the hospital with a broken spine, I’m guessing.

    Either ODOT is run by robots, or they simply choose to ignore that they are dealing with humans and not just big metal boxes.

    Regardless, people are losing their lives and liveliness because of ODOT’s irresponsibility.

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    • 9watts September 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm

      ODOT: reactionary, carheads, unhelpful, unimaginative, stuck in the mindset of the mid-20th Century.

      Bikeportland: my heroes for seeing through the smoke and mirrors and getting to the bottom of this (with assistance from Kiel Johnson, Tony Buczek, Chris Monsere, RJ, et al.)

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 13, 2013 at 5:26 pm

        We appreciate the kind words, 9watts, but I want to give ODOT a lot of credit for being so responsive to our requests for information all week, and explaining their reasoning to some extent. They’re a group of Portland-area residents like us, trying to do what they think is right. All the people you mention are trying to do their parts, too. People on both sides of this road design issue need to keep that in mind.

        The goal of sharing all this information publicly is that it lets more of us talk about what is and isn’t right from our own perspectives. Hopefully this will move our region toward a solution that is actually right, because we can only choose one way for a road to be.

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        • q`Tzal September 13, 2013 at 5:47 pm

          That’s all fine and good but evidence has repeatedly shown that while there may be some ODOT employees in the Portland area that you can contact that are sympathetic to non-automotive transportation issues the over ruling majority could give a flying flip about anyone outside an automobile.
          It would seem only logical that as a journalist you would mainly have access to PR people. A PR person’s main job is to keep the public happy while not damaging the organization through release of internal information. The people making the decisions that enrage us… Not PR people and you’ll likely never see them publicly justifying unpopular positions choosing to fall back on the old chestnut “I have a degree, you couldn’t possibly understand”.
          These are the people at ODOT that constantly anger us and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t work at and mostly control ODOT.

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          • Michael Andersen (News Editor) September 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm

            You’re right that I mostly talk to Hamilton and Horner, and I think that’s an accurate summary of a lot of PR work. (Key variable IMO: how much does it take to keep the public happy?) But I also think that their bosses and colleagues are trying to do the right thing.

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            • q`Tzal September 13, 2013 at 7:51 pm

              Michael Andersen (News Editor)
              But I also think that their bosses and colleagues are trying to do the right thing.

              As far as I can tell that is a matter of faith in the altruism and fair play a government bureaucracy in contrast to their track record of behaving the exact opposite.
              I’ll invoke Hanlon’s Razor here: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.”
              There are so many things ODOT could have done if they were truly out to get us. OTOH the current state of affairs (ODOT vs pedestrians & bike) was not arrived at by random bumbling ineptitude; choices where made to specifically exclude peds&bikes at many times through the years. Some of these decisions required more money or effort on ODOT’S part to exclude non-automotive users but they stuck to their guns.
              If ODOT is truly trying to do the right thing it’s like trying to wipe the blood from their hands with a blood soaked shirt while the knife is still dripping.

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        • 9watts September 13, 2013 at 6:15 pm

          Fair enough, Michael. I want to see ODOT in that light but they make it so hard.

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  • peejay September 13, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Well, it looks like ODOT’s plan to prevent any slowdown in traffic that results from cars having to wait behind bicycles on the bridge by making it perfectly clear that bike use is not welcome on the road. There is no other way to interpret what they’re trying to do here. They just can’t come out and directly say it.

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  • dwainedibbly September 13, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    I plan on adding several more tail lights and taking the lane. I wonder how many seconds that will add, particularly if enough of us do that.

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  • John Lascurettes September 13, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    BP.com, thank you so much for keeping on and keeping top of this story. This is invaluable revelatory reporting.

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  • J_R September 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    I predict the flashing lights indicating “bikes on bridge roadway” will have the same effect on motorists that the flashing lights “bikes in tunnel” has on Highway 101 – NO EFFECT AT ALL. At least that was my experience when riding 101 four years ago.

    We can’t even get reasonable enforcement when it comes to drunk drivers, hit-and-run drivers, or failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalk drivers, speeding drivers in school zones, etc. It’s readily apparent that beacons are next to useless, except it makes some people feel better. Mostly it allows people to tell the legislature that “we did something.”

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  • Damian Miller September 13, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Sigh. I’m trying to think productively about the argument that the bridges aren’t unsafe because no one’s yet been hit there. How does one demonstrate that current conditions are unsafe *before* someone actually does get hit on the bridges? Is there a protocol or methodology for that? Seems like we’ve got plenty for estimating traffic delay.

    Almost weekly I witness someone biking on the bridges being passed with inches of clearance at 60mph by a garbage truck or some such. How do we make the case that that’s more than a “comfort issue?” I’m serious – any suggestions, folks?

    And, if something officially becomes a safety problem only *after* people get hit, the why on earth isn’t everyone involved rushing to slow down the design speed and provide physically separated bike/ped access from Capitol to Hamilton? We’ve already “paid” for that. More specifically, Henry’s already paid for that. Just like Angela Burke “paid” for the crossing at the apartments.

    Perhaps there’s a formula, deep in the bowels of ODOT? Apparently death is good enough for a new crossing. What, pray tell, are multiple fractures and internal injuries worth?

    I suppose it’s time for a Modest Proposal: Why wait for someone who isn’t expecting it, and hasn’t been able to make arrangements, to get hit? Let’s just be done with this. Why don’t we go round up volunteers? They can each schedule a farewell party with their friends and family, make up a will, and commune with their higher power of choice. On the appointed day, we’ll set up stadium seating on the hills overlooking the bridges. Each volunteer will suit up, and start pedaling from Hamilton or Terwilliger. At some point on the bridges, we’ll hit them with said 60mph garbage truck, or perhaps an 80mph+ DUI vehicle? Of course you won’t know when exactly it will happen – that’s the exciting part. Haven’t worked out yet who’ll be driving, but I suspect we may have some volunteers for that, too. ODOT will let us know when they’re satisfied. It would be nice to have an estimate beforehand though, it’d help with recruiting. Perhaps 3 is enough? I imagine some backroom negotiations are in order there. In any case, when we’ve reached the appointed number, we’ll send in the cleanup crews. Must remember to budget for their long-term mental health care, of course; PTSD can really push up premiums. I think the TV rights will more than cover that, though.

    And then we can proceed apace with providing safe bike and pedestrian access over the bridges.

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    • Pete September 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      So I’m trying to put on my Devil’s Advocate cap here… unsafe and unnerving are two different beasts. If the situation requires that the cyclists actually merge with drivers and take the full lane, it doesn’t really surprise me nobody’s been hit. In my experience it is MUCH safer to put yourself squarely in harm’s way (i.e. centered in lane) than to ‘share the road’ by trying to travel with higher speed traffic as practicable to the right as possible (a.k.a. gutter trawling). This is a non-intuitive concept at first, but if you’re traveling 25-30 MPH downhill in front of 45-50 MPH traffic they will see you and slow to your speed to avoid hitting you – albeit begrudgingly.

      NOW – I am NOT saying this is the ideal solution… just one I’ve experienced often (I tend to be a bold, predictable, somewhat fast rider). Simply I’m offering this as hypothesis for why nobody’s been hit here. Maybe the riders here tend to be bolder and visible whereas the more timid know to stay away. My past experience up there was around helping plan a triathlon route near here and my advice was NO WAY! Regardless, I hope ODOT steps up to the plate and recognizes SW Barbur as a valuable lower-speed artery for all modes and not just the I-5 traffic alternative that it currently is.

      P.S. Yes also, my hypothesis assumes both visibility and attentive drivers, I’m aware of this.

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      • Damian Miller September 14, 2013 at 1:17 am

        Pete-

        The thing is, because Barbur is pretty much the only reasonable way in or out of SW, you actually get a much broader population of people on bikes than you’d expect for such an inhospitable facility. Yes, I take the lane over the bridges day in and day out, but I’d estimate that 80% + of people I see riding up there are hugging the curb for dear life, and it’s not that uncommon to see someone riding those tiny sidwalks, which is completely terrifying because those railings are not that high.

        So yeah, matter of time, and given the record over the last few years, probably won’t even take that long. Sigh.

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      • gutterbunnybikes September 14, 2013 at 10:22 am

        I agree for the most part – as a rider, not so much as an avocate. It takes quite a bit of experience as a rider to take such a ballsy position on a road like Barber. I have no problem doing this on just about any Portland street, but I’ve been a near daily rider for over 30 years and learned to ride the streets in Detroit Michigan where nearly every arterial is (well, was – when people actually lived there) Barber or worse.

        The problem is that there is a large pool of potential, less experienced riders that don’t ride in that part of town as a result the unsafe/uncomfortable (take your pick they mean the same to me) road conditions. And by having no place to ride they’ll never likely gain the experience and confidence to make such a stance in traffic lanes.

        And personally I find it unacceptable that for someone to gain experience as a rider that they need to go somewhere other than hop on their bike in their driveway/street.

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      • 9watts September 18, 2013 at 8:32 am

        “unsafe and unnerving are two different beasts.”

        Nicely put!

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    • Peter W September 13, 2013 at 11:39 pm

      > How does one demonstrate that current conditions are unsafe *before* someone actually does get hit on the bridges?

      No need.

      Henry got hit walking along the side of Barbur (shortly before the bridge) where there was inadequate separation (“inadequate” by definition, since the car that hit him was for a moment occupying the same physical space as Henry’s body). Increasing separation can be accomplished by reallocating space from an adjacent underutilized lane. The extra space available could improve safety where Henry was, and since you would then have that space anyway, there would be no reason not to use it to extend the dedicated bike/ped facility over the bridges.

      Also, the point we need to make repeatedly is that ODOT claims to want a balanced transportation system yet they will provide safe and comfortable space for people walking and biking only if it doesn’t in any way impede a car’s ability to make long trips at high speeds. This is in no way a balanced system (safety for one mode, not for others; comfort for one mode, not for others; unimpeded direct routes for one mode, not for others).

      As it stands, ODOT apparently values imaginary future motor vehicle speeds more than the safety and comfort of people who actually exist and use that road on foot or bike today.

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  • Rebecca September 13, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Decisions that optimize conditions for automobiles at the expense of all other modes are what you can expect when that’s the only level of service you prioritize. Impacts to cars seems to be the only thing that ODOT has taken the time to quantify, to put real numbers to. What’s measured matters.

    Michael, do you know if ODOT used a multimodal LOS analysis in their study? It would be great to see the results of an HCM 2010 LOS analysis or something like the one the Kittleson Inc. developed, so that we could see the impacts of their proposed design on bike, ped, and transit LOS side by side with auto LOS.

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    • RJ September 14, 2013 at 7:56 am

      There are all kinds of problems with MMLOS — maybe the biggest being that it SOUNDS like it’s going to help you make equitable, apples-to-apples comparisons between modes, but it usually just ends up muddling things. Motor vehicle LOS is generally measured at intersections, but you usually measure bike or ped LOS along segments. Motor vehicle LOS is based on average delay at an intersection (i.e., 45 seconds of delay = LOS D, 90 seconds = LOS F). People can grasp that pretty easily. Bike LOS is based on…some super-convoluted equation with a million variables for pavement quality, bike lane width, adjacent vehicle speeds and volumes, adjacent lane width, adjacent parking, and on and on and on, and then it spits out a letter grade that you can’t possibly explain to anyone. So the letter grade for motor vehicles represents delay, and the letter grade for bicycles measures…comfort, I guess? And then they don’t even correlate. LOS D or E for motor vehicles represents somewhat ideal conditions (roadways are being fully utilized but are not overly congested), while LOS A means you obviously wasted precious resources overbuilding your roadways and your city sucks. LOS D or E for bikes, on the other hand, represents something totally unacceptable like a 4-foot shoulder next to 50mph traffic or something, while LOS A is highly desirable.

      I prefer Level of Traffic Stress…it’s somewhat more intuitive and explainable, and doesn’t pretend to be comparable to motor vehicle LOS. But I don’t know if you can do better than just telling the story:

      Northbound: Motor vehicle operations are affected only in that the prevailing speed is now set by vehicles that are going the speed limit.

      Southbound: Motor vehicle operations are improved because the outside lane no longer has to merge with bicycles at the bridges.

      Both directions: People on bikes get a bike lane instead of merging with 45mph traffic and pedestrians get more buffer.

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      • 9watts September 14, 2013 at 8:06 am

        Thanks very much, RJ.
        This is exactly the kind of communication I keep hoping to get from ODOT. Is there some institutional reason they can’t get out ahead of an issue, explain the quirks and opportunities that come with their field, the tools they use, to their non-expert public in English instead of playing defense all the time and burying their car-favoring assumptions in jargon? Show us that you care about the full breadth of these issues, take seriously the segment of your public that opts for solutions other than the car.
        I would have thought that our tax dollars heading into ODOT’s coffers would be enough to include someone whose job it is to do this, at least as well as RJ has been here lately. I’d also think it wouldn’t hurt ODOT’s image, at least with this segment of the public.

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      • El Biciclero September 16, 2013 at 11:34 am

        I would think that a non-motorized LOS would be multidimensional. Why even attempt to distill it down to a single letter grade that fuzzily combines all the factors you mention? For autos, it seems pretty one-dimensional: seconds of delay caused by any factor. For non-motorized modes, we could still measure seconds of delay, but it might be caused by pavement quality issues, DETOURS taken due to lack of comfort with direct routes, improperly calibrated in-street signal sensors, etc. There could also be separate grades for comfort level wrt neighboring motor traffic, ease of navigability–both wrt way-finding and technical skill needed to make tight turns, navigate steps, negotiate tricky street crossings, etc. It would be more of a report card than a single grade–Yay! I got an ‘A’ in comfort, but a ‘C’ in delay, and I flunked navigability again!

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        • El Biciclero September 16, 2013 at 11:37 am

          Heh. I forgot to include rail track crossings as part of my imagined “navigability” grade.

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  • Ted Buehler September 13, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    As always, folks, remember that if you have an opinion on a state highway issue, ODOT invites you to contact them directly and let them know!

    “If you have an opinion, comment or question, or if you need assistance with an ODOT issue, we want to hear from you.”
    http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/Pages/contact_us.aspx
    or email
    askodot@odot.state.or.gov

    Ted Buehler

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  • Adam September 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    When will ODOT just hand Barbur over to PBOT? Like they did with Sandy Blvd. Barbur no longer functions as a State Highway, which is the only reason it is in ODOT’s jurisdiction. I-5 serves that function now.

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  • Kevin Wagoner September 13, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    This is a high crash corridor.

    http://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/386469

    We can make some serious progress on making this safer or we can worry about a few seconds in the morning/evening commute.

    Safety first? I totally don’t get it.

    Big thank you to Chris, he gets it.

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    • q`Tzal September 14, 2013 at 3:03 am

      Hmmm… this is an interesting angle.
      Is there some “high risk” designation that could be invoked because this small piece of pavement exceeds an engineering specification of how many crashes are allowed per mile per year?
      Some sort of rule that would bypass all the hemming, hawing and political posturing and FORCE a state level reassessment and redesign because the math says this road is no longer functioning?

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  • Paul in the 'couve September 13, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    So they closed the St. John’s Bridge for 6 hours through a full evening commute for an attempted suicide but they won’t even consider a 20 second delay for cars on a stretch where 4 cyclists and pedestrians have been killed in the past five years. They drag their heals on any meaningful revision of one of the highest priority high crash corridors in the city.

    The message to me is that ODOT is perfectly happy to let cyclists, pedestrians and motorists as well be killed on unsafe roads to save 20 seconds, but PoPo will shut down a whole sector of the grid to talk one bridge jumper down, but if a cyclist gets hit on Barbur they’ll probably say “no criminality suspected” with no minimal investigation.

    I’d suggest staging something that requires officer intervention on Barbur once a week, but with the PoPo it’s 50/50 at best whether they just shoot first….

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    • Joe Adamski September 13, 2013 at 11:08 pm

      Paul, road operations and law enforcement are not similar functions. Beating on ODOT for a Portland PD decision does not calculate.
      I have plenty to beat on ODOT for, but that situation you refer to is not their issue.

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      • Paul in the 'couve September 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm

        I’m not “beating ODOT” for a PoPo decision nor do I think they are the same thing. What I am struck by is the dichotomy between what lengths we are willing to go to save one live in some areas like preventing a suicide or saving a climber on Mt. Hood while in others areas ODOT and society very casually write off preventable fatalities and are (in this case) completely immalleable about vehicle LOS.

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  • Trek 3900 September 13, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Quote:
    “The latest critic is Chris Monsere, a Portland State University associate professor and nationally recognized expert in the effects of restriping roads to reduce auto travel lanes.”

    Yeah, that guy wouldn’t be biased would he? BWAHAHAHA! ROFLMAO…

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    • Jeff M September 13, 2013 at 11:27 pm

      ODOT history is one of highways and they run vehicle registration and driver licencing. Do you think ODOT is going to be unbiased?

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    • 9watts September 14, 2013 at 8:12 am

      Who would you prefer to speak to this issue, Trek 3900? As we’ve learned here, Barbur does not now have capacity issues (for people driving). It most certainly does have capacity/safety issues for people bicycling. I don’t know professor Monsere, but his specialty sounds pretty pertinent to this subject.

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    • Jayson September 16, 2013 at 11:44 am

      If you consider an “expert” biased because they research and know about the issue, then there’s probably no hope for your line of reasoning.

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  • markunono September 16, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    The City needs to take control of Barbur from ODOT. How can that be done?

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  • gumby September 17, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    In 20 years it’s likely that those bridges will need to be replaced.

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  • vespajg September 25, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I’m an avid cyclist and live in Johns Landing. Enhancements to Barbur to handle the traffic AND cyclists are a better solution. Limiting traffic on Barbur would divert slowed traffic through slower speed limited residential areas (Corbett, Lair Hill, and even Terwilliger). That is not an acceptable solution IMO, and makes the problem worse for cyclists who use these alternative routes instead of Barbur. Barbur is not residential (largely) and is a main thoroughfare to and from downtown. Enhancements should make it perform it’s function better, rather than inhibit its effectiveness as a main artery.

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  • vespajg September 25, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    And reduced speed limits are only as effective as their enforcement, which is not within ODOT’s control. There are very few points of enforcement on the stretch of Barbur at issue.

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