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Advocates react to tragedy on SW Barbur

“They just keep happening. There were two last night… It’s hard to keep talking about the same thing over and over again. I feel like I can just cut and paste.”
— Stephanie Routh, Willamette Pedestrian Coalition

Biking, walking and neighborhood advocates are frustrated and saddened by the news of a fatal crash that claimed the life of 26-year old Angela Burke on SW Barbur Boulevard last night. For them, the crash isn’t just about one allegedly drunk and negligent man driving a car and a woman who lost her life, it’s about a street that is known to be very unsafe and that is widely known to be in dire need of safety improvements.

In a phone interview today, Stephanie Routh, executive director of the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition (WPC), called Angela Burke’s death a “senseless tragedy” and was clearly frustrated by yet another headline of someone being killed while walking. “They just keep happening. There were two last night [a man was also hit and seriously injured while walking on N. Lombard]… It’s hard to keep talking about the same thing over and over again. I feel like I can just cut and paste.”

Routh, whose group unveiled a Walking Action Plan just last month, said last night’s fatal crash is a sign that everyone needs to do more to improve the safety of our roads for vulnerable users. “We share in a collective responsibility whenever someone dies on our roadways.” Routh points out that their action plan ranked safe crossings as the top priority for the metro area.

Rob Sadowsky, executive director Bicycle Transportation Alliance, says his first response was “shock and outrage.” He, like Routh, hopes that this “senseless act” will help spur the message that “people need to slow down and drive responsibly.” Sadowsky also hopes people will take action and share their concerns with elected officials. He also praised the Portland Police Department for their swift action in bringing charges against the Caleb Pruitt, the man who is accused of DUII and Criminally Negligent Homicide in the crash. “This will be really important to send that message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”

A man runs to get across SW Barbur Blvd, just south of where last night’s fatal crash occurred.
(Photo: Owen Walz/Friends of Barbur)

Don Baack is a citizen activist well-known in Southwest Portland for his work to improve the walking and off-road hiking trail network in the hills adjacent to SW Barbur and Terwilliger boulevards. He says he’s spent years pushing the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to make crossing improvements just a few tenths of a mile from where Angela Burke was hit. Baack’s group, SW Trails, has recently opened a new trail just south of last night’s collision and there’s already a TriMet bus stop located there.

“The neighborhood associations have made many recommendations for safety improvements on Barbur and elsewhere… There’s a reason why it’s a high crash corridor…”
— Marianne Fitzgerald, SW Neighborhoods, Inc.

Baack doesn’t mince words when he describes conditions on this stretch of Barbur and he’s frustrated that ODOT has not done more to make it safer for people on foot. “I think it’s deplorable that we wait around for a fatality to happen before we take action… If we’re really going to make it so that people want to ride and walk we’ve got to accomdate them and ODOT just hasn’t gotten that yet.”

Last night’s crash will add to an already grim year for people being killed while walking on Oregon roads. So far this year, walking fatalities are up over 80 percent over last year.

All the advocates I spoke with for this story say Barbur is already on the radar of city and state staffers as a major problem area. Whether or not this tragedy sparks significant action to improve it remains to be seen.

Marianne Fitzgerald, chair of Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc. Transportation Committee says they’ve been studying issues along Barbur for a long time. “The neighborhood associations have made many recommendations for safety improvements on Barbur and elsewhere, for pedestrian and bicyclist as well as motor vehicle safety. There’s a reason why it’s a high crash corridor and we hope to change that through some much needed improvements…”

There is talk of a vigil and event near the location on Monday night. It just so happens that ODOT and PBOT were already planning to share an update on a safety study commissioned after a fatal crash involving a man walking across Barbur back in September. I’ll keep you posted if something gets confirmed.

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