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It’s over: Committee votes to adopt revised PBOT plans for N Williams Ave

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield had
some explaining to do.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s finally over. Seriously. I mean it this time.

After 17 months of meetings and open houses, the stakeholder advisory committee (SAC) for the N Williams Traffic Operations Safety Project finished their work yesterday with the adoption of plans that will transform Williams Ave. from Weidler to Killingsworth.

The majority of the design has already been agreed on; but unfinished business remained on one section — from Fargo to Fremont — that turned unexpectedly contentious at an open house last month.

The committee thought their work was done after they adopted a formal recommendation to PBOT at their March meeting; but when PBOT showed up to an open house on May 22nd with new plans, many SAC members were surprised at what was presented for the stretch between Fargo and Fremont — an area expected to grow busier with the addition of New Seasons Market and other developments in the works.

Instead of the one standard vehicle lane and one shared left-lane concept (that would utilize sharrows), PBOT unveiled a two standard vehicle lane cross-section with a six-foot, un-buffered bike lane that maintained on-street auto parking on the west side of the street.

Here’s a graphic of what PBOT was proposing (basically exactly what we have now except with the bike lane on the left)…

That design upset members of the SAC, not only because they felt it didn’t meet their standards for safety, but also because they felt PBOT failed to vet it with them prior to the open house.

“I feel like at that point, the process became less transparent,” said SAC member Michelle DePass at today’s meeting, “I felt out of the loop.” Susan Peithman, a staffer for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) who sits on the committee, said, “I was surprised by the designs and thought we’d moved beyond the design phase.”

“Clearly some of you feel PBOT missed the mark. If that’s the case, I don’t want to be defensive about that, let’s just fix it. Let’s, with your input, get closer to what you’d like to see.”
— Rob Burchfield, City Traffic Engineer

For their part, PBOT says they were only doing what the SAC asked them to do in the Fargo to Fremont section, which was (according to the recommendation), “to develop a design that makes a safe and comfortable transition from the buffered bike lane to the shared left‐turn lane/bikeway.” PBOT also says they were working on the design right up until the open house and simply didn’t have time to share it beforehand.

Even so, City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield offered his apologies. “Clearly some of you feel PBOT missed the mark. If that’s the case, I don’t want to be defensive about that, let’s just fix it. Let’s, with your input, get closer to what you’d like to see.”

Tuesday’s meeting was an opportunity for PBOT to respond to the SAC’s concerns and to get their final support for a design. (It’s worth noting that SAC members weren’t the only ones peeved by what PBOT showed at the open house. At today’s meeting, we were given a packet with 18 public comments emailed to PBOT on May 22nd. All of the comments expressed disappointment and concerns about various aspects of the design.)

In a presentation to the SAC, Burchfield explained why PBOT feels it’s imperative to have two standard vehicle lanes for the three block stretch between Fargo and Fremont.

In short, Burchfield says PBOT’s traffic analysis shows two standard travel lanes are necessary in order to create adequate capacity for motor vehicles given the boom in development on the horizon. Burchfield shared that he and his staff have met privately with developers and representatives from New Seasons to better understand the issue. Given the auto circulation and trip patterns projected in this area, and with a desire to make sure people can easily access these new stores and residences by car, PBOT feels two standard lanes are a must.

Burchfield made it clear that developers’ projects would stall unless two full lanes were kept in this section of the road. The way our planning code is written, he explained, development permits will only be issued if a certain auto traffic capacity can be maintained.

While the goals and outcomes for the project adopted by the SAC are important, Burchfield pointed out that there are other, real-world considerations in coming up with a design. “In addition to the values and goals laid out by the committee, we do have some basic traffic engineering concepts we have to work with,” he explained, “to make sure we have adequate capacity for the volume of traffic we expect on the street… There are some pass/fail criteria we have to work with.”

By “pass/fail criteria” Burchfield is referring to federal “level of service” guidelines, which dictate how long cars should sit in traffic and often force cities’ hands in maintaining and/or expanding auto capacity.

To help make his case, Burchfield played an animated simulation of auto traffic in the Williams corridor with both the one-lane and two-lane configuration. In the one-lane scenario (with the planned traffic signal at N. Cook), auto traffic would back up in several sections during the two-hear PM peak. With two lanes, auto traffic flowed much more freely.

Fortunately for Burchfield, he faced the skeptical SAC members with more than just an argument for increased auto capacity. He also brought a new design option for the SAC to weigh in on.

Instead of a standard bike lane adjacent to two travel lanes and a parking lane like they showed at the open house last month, PBOT’s new design for the Fargo to Fremont segment would remove on-street car parking (!) and create a larger bike lane. The design would create a seven-foot, curbside bike lane with a three-foot buffer that would come with some sort of protective element. (PBOT showed plastic “candlestick” bollards in their materials at today’s meeting, but SAC members objected to them on aesthetic grounds. It’s not clear what would be used instead.)

Here are a few graphics of the newly proposed design.

First, the plan drawings. Here’s the segment between N. Cook (to the right) and Ivy (Ivy will end into the New Seasons driveway)…

And between Ivy (on the right) and Fremont (on the left)…

And here’s an illustration (courtesy of Fat Pencil Studio) just south of Cook…

And another illustration of the cross-section (with plastic bollards shown)…

I also snapped this image of how the adopted plans will look at the New Seasons driveway at N Ivy Street. As you can see below, left-hooks will be an issue…

After a robust discussion about the merits of the design options on the table, the SAC voted to adopt this new design from PBOT. With that out of the way, the discussion turned to implementation.

PBOT project manager Rich Newlands explained that the $250,000 allocated for this project is nowhere near enough to fully fund the recommendation (which also includes money for an “honoring history” component and work on making N Rodney a neighborhood greenway). Newlands estimated that he believes $1 million is needed to complete the project. Since that funding does not currently exist, Newlands said the City has already begun to apply for a grant through the federal Transportation Enhancement program.

Whether PBOT gets the TE grant or not, construction of this project won’t start until summer of next year.

One unknown is how the Bikes Belong Green Lane Project initiative might impact this project. Portland has been chosen as one of six cities to receive support from Bikes Belong as part of the program and a recent press release confirmed that the Williams Ave. project would be one of the projects PBOT would focus on.

Funding and implementation aside, what matters now is that a design has been agreed on and — except for working out a few small design details — the public process is over.

It has been a very long and arduous road to this point. This is my 38th post on this project and I have to say this has been one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever worked on. While I have a range of opinions about how this has played out, I want to share my extreme gratitude for the citizens who volunteered to work on this project and to PBOT for their patience and flexibility. There will still be more to report in the months ahead, but the heavy-lifting of the public process is done.

Throughout this coverage your comments have played a key role in shaping the conversation. Thank you.

CORRECTION: When originally published, I said that level of service guidelines are “federally mandated.” That is incorrect. For more information about this issue, see this comment.