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As pressure mounts, ODOT punts on Barbur Blvd road diet

ODOT’s Jessica Horning at the
bike advisory committee meeting last week.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Pressure is mounting for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to consider a road diet on SW Barbur Blvd but the agency seems unwilling to even seriously consider the idea. Neighborhood activists, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and a growing list of advocacy groups and organizations want Barbur to have safer and more pleasant bike access and they feel now is the time to do it. ODOT is about to spend $5 million to rehabilitate two bridge structures on Barbur (at Vermont and Newbury streets), but current plans call for no significant bike access improvements.

ODOT’s Region 1 Transit and Active Transportation Liaison Jessica Horning (read our profile of her when she was hired in November) and their bike/ped coordinator Basil Christopher presented the project to the PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee last week.

Barbur has four lanes and standard-width bike lanes for most of its length. Auto speeds average about 55 mph, so bicycling is unpleasant and only for the strong and fearless. At the Vermont and Newbury bridges, conditions get even worse as the bike lanes suddenly drop and the road narrows. At the BAC meeting last week, ODOT showed a proposal that would increase the width of the existing sidewalk and heighten the railing on the west (southbound) side. That side is slightly uphill, so ODOT feels like widening the sidewalk from three to five feet would allow some people to bike up onto it and get out of the road.

That tiny change is the only thing being proposed by ODOT in this project. Not surprisingly, BAC members were not impressed.

One idea for Barbur, created by the BTA.

There is support from community activists and others to make larger changes. Specifically, many people want ODOT to consider re-allocating space to create room for a wider, protected bike lane.

On December 24th the BTA published a blog post by SW Portland activist and BTA volunteer Keith Liden titled, Imagine a Pedestrian and Bicycle Friendly Barbur Boulevard. In making the case for a Barbur road diet, Liden wrote:

“Barbur Boulevard has enormous potential to be a primary bicycle route between downtown and southwest Portland because it is the most direct route with a moderate grade. Enhancing the existing bike lanes and providing bike lanes on the Newbury and Vermont bridges would remove the primary obstacles to bicycling on this important route.”

Just yesterday, the BTA published a letter of support for the road diet from Lewis & Clark College Sustainability Council.

But ODOT reps say there’s no funding for such ideas, that a road diet would require lengthy public process and further analysis and it would be outside the scope of their bridge rehab project. Instead, says Jessica Horning, the place to discuss the road diet idea is in Metro’s SW Corridor planning process. But while advocates are pushing for changes in the short-term, the SW Corridor plan is a visioning process that isn’t expected to result in concrete projects for 10-20 years (if ever).

When Horning asked the BAC for feedback on the project as it stands today (with only the sidewalk widened by two feet), committee member Matt Arnold said, “I don’t know that your proposed improvements mean anything for bikes. Widen the sidewalk and call it a pedestrian improvement. Sure, go ahead; but don’t call it a bike improvement. We wouldn’t support them because there are no real improvements. We have to start looking at some of these other options.”

BAC Chair Ian Stude also supports doing something now. He told Horning that, “The idea of delaying is not appealing,” and used the example of the recently completed NE Multnomah project in the Lloyd District. That project was completed quickly, and without a lengthy public process.

Support for a road diet on Barbur also came in from City of Portland Planning Commissioner and PortlandTransport.com founder Chris Smith. Speaking as a concerned citizen and not in an official capacity, he told the committee, “I ride this corridor about once every two weeks and I would very much support the road diet.”

In response to an inquiry about a road diet by Keith Liden in 2011, ODOT said (among other things) that their 2035 traffic projections show they need all four auto lanes in order to handle future traffic demand. But Smith pointed out that the City’s planning goals foresee an opposite future. “The City’s Climate Action Plan and the Portland Plan aspire to a dramatic lowering of vehicle miles traveled,” he said, “And the regional vehicle miles traveled is already declining. I’d like us to build what we aspire to, not to what we’re afraid of.”

Even a Portland Bureau of Transportation staffer piled onto ODOT’s reluctance to consider a road diet. City Bike Coordinator Roger Geller said he’d never even considered a road diet on Barbur until recently, “But it should have been obvious.” Geller went on to say he’s heard from an ODOT traffic engineer that they are concerned how a road diet might impact emergency evacuation routes. “He also noted that there’s been no bike crashes on this section so he appears to be saying this is a safe road,” Geller added, “I just wonder what the philosophy is at ODOT around this.”

Then Geller made ODOT a somewhat bold proposition. “Why don’t you guys put forward a road diet proposal and then give us the money to do the analysis for you? We’ve got a lot more experience than ODOT at doing road diets.” Geller said an analysis would only cost about $2,000. “I think the idea of waiting for the SW Corridor project as a way to analyze the whole corridor is missing the most important point… That those bridges are terrifying. It [a road diet] just seems like such a simple opportunity to improve conditions dramatically.”

Even with all this support for taking a more serious look at doing a road diet, Horning, the ODOT rep, didn’t budge. She continued to refer the discussion to the SW Corridor process. In a follow up email after the meeting, she wrote,

“We think it makes more sense to consider a road diet, or any other major changes to the corridor, as part of the corridor planning process we are already underway with. The Vermont/Newbury Bridges project has provided a good catalyst for this discussion, but it is a Bridge Preservation funded project to repair the bridges so that they are not weight restricted to TriMet buses, and the use of these funds is restricted to certain types of activities… I know there is frustration with the timeline, but I think that this is the most effective way to move a proposal like this forward and to determine what can be done both in the short and long term.”

For their part, the BAC drafted a letter to ODOT (PDF) which again urged them to take up the road diet idea. Here’s an excerpt (emphases mine):

“Given the scarcity of available, bicycle-friendly routes connecting Southwest Portland with the Central City and Northwest… the need for bicycle-appropriate safety improvements on these bridges is paramount… With its gentle grade and direct alignment, this segment of Barbur holds tremendous potential to be the premier bicycle route connecting downtown and Southwest Portland. It is critically important for ODOT to find an acceptable and comprehensive solution to the current safety issues now and not use the SW Corridor or other planning initiatives as a rationale to defer serious action until well into the future.

Therefore, the BAC strongly recommends that ODOT partner with the City of Portland to immediately conduct a full and modally balanced evaluation of a road diet between SW Hamilton and SW Miles. Then, should an analysis of a road diet indicate that dropping a travel lane would still allow the roadway to function properly, the two agencies should work together to design appropriate bicycle and pedestrian facilities that reflect the importance of this route for non-automotive transportation and that will accommodate the increase of bicycle and pedestrian travel expected for Portland’s future. Our committee would very much welcome the opportunity to be involved with such efforts.”

As behind-the-scenes talks continue on this road diet idea, one of the frustrations is simply ODOT’s reluctance to be flexible and creative when it comes to making Barbur work better for biking and walking. The historically auto-focused agency has made many statements lately that they’ve turned over a new leaf and now believe fully that the future means different decisions must be made about how we design roads. Their reluctance to embrace the Barbur road diet flies in the face of that rhetoric.

Stay tuned.

Questions and comments about this project can be emailed to ODOT Community Affairs Coordinator Jilayne Jordan via Jilayne.Jordan@odot.state.or.us.

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