Mayor Hales and his interim PBOT Director Toby Widmer are on the hot seat this morning for their decision to make paving a higher priority than safety. The City’s budget plan to “realign” $7.15 million in PBOT funds — $1.2 million of which would come from an already planned sidewalk project on SE 136th Ave — was immediately controversial when it was announced last week. And that was before last night when a five-year-old girl was tragically killed just blocks away from where that new sidewalk was slated to go.
“Repaving streets is absolutely important for this city, but let’s not fix potholes at the expense of children’s safety and accessibility for people with disabilities.”
— Stephanie Routh, Oregon Walks
According to the Portland Police, around 7:00 pm last night Morgan Maynard-Cook was visiting a friend across the street from her home on SE 136th. She was on the east side of 136th. Her home is on the west side of the street at the corner of 136th and Harold (map). When ready to come home, she went to cross 136th after a northbound car slowed to let her cross. She then left the grasp of the person she was walking with, ran out and was struck by a 69-year old woman driving a car in the opposite lane. Maynard-Cook died on the way to the hospital.
There are no sidewalks on either side of 136th in this location. The posted speed limit is 35 mph (a speed that results in a fatality in 65% of collisions, whereas a speed of 20 mph comes with 0% chance of fatality).
This summer, PBOT was planning to build a sidewalk on the east side of 136th between SE Powell and Holgate, just 0.4 miles north of where Maynard-Cook was hit. While technically, the money PBOT — under the direction of Mayor Hales — is proposing to “realign” for paving would not have built a sidewalk in the location of this tragedy, last night’s news will weigh heavily on Hales’ mind as he ponders the budget. Especially since, according a police spokesman I spoke with this morning, Hales visited the scene last night just minutes after police arrived.
Not surprisingly, the mayor is already hearing from the public about the lack of sidewalks in this area.
KGW-TV’s story last night mentioned that Maynard-Cook’s mom, “said the neighborhood has no sidewalks, no crosswalks and lots of children trying to walk around in those conditions.” (Incidentally, an ad before the KGW online video was for a new Honda that comes with SMS texting in the dashboard.)
Executive Director of Oregon Walks Stephanie Routh released a statement this morning that said, “Proposing to cut a long-awaited basic sidewalk project in Portland’s poorest neighborhood and severely cutting funding for ADA access [another proposal from Hales/Widmer] is not in keeping with the city’s stated commitment to equity… Repaving streets is absolutely important for this city, but let’s not fix potholes at the expense of children’s safety and accessibility for people with disabilities.”
Former Mayor Sam Adams was not shy about saying his top transportation priority was safety. PBOT staffers had even started calling him “our traffic safety mayor.” And Adams put money where his mouth is by allocating $16 million to sidewalks in east and southwest Portland. Mayor Hales, looking to differentiate himself from Adams (perhaps more for politics than policy), has made it clear paving is Job #1.
Paving and maintenance is important. But it must be funding in a very careful balance with system improvements that will make people safer.
No one has ever died because of a pothole or a rough road. (UPDATE That’s not true and it was a mistake to write it.)
Would a sidewalk have prevented last night’s tragedy? Of course we can’t say for sure. But as someone with three young children myself, I can say from experience that the presence of sidewalks and curbs matters. Curbs are an important physical feature that communicates something to kids even before they can speak. When my almost two-year-old comes to a curb, he knows a street with dangers lies ahead.
When I asked Mayor Hales about PBOT’s proposal to “realign” this sidewalk money for paving, he distanced himself from the decision. “It’s a bureau budget. It’s just a starting point.” Asked if the sidewalk funding cut would be adopted into the final budget, Hales said, “I’d say it’s about 50/50.”
After last night, I have no doubt those percentages have changed.
UPDATE 11:52 am: Statement from Mayor Hales just released:
“My heart goes out to the family of Morgan. As a parent, I can find no words that are sufficient to describe this horrible occurrence.
My thoughts also are with the Portland Police officers who responded last night. Each of them has family, too, and each is affected by such tragedies in different ways.
Safety throughout the city has to be our first priority. I have been at work fewer than 60 days, and so far the city of Portland has experienced eight automobile-related fatalities, four of which were pedestrian deaths.
There has been a lot of talk of late about paving streets, and about sidewalks and crosswalks throughout our city. There has been a lot of talk about the backlog of projects, and about how to pay for these core responsibilities. As always, public safety has to be our North Star, guiding all of our decisions in every part of the city.
We will work through these decisions together, as involved citizens, as elected officials, as city employees, as residents of Portland, and as people who are holding our families a little bit tighter today.”