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The Oregonian’s unfortunate letters about Hawthorne bike counter – UPDATED

Posted by on March 20th, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Public opinion not based on facts.

The Oregonian published two letters in today’s paper that allow a falsehood to go unchecked and that further perpetuate the incorrect notion harbored by many readers of that publication that bike-related spending by the City of Portland is both bad policy and out of control (neither of which are true of course).

The letters came in response to a story about the Hawthorne Bike bike counter that ran online on Sunday (3/17) and also ran in Monday’s print edition (page A6).

The online version of the story, Portland bike counter: Nudging 1 million trips over the Hawthorne Bridge, mentioned “the city’s $20,000 bike counter,” in the opening lines. Much lower down, in a “quick facts” section of the story, the reporter noted (correctly) that the counter was “donated to the city by Cycle Oregon.”

The print version of the story also included the $20,000 figure; but it failed to mention it was donated. Then the letters came.

Under The Oregonian’s heading of “Bike Count Price Tag” the two letters read:

“I was so happy to read that we have a bike counter on the Hawthorne Bridge. It only cost $20,000. What a bargain for a city with not cash available.
— Janet Smith, North Portland”

“Portland, the City of Leeches. A bicycle counter on the Hawthorne Bridge cost $20,000? Give me a break.
— Marilyn Peterson, Southeast Portland”

Those were the only two letters published about the bike counter story. And both were published without a response from Letters Editor Nora Simon.

I emailed Simon to ask why she allowed the falsehood to be published without a response. She said, “We don’t typically write editor’s notes with letters, but we do publish subsequent responses if readers take issue with a letter writer’s point of view.”

Simon then pointed out how the letter writers were likely confused because the print version didn’t mention the source of the $20,000. Simon acknowledged that, “In retrospect, the letters do imply that the city purchased the bike counter, which is incorrect.” She also apologized for overlooking this “important piece of information” and encouraged me to pen a letter of my own in response to help set the record straight.

I realize this isn’t a huge deal and there are more important things in the world than two letters in The Oregonian and an unfortunate oversight by an editor. But bicycling has been fighting a negative reputation in this town — fostered in large part by unfair reporting in The Oregonian — for far too long. In this specific case, PBOT likely worked the private donation angle specifically to avoid this type of non-troversy from happening.

I’m all for a debate; but it would help immensely if the facts were as reliable — and visible — as bike traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge.

UPDATE, 3/21: The Oregonian has published a correction on page A2 of today’s paper as well as a note to the letters online. Here’s the note:

Editor’s note: The bicycle counter at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge was donated by Cycle Oregon. A story in Monday’s print edition of The Oregonian did not include that fact, though it was stated in the online version of the story that appeared Sunday.

And here’s what ran on A2 in the paper today:

The bicycle counter at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge was donated by Cycle Oregon. A story in Monday’s Metro section inadvertently omitted that fact.

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  • Anne Hawley March 20, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    I hope you do write some kind of clarifying letter, Jonathan. It’s a shame, because when the counter was first installed, all reports on it that I saw heavily emphasized the word “donated” and really tried to head this kind of public misperception problem off at the pass.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement Anne. But I don’t plan to write the letter. I’d rather not enter into a game with rules set by an organization that I do not fully trust. I like The Oregonian. I value its work and role in our community tremendously. I do not like it’s editorial slant and I don’t agree with the transportation perspectives of its owners/publishers.

      This is an admitted mistake by the letters editor. Mistakes happen. If I write a letter the issue is reduced to he said/she said and looks simply like a bike advocate arguing a side. This is not a debate. Those folks are simply wrong and misinformed in part because of a mistake made by The Oregonian.

      What I’d like to see is a correction in tomorrow’s paper pointing out that the 3/18 story on the bike counter omitted a key piece of information and should have included the fact that the counter was 100% donated by a non-profit group independent of the City of Portland.

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      • Matt March 20, 2013 at 12:47 pm

        I think you’re being overly generous in calling it a mistake. And she’ll ask you to set the record straight? Seriously? I think that shows you right there how concerned she is about the “mistake.” There were 2-3 letters the other day that, although on other topics, included erroneous pot shots at cycling. I’m sorry Jonathan – this is no mistake.

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      • Tony March 20, 2013 at 12:47 pm

        My wife won’t let me cancel the O, but I find reading the Letters is a great way to get the heart rate up prior to the commute in.

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        • dwainedibbly March 20, 2013 at 1:20 pm

          Time to cancel the wife, then.

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          • Tony March 20, 2013 at 1:46 pm

            OUCH… I think she’s probably got a longer list on me, truthfully. 😉

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          • dan March 20, 2013 at 1:50 pm

            5 recommends for canceling the wife? Dood, wives kick ass – are you all bachelors or something? That would be like selling your custom ti bike because you don’t like the paint color.

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            • dwainedibbly March 20, 2013 at 5:20 pm

              I should have added a 🙂 to my original reply.

              “Love is grand. Divorce is a hundred grand.” –Mrs Dibbly

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      • Matthew Smith March 20, 2013 at 12:52 pm

        Sent to Oregonian:

        In response to the letter writers who expressed great umbrage that the bicycle counter on the Hawthorne Bridge cost $20,000, I must point out that the counter was donated to the city by Cycle Oregon, and cost the City of Portland nothing. The original article does point this out several paragraphs after stating the cost. The Oregonian does a disservice to their readers and to all citizens by continuing to print articles and letters that pit cars against other forms of transportation.

        Matthew Smith

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        • annefi March 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm

          I thought your letter had a good chance of being printed (it’s REALLY hard to get a letter printed in The Oregonian) until I got to the end where you said, “The Oregonian does a disservice to their readers and to all citizens by continuing to print articles and letters that pit cars against other forms of transportation.”
          I agree with the statement but I think it’s unlikely that The O would print a letter critical of them. Too bad.

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      • daisy March 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm

        The reporter and editor made the first mistake by not including this information (I’m wondering if they added it to the online version later on, after all the negative comments). I’m not sure the letters editor made a mistake. Is it really her job to double-check every criticism?

        It definitely should be on the Oregonian to publish a correction/update in the print paper.

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        • Andrew K March 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

          “I’m not sure the letters editor made a mistake. Is it really her job to double-check every criticism?”

          YES!! That is what an editor does. It’s not like the Oregonian prints that many reader letters to begin with.

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          • 9watts March 20, 2013 at 1:47 pm

            It is even worse that that.
            Note that the title above the letters (Bike count price tag) is supplied by the Oregonian, and not by the letter writers.
            It is hard to see how–if they were on top of this–they wouldn’t have seen fit to set the record straight right then and there. Otherwise what is preventing any reader from writing in whatever nonsense they please and getting the Oregonian to dignify the nonsense with a made up title?
            Come to think of it, that is pretty much what happens in the online comments of the Oregonian. So, never mind.

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      • Dave B March 23, 2013 at 9:24 am

        This isn’t just about the Oregonian’s lame response (not by the publisher but the Letter’s editor) to sloppy reporting (failing to include info that the counter was donated). As you observe it’s part of the Oregonian’s much more pervasive policy of reprinting obvious falsehoods in news stories, as well as Letters, in the name of “reporting what people said” and being “fair and balanced”.

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  • D March 20, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    So the editor essentially admitted that the paper will publish falsehoods because, hey, someone else can always write a follow-up letter? What other incorrect “facts” would the Oregonian allow on its pages?

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    • Case March 20, 2013 at 4:12 pm

      The Foxegonian: We report, you decide.

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  • Gerik March 20, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Call a spade a spade. Thanks, Jonathan.

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  • Craig March 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    what is even more ironic is that is was donated by a non-profit that gets most of(if not all) its revenue from cyclists.

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    • lyle w. March 21, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      Well, maybe Exxon/Mobile or Jenny Craig/Weightwatchers can donate a gallons used/ calories not burned counter on the CRC, and we can all pile on with letters-to-the-editor when whatever news story they inevitably come up with about it gets written.

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  • Top Scientist March 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Hats off to Matthew Smith for writing the response — there’s nothing tit-for-tat about a legit correction. Besides, if we bike advocates, I mean better-world advocates, don’t counter these “mistaken” leaks of rhetoric, who will?

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  • JNE March 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Bikes will be rolling across the Hawthorne Bridge for many decades and after the Oregonian is long gone.

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  • Ross Williams March 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Rather than a defensive letter, I think it would be a good idea to get a response from Cycle Oregon defending their donation and why they thought it was important.

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    • Matt March 20, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      Agree. I wrote Cycle Oregon an email (info@cycleoregon.com) encouraging them to write The Oregonian.

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  • Joe March 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    I really feel that paper has negative relations in regards to cyclists, breeds the fuel for some of these bike haters. just my 2 cents.

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  • Andrew K March 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    This might be a small example, but it is most certainly a symptom of a larger issue with organizations like the Oregonian. Their bike reporting is not the only thing I have noticed where certain facts get “omitted” quite often.

    Most of the time it is clearly the paper just throwing red meat out into the world to get everyone, no matter what their position, riled up. Maybe that’s good for their bottom line but it is dangerous to the public discourse and certainly doesn’t help improve the state of Oregon.

    Throwing up their hands and saying “oh well anyone is welcome to write an opinion letter” is just crap. Even opinions need some basis in fact, otherwise they are meaningless.

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    • oliver March 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      Like despite that shock horror we’ll never have any money for paving ever again ever(thanks B Slovic!) because someone striped a bike lane somewhere, you currently (and quite literally) cannot drive across any neighborhood in this city without running into road construction.

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  • dan March 20, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Well, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

    By my count, we’re at stage 3, right?

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  • Jayson March 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I’m surprised people still read that thing. I just set a google alerts on words or phrases I want to keep up with. Never are any of my interests ONLY carried by the Oregonian. It’s pretty easy to shut that rag out of one’s life.

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  • spare_wheel March 20, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    the oregonian falsely suggested that the new counter was payed for by the city. editorial staff then selected letters for publication and crafted an erroneous headline to inflame the public. imo, every part of this scenario was intentional. but then again what else could one expect from a rag 100% owned by conservative billionaires.

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  • Brian E March 20, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    What’s all this talk about a Bike Count on the Hawthorne bridge. My God, what is this City coming to. It certainly is a bargain for $20,000. What are we going to do if more of those bicyclist become Counts? Who is going to pay their taxes?

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  • 9watts March 20, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    If they print a letter pointing out the error, chances are that they’ll also print a letter suggesting that bikers pay for the counter….

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  • Ted Buehler March 20, 2013 at 2:30 pm
  • Bjorn March 20, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Does anyone actually believe this is a mistake? Just more tabloid journalism by the Weekly World Oregonian.

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  • GlowBoy March 20, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Typical Oregonian BS reflecting the values of its Orange County leadership, and the desire to provoke rather than inform. Not unlike the other day’s headline about how the number of Liberal Arts majors in this city is somehow dragging down wages and decrying that college educated males here work only 1900 hours a year instead of 2000.

    I’ve been in Portland for the better part of two decades, and the O’s sleaziness was in full force even back in the Nineties. It does seem to have gotten worse under the current leadership, though.

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  • David March 20, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Here’s my letter to the editor that I just sent off:

    “The $20,000 for the bike counters on the Hawthorne Bridge was donated. In America, individuals are allowed to spend their money however they see fit, including on rain-resistant electronics.”

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  • Allan L March 20, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    It’s a bargain, anyhow. It not only counts bicycles, it also counts pedestrians. As bicycles.

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    • wsbob March 20, 2013 at 11:55 pm

      About the counter distinguishing bikes from everything else that may be using the bridge MUP, if you read the online story, here’s a possibly helpful excerpt:

      “…How does it work?

      The one here uses pneumatic tubes on both sides of the bridge that send a pulse via radio frequency to the counter. The tubes are calibrated to read the pressure of bike tires — not pedestrians, skateboards, pet pygmy goats or anything else that might cross the bridge. …” haberman/oregonian

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  • Zaphod March 20, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    The bike counter is an excellent asset that collects data that can be used for just about anything where knowing ride counts would be valuable. And every car commuter who finds a parking spot without difficulty might enjoy the 4 digit numbers of people not in cars fighting for their parking spot or place in line waiting for a light to turn green. There’s symbolic power in it too. It’s very high value. And the fact that it’s donated makes it even better.

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  • GlowBoy March 20, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    My letter:
    “I’m surprised that recent letters decrying the $20,000 Hawthorne Bridge bike counter did not make the usual knee-jerk demand that cyclists pay for it.
    “As it happens, cyclists did pay for it! The counter was donated by Cycle Oregon, and cost the taxpayers nothing.”

    In the interest of brevity, I decided not to point out the additional irony that Cycle Oregon (the donor of this amenity so vilified by the Oregonian) is itself sponsored by the Oregonian. So while no taxpayer money went to the purchase of this counter, a small amount of subscriber money may have.

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  • jeremy March 20, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I also think anyone that buys that this was a “mistake” is being too generous with the O. A tiny percentage of letters get published, and it IS her job to vet those letters for truth. I suppose it is too much to ask the editors to actually read their own paper? What a crappy paper. From now on I won’t even let my dog pee on it.

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  • Matt March 20, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    For what it’s worth I just sent the O this letter to the “editor”:

    To the editors:

    For you to print two letters, one from Janet Smith and the other from Marilyn Peterson, that suggest the City of Portland paid $20,000 for the Hawthorne Bridge bike counter when you know good and well it was a gift to the City from Cycle Oregon is at a minimum bad journalism. But more than that, it reveals the levels to which you will slink in order to put forth your anti-bike drivel. You have printed lies and falsehoods regarding cycling and how it relates to the City’s financing for long enough. It seems now you’ve sunk to the level of letting ill-informed citizens promote your anti-bike myths while you can sit back and claim that you are merely putting forth others’ opinions. Nonsense!

    Feel free to copy, paste, edit and send!

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  • Librarian March 20, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    The Oregonian’s propagation of the “cars vs. bikes” false dichotomy, and Beth Slovic’s article on paving specifically, is why we canceled our subscription after talking about it for a long time. And we remind the salespeople of that every time they call — “No, it’s not about the price, it’s about the quality of your reporting.” I know they can’t do anything about the quality personally, but maybe someday an editor will take the hint.

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  • Charley March 20, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    Here’s my letter:

    Dear Editor,

    Recently, an Oregonian article implied that the City of Portland paid $20,000 for a bike counter on the Hawthorne Bridge. That’s false. The counter was donated by Cycle Oregon. The Oregonian then compounded the misinformation by publishing two letters to the editor about the counter, both of which complained that the city should not be spending $20,000 on a bike counter. Please consider the public trust invested in our community’s newspaper of record: lies diminish your standing in our community. Clearly, the Oregonian should publish a correction.

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  • shirtsoff March 20, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    This reminds me of a news outlet permitting anti-Semitic rants and then responding that people are free to submit a rebuttal. Of course that wouldn’t fly. The Oregonion should hold themselves to a higher stand than to publish misinformation that will lead to scapegoating.

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  • wsbob March 21, 2013 at 12:54 am

    “…I emailed Simon to ask why she allowed the falsehood to be published without a response. She said, “We don’t typically write editor’s notes with letters, but we do publish subsequent responses if readers take issue with a letter writer’s point of view.” …” maus/bikeportland

    Check with a chief editor at the paper. Letters Editor Nora Simon may be wrong about the Oregonian’s editorial policy on this point. Don’t want to say for sure, but I think I’ve seen op/ed page reader letters on occasion have editor’s notes accompanying them…for purposes of clarification, which is what a note explaining where the money for the bike counter came from, would have been.

    Subsequent reader letters published, that take issue with points of view expressed in previously published reader letters? Sure…that corresponds with what I typically and regularly see on the op/ed page of the O, but no such counterpointing from the O’s letters editor.

    The writers of the two featured letters published in the Oregonian, rather than having been confused, seem to simply have assumed the money for the counter came from the city coffers, even though the print version did not explain where the money came from. These reader letters of dubious quality, coupled with the fact that the letters editor of the paper…and whoever else supposedly knowledgeable at the paper didn’t catch their erroneous assumption before the letters actually went to print, is kind of pathetic.

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    • JRB March 21, 2013 at 9:01 am

      I agree. What makes this pathetic is that the editor defended the poor decision to publish the letters by characterizing an easily demonstrable falsehood “as a difference of opinion.” Who paid for the bike counter is a matter of fact, not opinion. People of integrity admit their mistakes and try to make amends. I have never seen anyone at the Oregonian admit to a mistake when it came to their cycling coverage.

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  • Jeff Bernards March 21, 2013 at 6:17 am

    It’s amazing the Oregonian has to resort to “planting” stories to keep it’s readers engaged. There’s enough “real” news to report, like climate change, that truly affect people’s lives, that are worthy of reporting. The news media business model is broken, I don’t see this as any kind of fix. I’m leaning towards canceling the paper and I’ve been a longtime defender. But this really crosses the line between news and agenda promotion.
    I’ll be looking for the Oregonian to “report” on it’s “mistake”!

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    • El Biciclero March 21, 2013 at 9:37 am

      “It’s amazing the Oregonian has to resort to “planting” stories to keep it’s readers enraged.”

      There, fixed it.

      Problem is that “just the facts” are BO-ringgggg! and require an attention span of >20 seconds. Just as TV “news” is nothing more than another show designed to sell advertising, “news”papers seem to be entertainment publications designed to do the same thing. You get what you pay for, I guess.

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  • Tony March 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Pretty weak correction if you ask me…

    Damage is done and I don’t know how “honest” a mistake it was.

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  • A.K. March 21, 2013 at 10:01 am

    I read the Oregonian’s website with AdBlock plus turned on, and I feel really good about that.

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  • jim March 21, 2013 at 10:57 am

    When you say 100% donated, does that mean that the city did not use its crews to install the sign, power….

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  • Rick Houston March 21, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Jon, Local papers are in a battle for their very lives, and their writing (or omitting) something that encourages page views–like this–is becoming more and more common; if you read our paper (the Sacramento Bee), it’s all about Gays, Criminals, Taxes, the Economy, and Immigration. Which means, like you, I don’t play in their sandbox any more: too predicable, and I hate being manipulated.

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    • lyle w. March 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm

      It’s also a pretty good road-map to a paper’s readership to look at the user comments online to any particular story. In the case of the Oregonian, particularly with anything societal or political, the comments skew heavily towards the far right. A fact the editors and business operations are surely aware of and manage stories knowing.

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  • Todd Boulanger March 21, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Yes too bad The Oregonian editors edited the donation information out of the print edition…perhaps to get more traffic on its comments pages.

    Anyway…those same commenters would likely complain if it cost $2000. I guess they do not know how much the I-5 ODOT variable message signs cost or the embedded traffic counters they pass by each day on their commute from Clackamas/ Yamhill /Washington County etc.

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  • hroðberacht March 21, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    This is an outrage! $20,000 for a couple of tiny signs that you’d have to stop and get out to even read?? I don’t care where the money came from… that is money that could have been better spent on nearly TWO FEET of urban freeway or an inch and a half of the CRC!

    City of Leaches, indeed, Marilyn! Fat single-minded bloodsuckers everywhere you look. Subsidized gasoline, subsidized parking, freedom to pollute the air and water, a society and justice system that typically assumes fault on the victims of vehicular assault…

    Not to mention ignorant, misplaced outrage.

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  • bjorn March 23, 2013 at 12:07 am

    I know many letters have been written but so far still crickets over at the oregonian…

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  • bjorn March 25, 2013 at 1:02 am

    We know letters have been written, but so far I still don’t see any effort at correction by the Oregonian, either through an out and out retraction or by way of printing one of the many letters to the editor that have been submitted pointing out their error.

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