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Barbur road diet addressed at Portland City Council meeting

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Novick in Council chambers yesterday.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

City Council took up a resolution yesterday to endorse the SW Corridor Plan, a regional planning effort to determine the best way to implement high-capacity transit through the Barbur Blvd corridor in southwest Portland. Thanks to a concerted push led by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance that included groups like Friends of Barbur, Oregon Walks, City Club of Portland and others, this hearing was pegged as an opportunity to speak up for two projects in the Corridor Plan that would study the impacts of a “lane diet” on SW Barbur Blvd. But transportation Commissioner Novick took some of the wind out of advocates’ sails when he addressed the road diet issue on his website Friday afternoon.

“I would suggest you amp up the level of urgency.”
— Chris Smith, citizen activist

Even though Novick took the official amendment to study the Barbur road diet proposal off the table and the Barbur road diet played a relatively minor official role, the hearing still offered some important takeaways to keep in mind in the coming months…

ODOT was a no-show
No staff from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) attended the hearing. This is interesting given the fact that ODOT is one of three official partners on the plan. Both Metro and TriMet — the other two transportation agency partners — had staff members that gave presentations and were available for questions. Not only is ODOT a SW Corridor Plan partner, they also own and manage SW Barbur Blvd — the road that’s at the center of the entire discussion.

City of Portland Freight Advisory Committee objects to the road diet concept
We’ve heard from ODOT Region 1 Manager Jason Tell that the idea of re-striping lanes on Barbur to create space for bike lanes comes with “strong objections from stakeholders.” However, despite our requests, ODOT has still not shared with us who these stakeholders are. Yesterday at Council, Commissioner Novick shared one of them: the City of Portland’s Freight Advisory Committee. Novick mentioned that he received a letter from that group on Tuesday that detailed their opposition (we have the letter and will share more in a separate post).

Key activists aren’t gung-ho about a road diet
Two highly respected southwest Portland neighborhood activists seemed cool on the road diet idea. Southwest Neighborhoods Inc President Marianne Fitzgerald said her group “doesn’t have a position” on the road diet and only asked for a study. Don Baack, the president of Southwest Trails and an ardent supporter of biking and walking in the area, said he’s “very ambivalent” about the road diet. He told Mayor Hales and council members that, “The road diet might not be the answer” because of possible impacts from traffic diversion onto adjacent neighborhood streets. Baack also called out the need for “really good data” before moving forward.

The BTA brought signs.

Advocates heap praise on Novick
Nearly every advocate that testified (as per instructions from the BTA) gave profuse thanks to Commissioner Novick for his decision to study road diet impacts during ODOT’s upcoming bridge repair project (set for “early 2014”). This thanks came despite the fact that very little is known about the nature of the promised study, what role PBOT staff would take in it, when exactly it will start, whether Metro would be involved or not, what (if any) public transparency there would be, and so on.

Chris Smith asks for more urgency, shorter timetable
While the BTA (and others) declared “victory” and offered “profound thanks” to Novick for committing to a vaguely defined study, Chris Smith (a respected citizen activist who also happens to sit on the City’s Planning and Sustainability Commission) offered a detailed course of action and said PBOT should take a more aggressive stance. Smith, who rides Barbur regularly in the location where road diet is proposed, said for Barbur to to live up to its potential, PBOT should take ownership of road away from ODOT.

“Today, ODOT manages Barbur like an overflow valve for I-5,” Smith testified, “I see that akin to setting parking requirements the day after Thanksgiving and having all that capacity unused the rest of the year. We’re doing the same thing with Barbur’s potential as a community place.”

Smith also urged City Council to speed up their timeframe on the road diet study and implementation. “I would suggest you amp up the level of urgency,” he testified. Instead of waiting for ODOT’s bridge repair project to do the study (as Novick wants to do), Smith said the study should start right away and then, “We should have our plan figured out by then and the ODOT construction project should be the opportunity to implement whatever striping we decide is best for the community.”

Amanda Fritz didn’t like receiving 667 emails
Commissioner Fritz said that she has received 667 emails in favor of the Barbur road diet and study (she also Tweeted about it here and here). She expressed that the volume of emails was “really hard” to deal with and that trying to wade through all of them makes it “very difficult” for her to respond to other important constituent concerns (she usually gets about 50 emails a day). Given the flood of emails she received, she couldn’t reply to them all, so she decided to “defer to the Commissioner in charge [of transportation]” on the Barbur topic. In the future, Fritz would rather get one email that includes a petition with many signatures. (On that note, Friends of Barbur volunteer Kiel Johnson delivered a petition with 503 signatures during his testimony yesterday. “A road modernization project would be the quickest, easiest and most cost-effective way to make Barbur safe for everyone,” he said, “Paint is much cheaper than hospital beds and funerals.”)

While there wasn’t any official movement toward the Barbur road diet proposal at Council yesterday, all the council members heard testimony about the urgent need for safer biking conditions. Also worth noting was that, prior to the final vote on the Corridor Plan, Novick was asked by Commissioner Fish to clarify his stance and timeline on the road diet proposal. “That’s something I’m committed to doing in the coming months,” Novick replied, “and I think the fact that ODOT is doing some work… that will give us some helpful data.”

Then, Novick offered a reality-check for people who want to see the road diet move forward. “Everybody should understand that just as there are people who people passionately in favor of a road diet, there are also people who are concerned about it.”

— Read our complete coverage of Barbur Blvd here.