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Opinion: Another death on Barbur

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Another person died early this morning while traveling on SW Barbur Blvd.

According to the Portland Police, a 27-year-old man was driving at a “very high rate of speed” when he lost control of his car (a Prius), crossed the centerline, demolished a bus shelter on the opposite sidewalk, hit a building, then smashed into a car parked in a lot. (More coverage from KGW and KATU).

This has become a depressingly regular occurrence on Barbur, a road that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) insists on managing like a freeway, even though it’s a neighborhood main street for many business owners and residents who walk, bike, and drive on it every day.

— Back in August, 20-year-old Henry Schmidt was seriously injured after a woman hit him while he walked on the shoulder of Barbur Blvd.

— In May of this year, just a mile or so north of this morning’s fatality, 45-year-old Lance Marcus died after losing control of his car. He too was traveling at a “high rate of speed.”

— In October 2011, 25-year-old Nisha Rana died in a single-vehicle traffic crash just a few blocks away from the Marcus fatality. Police again said she lost control of her car after driving “at a very high rate of speed.”

— And who can forget December 2010 when Angela Burke was hit and killed while walking her bike across Barbur by a young man who was, you guessed it, driving way too fast.

Yet despite this continued carnage, our elected leaders at City Hall have delayed action on a solution that is guaranteed to save lives. It’s just basic common sense that roadway design has a major impact on how people drive. Wide, multi-lane roads with few traffic signals or other reasons to slow down practically beg for high-risk behavior. In the case of Barbur, there’s an idea on the table to reconfigure the lanes in a way that would encourage safer driving. All that’s missing is the political urgency to move it forward.

How long will Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick, Mayor Charlies Hales, and other members of City Council wait until they take clear steps to move forward on a re-design of Barbur Blvd?

So far, Novick has made it very clear that he doesn’t want to offend his “regional partners” or local freight interests — both of whom fear even the mere suggestion that they might have to slow down a few miles per hour for a few minutes of their day.

All Novick has committed to so far is to allow PBOT staff to work on a Barbur traffic study as part of an ODOT-led project that’s not scheduled to begin until early 2014. Not only will that study take place during a major construction project (far from real-world conditions), but why should we trust ODOT, an agency that has repeatedly dismissed calls for change on Barbur and who has played fast-and-loose with existing data?

The design of Barbur Blvd is a ticking time bomb. It’s an embarrassment to everyone who cares about a livable city and it’s partly responsible for the death and serious injury of far too many Portlanders. There seems to be no reason other than politics and power struggles to explain why PBOT won’t initiate a traffic study immediately. They do traffic studies all the time and they’re only as controversial as we allow them to be.

What makes this lack of urgency even harder to understand is that three of five members of our City Council live in southwest Portland: Commissioner Dan Saltzman (who lives just one block off of Barbur), Commissioner Novick, and Commissioner Amanda Fritz. This is their neighborhood street.

Perhaps, since no one on City Council has been on a bicycle on Barbur Blvd, they don’t fully appreciate the sense of urgency shared by many neighborhood and transportation advocates. On that note, Novick made some interesting remarks at the Council hearing last week (emphases mine):

“As southwest resident, I constantly need to be reminded that there are transportation problems in southwest because I live a four block walk from Multnomah Village town center and there’s one bus that runs one block from my house and another bus five blocks away. So to me, transportation in southwest is just all perfectly fine. So I appreciate frequent reminders from other people that aren’t quite so lucky.”

I’m sure another death wasn’t the frequent reminder Novick had in mind; but all too often in Portland it takes the loss of life for City Council to swing into action. Novick and Hales showed up with immediate solutions when a young girl died in East Portland due (in part) to a notoriously dangerous road design issue. And we all saw how quickly Novick responded with suicide barriers when he couldn’t stand any more death on the Vista Bridge.

The uncomfortable truth is that many Portlanders who use Barbur every day aren’t as lucky as Commissioner Novick. The question is, when will the next person’s luck run out and how long will we gamble with their lives?

— You can contact Commissioner Novick via his website. Read more of our Barbur Blvd coverage here.