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The Friday Profile: Jim Chasse, East Portland’s quiet, conquering bike warrior

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Jim Chasse became excited about bike transportation while working on the 2010 city bike plan and is part of the very successful East Portland Action Plan bicycle subcommittee.
(Photo M.Andersen/BikePortland)

When East Portland biking advocate Jim Chasse met the young state legislator who had just ousted incumbent Patrick Sheehan, he got right to the point.

“I told Shemia Fagan, ‘This is what we need: We need Powell Boulevard,'” Chasse recalled Thursday. “‘We need $80 million, $60 million. And if you can’t get it for us, we’re just going to fire you.'”

“I could see with the expanse of east Portland being built as a driving community, that bike transportation would really, really work well out here.”
— Jim Chasse, EPAPbike member

You don’t become one of the most effective transportation advocates in Portland by mincing words.

A soft-spoken, good-natured member of the East Portland Action Plan’s bicycle subcommittee and an East Portland homeowner (at 116th and Powell) since 1986, Chasse is part of a team of neighborhood activists who have, with the help of professional East Portland advocate Lore Wintergreen, finally unlocked a steady stream of money for biking and walking improvements east of Interstate 205.

Chasse’s personal secret might be that his enthusiasm for what better biking could bring to East Portland is so guilelessly earnest and so deeply felt.

“It just makes too much sense,” Chasse, 58, said in an interview at McMenamins Mall 205. “Yeah, light rail is great. And bus service is absolutely critical. But I mean, I quit driving.”

For Chasse, it wasn’t an option: he has a mild epilepsy. After a change in medications sent him into a seizure, he was forbidden to drive for six months. A bike became his main way of commuting to work at an auto shop in inner Southeast Portland.

But Chasse had come around to the benefits of biking earlier, while representing East Portland on the Bicycle Master Plan approved by Portland City Council in 2010.

In part of the city that lacks the density to support great transit, he sees bikes as a ticket to freedom.

“It was like, wow,” he said. “I could see with the expanse of east Portland being built as a driving community, that bike transportation would really, really work well out here. It’s a long ways to get anywhere out here. What’s the quickest way? A car. And what’s the next quickest way? A bike.”

Today, Chasse keeps a map of East Portland’s zoning plan on a wall in his home and volunteers with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, EPAP and other groups to keep the spigot of federal, state and city dollars flowing into the East Portland in Motion plan, a document East Portlanders demanded in exchange for endorsement of the citywide bike plan.

“[City transportation planner] Mark Lear was saying ‘We’re going to get all these things for East Portland,'” Chasse recalled. “And we were like, ‘We’ve heard that before. We’re going to get the EPIM plan, or we’re not going to support this plan, period.’ And we got it. [Retired city project manager] Ellen Vanderslice got it together for us. It’s still not going to happen in five years, but we’re a lot farther than we’ve ever been. … The city’s finally stepped up and committed some money for East Portland. And you can’t be unhappy about that.”

Though EPAPbike hasn’t taken a public position on the city’s proposed $12-a-month street fee, Chasse says he’s personally in favor.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “If we’re going to do a $613 million bike plan by 2030, you’ve got to find the funding somewhere.”

Chasse’s No. 1 priority, as he told Rep. Fagan in his ultimatum, is getting walking and biking improvements on Powell Boulevard east of I-205.

It’d cost tens of millions, he says. But it’ll create new business, too, if it becomes easier to navigate the area without a car.

“Powell can stay relatively small, especially if we have high-capacity transit coming out on Division,” he said. “There’s enough room in and around the whole facility to do a really good buildup. Cycle tracks in some areas and bike lanes in the constrained areas. And definitely sidewalks. … There’s already an established business district at 122nd, 112th, and going down to the 205 interchange. And further out, at 136th, even if they’re just topless bars, it’s a business district.”

Bringing safe, comfortable biking and walking to his house, where he can still watch the birds fly among the 12 towering fir trees in his yard, would be a dream come true and a life’s work for Chasse.

“East Portland’s a great place,” he said. “It really is.”

As for Fagan, he said she’s done a fine job so far.

“She’s running for reelection,” he said, smiling. “I’ve yet to talk to her. But we’ll talk for sure.”

Want to get involved with EPAPbike? They meet fourth Tuesdays at Muchas Gracias, 1307 NE 102nd Ave, Suite K.