When is a traffic study not a traffic study?
“Let’s work together to make Barbur safer,” Portland Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick wrote in October 2013, promising that “the Portland Bureau of Transportation will commit the time and resources to work with ODOT and engage the surrounding communities to see the impacts of a possible road diet and find the right solution.”
Now, some of the advocates who helped persuade Novick to make that commitment are saying it’s still unfulfilled.
“An average of 1-2 people die every year on this section of Barbur and many more, like my friend Henry Schmidt, have their lives changed forever. If the Southwest Corridor plan is 12 years from completion that is 12-24 more of our neighbors’ lives lost.”
— Kiel Johnson, Friends of Barbur
In an open letter to Novick circulated last week, Kiel Johnson of the Friends of Barbur advocacy group wrote that because the Oregon Department of Transportation has been steadfastly saying that its study of traffic diversion during last summer’s construction doesn’t count as a study of an actual redesign, the city should keep demanding that it conduct a real study.
At issue are two miles of Southwest Barbur Boulevard, roughly between between Miles and Hamilton just south of downtown Portland. Because the wooded stretch of road has almost no intersections, it feels a lot like a freeway — and has seen six deaths, five of them speeding-related, over the last five years.
The lack of intersections also means that removing a northbound travel lane wouldn’t have the major effects on traffic capacity that it might on a more urban stretch of road — it’d merely reduce traffic weaving and extreme speeding. So advocates including Johnson have argued for replacing a northbound passing lane with a dedicated bike lane and walking path on each side of the street.
Here’s Johnson’s letter:
Dear Commissioner Novick,
I am writing you regarding my concern for traffic safety on Barbur Blvd, particularly the wooded section, and the letter you wrote to the “Barbur Road Dieters” over a year ago. I am the founder of the Friends of Barbur group and helped get over 500 community members and groups to sign the petition asking for the study of a road diet on Barbur. We are still waiting.
Yesterday, I attended the SWNI transportation committee meeting where ODOT presented their traffic analysis during the recent construction on Barbur. At the beginning of the presentation Susan Hanson, from ODOT, announced that this was not a study of the road diet and no conclusions about a road diet should be made from this. Further she said that any additional conversation about a road diet should happen under the SW Corridor high capacity transit plan. This plan is focusing on the long term transit needs of the entire corridor. What we need is to look at the short term safety needs this very dangerous section in Portland. In your letter you agreed:
“The Southwest Corridor resolution is about affirming our agreement with our regional transit partners on the Southwest Corridor Plan, which is focused on the future of high capacity transit in the corridor. I would rather not link the Barbur road diet study to the Southwest Corridor resolution… The idea of a Barbur road diet is something I think should be studied regardless of whether there was such a thing as a Southwest Corridor Plan focused on high capacity transit. The Southwest Corridor plan will take shape over a dozen years; I would like to do a Barbur road diet study in a dozen months.”
My question to you is, what happened? We have been waiting over a year for a study that never happened. I am a big believer in the power of government to make people’s lives better. I created a Facebook group called “support the street fee” to counter the negative one and as a small business owner with 5 employees I picketed in front of the town halls in favor of the fee. I did this because I believed that reasonable people can come together to agree on commonsense plans to make our community safer.
A road diet makes sense on Barbur, especially after the minimal impacts ODOT discovered in their study. So far ODOT has refused to look at any of the safety benefits of a road diet on Barbur or even what a road diet might look like. In 2013, three people died in the same intersection on Barbur traveling at high speeds. Speeding on Barbur has to be brought under control. An average of 1-2 people die every year on this section of Barbur and many more, like my friend Henry Schmidt, have their lives changed forever. If the Southwest Corridor plan is 12 years from completion that is 12-24 more of our neighbors’ lives lost. As we sacrifice these people I think we need to at least know why ODOT has decided to lump a Barbur safety project in with such a long term project.
You told us, “We do want to study the idea of a road diet and plan to do so” and I believed you. Making Barbur safer will require a leader. I hope that you are that person and you have a community of people ready to support you.
(For the record, the business Johnson mentions is the Go By Bike shop and valet at the base of the Aerial Tram in the South Waterfront. His views here are his own.)
In a separate interview Tuesday, Carl Larson of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance said he sympathizes with the fact that Novick made a promise that’s difficult to keep: convincing another agency to do a study.
But Larson said he agrees with Johnson that this was indeed what Novick wrote.
“He does make what seems to be a pretty solid commitment to do more than what is done so far,” Larson said. “I don’t think that’s due to blockages coming from the city of Portland. But I don’t think ODOT has necessarily made any commitments that they’ve defaulted on, other than putting safety first.”
So far, Johnson says he’s received no response from Commissioner Novick. We’ll let you know if/when he does.