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After man adds warning paint to sunken grate, state roads agency calls it vandalism

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

A 2012 photo of the offending grate, long before Parsons’ unsanctioned paint job.
(Photos: Jim Parsons)

Update: After this and other media coverage of Parsons’ action and ODOT’s repsonse, the agency has announced plans to fix the grates and says it is grateful for Parsons’ work.

A local man who says he’s been warning state officials for seven years about a sunken grate in the middle of Barbur Boulevard’s northbound bike lane has finally gotten some action from the agency.

After he marked the grate himself with yellow warning paint and with the letters “ODOT KNOWS,” the agency is planning to visit the site … to erase his paint.

In a Wednesday email to the man, Jim Parsons, an Oregon Department of Transportation staffer with the title “citizen’s representative” scolded him for what she said would make the street more dangerous.

“Cyclists may take that as a sign that they must avoid the drain and steer themselves into a lane of traffic,” wrote the staffer, Monica Bustos. “Mr. Parsons, I was made aware that you painted the drain yourself. It is dangerous, you are on the highway without proper traffic control to advise the public that someone is on the roadway. It is also illegal to vandalize (paint) ODOT property. The ODOT Maintenance Manager will now be spending the already limited maintenance budget funds on removing the vandalism from ODOT property.”

In an interview earlier this week and in previous emails to ODOT over the last week, Parsons said he had first notified ODOT about the problem in 2008, but was moved to start worrying about it again in June after he accidentally crossed it while biking to Portland State University and broke a spoke from the impact.

“Front wheel in, front wheel out, rear wheel in, rear wheel out,” Parsons said Wednesday, describing the jolts of crossing the grate. Here’s a photo he took showing the depth of the grate:

In an email to ODOT Monday and in an interview with BikePortland Wednesday, Parsons said his preferred solution would be to “grind the thing smooth.”

“You don’t have to raise the grate, you don’t have to pave it, you just have to grind the damn thing,” Parsons said.


Parsons said the site is north of Barbur’s two narrow bridges where the bike lanes vanish and south of the crosswalk that ODOT installed after the 2010 death of a woman walking her bike across the street.

Parsons said he decided to paint the street himself only after a series of responses from ODOT dating back to 2008.

“Every time I call they’re like, ‘Oh, we’ll be paving that area next year,'” Parsons said in an interview last week. “They just don’t think it’s a problem.”

Jim Parsons in a 2011 photo.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Parsons applied his paint Friday. The “ODOT KNOWS” message, he said, was intended to be a message to any lawyers whose clients might be injured by collisions with the grate.

“It’s downhill,” Parsons said. “With a tailwind, you can hit 40 mph easy. … Sooner or later, somebody’s going to hit that thing the wrong way.”

Parsons said he had previously painted warning paint around the grate back in 2012, but without the “ODOT KNOWS” message.

Also on Friday Parsons also applied paint to another location just to the south. Here are his photos of that grate before his paint job (with a Home Depot paint stirrer to show the scale):

The divot between grate and pavement runs parallel to the roadway, so a bicycle wheel might be caught in it.

And here’s his unsanctioned treatment:

Parsons does seem to have received one fairly detailed email reply about his problems, sent on Monday by ODOT Active Transportation Liaison Jessica Horning. She sent this in response to his emailing a link in which he shared his photos of the unsanctioned paint job.

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the update. I’ve forwarded your message on to our maintenance crew, who will take another look at this area. As I mentioned last time, we plan to adjust these grates next time we have work scheduled in the area. I do not currently have a timeline to give you.

As I mentioned on the phone, ODOT recently conducted a Road Safety Audit on Barbur. The whole RSA team rode over these grates on a bike ride from Naito to the “Crossroads” (Capitol Highway/99W/I-5 interchange) and back… and the consultant leading the RSA bike commutes on Barbur daily. The RSA report will include prioritized recommendations for near and long term bike safety improvements on Barbur. I know that storm grates are included on the long list of issues that were noted during the RSA, but do not know where they will fall on the draft prioritized list. I will let you know when there is a complete version of the RSA report ready to share. You can also read more about the Barbur RSA on our website:

(We reported about ODOT’s in-progress road safety audit in May.)

On Wednesday morning, Parsons received the email from Bustos, saying that “The ODOT Maintenance Manager has looked at the drain and determined that paint lines are not in the best interest of anyone” and informing him that ODOT would be spending part of its maintenance budget to remove the paint. It didn’t mention any schedule for fixing the grates.