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Bicycle ‘boneyard’ under I-5 freeway is a haven for thieves

Posted by on November 23rd, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Bike parts litter the ground at “the boneyard” under I-5 along the Eastbank Esplanade.
(Photo: Portland Police Bureau)

Portland police officers call it “the boneyard” and frustration is growing about how to clean it up once and for all.

Location of the boneyard.

The location — underneath the I-5 freeway between the Steel and Burnside bridges — is a well-hidden haven for bike thieves. Out of sight and with the roar of freeway traffic to drown out the clanking and buzzing of power tools, it’s relatively easy to disassemble bikes here, then repaint and rebuild them into untraceable products ready for illicit sales.

When I got my bike stolen last year, I found it in the boneyard. But luckily, mine was just a near-death experience.

Since my experience last year I had no idea the conditions at the boneyard had gotten so much worse. That was until our friends at the Portland Police Bureau shared a tweet about it earlier this month.

“Hands full” is right.

I followed up with Central Precinct Ofcr. David Sanders. He’s one of two officers the PPB has on a special Bike Theft patrol unit we helped create earlier this year. Sanders said the area is “essentially a bicycle graveyard.”

In the past year or so Sanders says, he and his team have recovered “scores of stolen bikes” in this area and have arrested and/or excluded (the term for prohibiting someone from a specific area) many suspects.

“It’s really a ‘go-to’ place for criminals who want to hide and do their dirty work largely out of sight by much of the public eye,” Sanders added, “so it also seems ‘safe’ for them to be there and not generate police calls.”

Stole my bike back!-5

A hole cut in the chain-link fence that leads to the boneyard. That’s the Union Pacific headquarters building in the background.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)
Stole my bike back!-2

This view shows I-5 and the I-84 flyover with the Willamette River in the background.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)


Stole my bike back!-3

ODOT placed these rocks in the area to prevent camping.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The boneyard is an active place for another frustrating reason: It’s very easy to get to. When I retrieved my own stolen bike I was led to the area by a rather obvious and easily accessible hole that had been cut in a chain-link fence. That hole was there for many months after (it might still be open but I haven’t checked for a while). I could have also walked a few tenths of a mile to another large gate to the area that’s often left wide open.

Whose responsibility is it to manage these spaces? The land itself is owned and managed by Union Pacific and the Oregon Department of Transportation. UP is in charge of a certain distance around the rail lines and ODOT is responsible for the land underneath freeways.

“It’s off the hook right now. …unfortunately there are so many other fires we are trying to put out, it often falls lower on the priority list.”
— Ofcr. David Sanders

We’ve learned from ODOT that they are aware of illegal camping at 200 of their Portland-area parcels. At the boneyard in particular they go in and clean up the site every few months (according to Sanders), but nothing seems to change. Their spokesman Don Hamilton has told us it’s a “complicated issue.”

“We are merely the property owners,” ODOT’s Hamilton said. “When we see illegal activity, we can’t address it ourselves, we have to call in law enforcement. Our maintenance workers have been attacked before.” Hamilton said since the issues themselves (homelessness and criminal activity) go beyond ODOT’s responsibility, so too must the solutions.

Sanders said an ODOT effort to place large rocks in the area in order to make it uninhabitable was “very effective” but it was never completed.

It’s likely that as Portland does more to address its housing and homelessness crisis, fewer people will find themselves living on the streets and under freeways. But given the epidemic of bike theft and this convenient location to participate in it, the boneyard isn’t likely to go out of business any time soon.

If the status quo continues, the future does not look good. Police have a serious staffing shortage and there are not enough officers to address sites like this. “It’s not uncommon for this are a to fester for periods of time without any police presence,” Sanders said. By his estimation, it would take a team of officers spending a full-time effort to deal with the criminal activity he’s seeing under the bridges and overpasses along the Willamette River. “It’s off the hook right now,” he said, “[Officer] Dave [Bryant] and I get over there every now and then, but unfortunately there are so many other fires we are trying to put out, it often falls lower on the priority list.”

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley November 23, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    One more reason to hate freeways running through cities.

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    • Lester Burnham November 23, 2015 at 1:51 pm

      No one more reason to hate city officials who do nothing to combat a homeless problem. No…they guilt taxpayers into thinking the $52 MILLION that we have paid for facilities like the Bud Clark Commons is not enough. They need even more money. And please let’s stop blaming mental illness for ALL of the homeless problems out there.

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      • Endo November 23, 2015 at 2:59 pm

        This isn’t a homelessness problem, this is an immoral ***mean word deleted by moderator*** problem. If these people had homes they’d still be stealing bikes to supplement their income, because there isn’t any punishment for the people that steal.

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  • davemess November 23, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    I wish the various city and state agencies would stop just passing the buck and do something!

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    • Alex Reed November 23, 2015 at 1:58 pm

      I do share the frustration with buck-passing (and not just on this issue). The problem is that doing “something” is not enough to really move the needle on bike theft. What’s needed is a well-thought-out commitment with identified funding/staff that does more than just chase the dismantling yard to a slightly less convenient location – and that also treats the folks at this location with respect (some people camping there may well not be involved in the bike theft/dismantling).

      I think that the biggest bang for the buck would come from a longer-term undercover/snitch operation to identify and bring down the key actors in the larger fencing networks that distribute these bikes. Yes, many people can sell a bike on Craigslist, but addicts and people living on the street (if those groups of people actually account for a large percentage of bike thefts – not sure about that factual question) would have a hard time at it. I have a hunch that the majority of bikes stolen in Portland end up sold through a relatively small number of fencing networks.

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      • davemess November 23, 2015 at 3:54 pm

        I wasn’t just talking about bike theft (though it plays into a lot of other issues). I was more talking about the huge issues parts of the city have with city/state land/facilities that they have basically just given up on policing. I’m sick of hearing reports from local businesses and residents about how they called the cops on people who had thrown rocks at them only to have the cops say “we can’t do anything” and then drive away. That’s not a manpower issue.

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      • Spiffy November 23, 2015 at 8:07 pm

        once you’ve stolen a phone with wifi you just hop on any of the many free open wireless networks and “pedal” your wares…

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        • Alex Reed November 24, 2015 at 7:49 am

          But what do you do once you have a bite? “Meet me at the corner of SW 12th & Salmon?” I can see that working sometimes, but I’d bet a lot of Portlanders would be skeptical of a purchase even if they showed up, especially if the seller appeared to be experiencing homeless and/or addiction. The circumstances would just scream “stolen goods” to most people, I’d think.

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  • dan November 23, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    What we need is a skate park in that space that’s lit 24 hours. 2 birds with 1 stone.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) November 23, 2015 at 2:09 pm


      Did you see the plans from Toronto Canada for under their Gardiner Expressway?

      I would love for ODOT to do more interesting things with their underpasses but I’m afraid it would take some major negotiating. Hamilton has told me in the past that they want to keep them vacant for safety reasons in case a car flies over a retaining wall and lands on someone. (which apparently has happened in the past)

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      • dan November 23, 2015 at 2:45 pm

        I hadn’t seen those plans before, thanks for posting the link — a great use of space! It would be amazing to see something like that under I-5. Not sure about keeping them vacant “for safety reasons” – it seems to me that if a car breaches a retaining wall, it’s going to wind up on the Esplanade. Under the freeway seems like the safest place to be.

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      • Josh G November 23, 2015 at 4:18 pm

        Mr. Hamilton’s response inadequate on so many levels.

        – ODOT wants the spaces under freeways vacant for safety reasons. Well obviously having the spaces under freeways vacant is a huge problem due to the bike chop operation and perhaps other issues that go along with homelessness/camping.

        – ODOT wants the spaces vacant in case a car flies off? So a car will fly off the side and then somehow circle back underneath in midair? If they are worried about cars flying off, maybe the speed limits are too high.

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      • Zimmerman November 23, 2015 at 5:00 pm

        It’s much safer to have people taking drugs and committing crime under the bridge than to take the far flung chance a car might fly off the highway.


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  • Todd Hudson November 23, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    I know there’s at least four areas of the fence to this area that have been cut. I’ve known about them for a couple years, and they’ve never been mended. Also, the truck gate (where the Esplanade begins near the Steel Bridge) is frequently unlocked and wide open.

    With Hales not addressing this and demanding all bureaus cut their budgets 5%, expect the status quo to continue and then some.

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    • Todd Hudson November 23, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      “That hole was there for many months after (it might still be open but I haven’t checked for a while).”

      As of last week, yes, the hole is still there. It’s been there since at least 2013.

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      • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) November 23, 2015 at 2:03 pm

        Thanks Todd. That is simply terrible management by ODOT. I’ll let them know.

        I would not be surprised if that fence hasn’t been fixed because Portland Parks thinks it’s ODOT’s responsibility and ODOT thinks it’s Portland Parks’ responsibility. It’s always amazing to me how many of our street livability issues are delayed and/or degraded because of jurisdictional confusion and/or buck-passing.

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        • Buzz November 23, 2015 at 2:10 pm

          There’s an entrance at Stark that’s never secured, so it won’t matter how many holes in the fence get fixed; besides, it only takes a few minutes of work with a wire cutter to make a new one.

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          • Todd Hudson November 23, 2015 at 2:24 pm

            Recently I’ve been exploring offroad areas on my CX and recently rode in the “future Gateway Green” area….a new fence was recently installed along 84, going north from NE Halsey going north through those woods for a mile or so. It’s a chop-resistant fence that normal bolt-cutters can’t break through. I presume ODOT put it up.

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            • Chris I November 23, 2015 at 8:18 pm

              Probably Union Pacific. They want to keep people off of the tracks.

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  • Josh Chernoff November 23, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    I only wish this was news. This has been a major issue for well over a year now. While I think it is sad that its just now getting attention even though I’v done about everything I could possibly do to raise awareness about this place, I’m glad it is stating to be seen for what it really is. An for anyone who feels that I’v been calling out the homeless in our area I hope you start to see who I’v been really identifying. This is not a homeless issue, this is a criminal issue.

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    • Todd Hudson November 23, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      I’ve also been riding past these problem areas regularly, and have seen you shine light on them on social media. When I saw PPB respond to you with “well they’re on PDC property and they aren’t communicating with us, so there’s not much we can do about it” I realized it’s not worth getting upset about or expecting it to get better. Unfortunately, I think people are giving up on things getting better, which results in fewer and possibly zero complaints generated to PPB, Parks, ODOT, etc.

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  • MR November 23, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    The problem has more to do with how we as a society deal with homelessness, mental health and drug issues. When those problems are addressed your bikes might be safer.

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    • Matt November 23, 2015 at 2:59 pm

      Well, you know, you could argue that, in turning a blind eye to the criminal acts by which these people fund their drug habits, we’re incentivizing poor lifestyle choices and making it even that much less likely that they’ll ever seek treatment. Likewise fostering a culture of lawlessness that will encourage them to commit even more serious criminal acts, or, at the very least, make it that much more difficult for them to reintegrate into society.

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  • Buzz November 23, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    The large rocks obviously do not make it ‘uninhabitable’; they just help hide the chop shop that much better.

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  • Adam Herstein
    Adam Herstein November 23, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Just tear out the highway completely. This would have plenty of benefits other than removing the safe haven for bike thieves. Reconnecting the city to the waterfront would be the #1 benefit.

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    • davemess November 23, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      And you think traffic on Clinton is bad now?

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    • Todd Hudson November 24, 2015 at 9:33 am

      Do you think your suggestion is realistic or solves the problem in the short term?

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  • mark November 23, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    To start with, the Portland Police should escort community cycles down there and round up all the bike parts for use in the community. So..take their little haven of stuff away. Next, let it be known that IF any additional type of behavior ensues, the cops will be back again pepper spray, batons and fire hoses.

    That usually works.

    If they camp peacefully, they will be left alone.

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  • hickeymad November 23, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Looks like a public health hazard to me. Isn’t there any way that funds secured for that purpose could be used?

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  • realworld November 23, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Jonathan, You should take a look at the rest of the Spring water corridor. There is a full blown Shanty town at 82nd on Spring Water, half the “tents” have more square footage than my house!

    The issue is the same, cops come in and “sweep” them out during the day and they move on until night fall and just settle right back in. Now half the “camps” don’t even get looked at by PPD any more.
    They know exactly what the PPD is able or willing to do and they count on it like clock work.
    Anytime after 8pm they can do what ever they want in those camps. While the cops are all sleeping in their warm beds the zombies are free to roam.

    What is PPD going to do when people start getting mugged, stabbed, shot and killed on the Esplanade, Spring water and 205 path?? If they “don’t have the funds now” what will change when those petty crimes turn into violent crime?
    Are we just going to let the zombies take control of our city? that’s what I see happening.

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    • Gary B November 23, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      Stabbings and shootings are next? Why are the petty crimes going to turn into violent crimes? I’m unfamiliar with this natural progression.

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      • B. Carfree November 23, 2015 at 8:21 pm

        Down in Eugene our huge homeless population began to arm themselves about two years ago. Last year, we had a large surge of stabbings involving homeless people. I’m not sure of the cause of the progression to violence, but it is definitely occurring.

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        • davemess November 24, 2015 at 7:20 am

          Lack of any type of enforcement leads to any “anything goes” type of community. I was hearing from a local first responder about some of the other crimes, like rape that very easily happen in some of the homeless camps. He had some pretty grim stories.

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      • Psyfalcon November 23, 2015 at 9:51 pm

        If the area gets too popular, you’re going to have more people stealing from each other. They will then want to defend themselves. Those weapons could also be used for theft, or violence when one of the many mental ill people have a bad day.

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        • Gary B November 24, 2015 at 11:16 am

          That seems like a reasonable hypothesis: more desperate people (including prevalent drug dependence and other mental challenges) folks in a small area would seem like a recipe for more violence. I’d be interested to see the data.

          I was rejecting (implicitly) the idea that bike thieves are going to suddenly turn into murderers. I see now that the original commenter didn’t actually state that (it wasn’t about bike thieves but about the camps in general), so I apologize for my misreading.

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          • eddie November 25, 2015 at 3:35 am

            This logic that homeless encampment = murder zone is super faulty. I’ve never seen that happen, anywhere. There is crime: rape, murder, theft, etc. among ANY group of people, rich or poor, homeless or non, who live in close quarters, and if there are more people in a given area of course there will be more crime, just as there is more human activity.

            But does it really spill over into the general population, that much?

            I could be wrong about this, but from what I can tell the increased presence of street dwelling people along the springwater etc. has led to some harassment of cyclists and peds, but very little actual assault, can someone provide any data at all supporting the zombie apocalypse model?

            Also, these are people we’re talking about, not zombies. And it’s ridiculous to expect the cops to come around and permanently clear off the game board for those who don’t like the face of poverty in this country. Pushing homeless people around isn’t going to eliminate any of the problems that come with a burgeoning population. It’s just going to shift the problems elsewhere.

            I’m personally an advocate of organizing groups of civilians to actually interact with these people to keep down the drama. (Crazy idea, right? Treating the homeless like human beings?)

            Like it as not, they’re part of our city, they’re not going anywhere, and labeling them zombies then biking home and expecting the cops to make them vanish is really unrealistic and ultimately an impossible fantasy.

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  • brandon van buskirk November 23, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    This property could be used to access Ankeny and Stark from the Esplanade. A trail could be inserted and we would gain safety from increased exposure to this area and additional connectivity.

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  • Tony H November 23, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    I’m curious about the “we’re not responsible for what goes on there, we just own the place” attitude. I know that residential property owners have faced serious consequences for rentals resulting in neighborhood hot spots.

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    • Buzz November 23, 2015 at 3:29 pm

      Heck, you can get in trouble in this town just for failing to mow the lawn on property you own.

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  • Scott Kocher November 23, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    The message I get from Parks is we can’t solve homelessness everywhere so we aren’t going to do anything anywhere.

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  • Dennis November 23, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    There was once a plan to bury I-5, and restore the land above back to the urban fabric. That would resolve this issue entirely

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  • Todd Boulanger November 23, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    The photo makes it look like some future archeological dig or a bicycle themed “La Brea Tar Pit”…I can just hear the film projector whiring in the background in a classroom…

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  • nuovorecord November 23, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    The next time I see some fool writing something about how MUPs attract crime, I’m going to point them to this post.

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    • davemess November 23, 2015 at 7:36 pm

      any public space can attract crime if you don’t police it.

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  • realworld November 23, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    “check out This dude!”

    Portland bike theft goes Prime Time!

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    • Josh Chernoff November 23, 2015 at 4:57 pm

      Hey now its not ok to call him a thief, he is financially and sheltered challenged.

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  • mark November 23, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    “check out This dude!”Portland bike theft goes Prime Time! 1

    Interesting it took a TV show to catch the guy.

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  • K'Tesh November 23, 2015 at 5:21 pm


    Affix cameras to the bridge that can watch the area 24/7… Anyone goes in, officers are dispatched, the offenders are arrested and prosecuted to the MAX for trespassing. The cameras record all the events that go on there, if a stolen bike is identified, there’s a visual record of all the details of the people involved.

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    • Patrick November 24, 2015 at 10:04 am

      This would be a fantastic idea. Put up some strong lighting and some cameras. Seeing as this is a public area, there is no reason the footage can’t be streamed for all to see. I know I would watch it for my stolen bicycle.

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    • eddie November 24, 2015 at 7:08 pm

      It isn’t realistic to expect the cops to monitor the video line 24/7 and be ready to dispatch officers every time someone wanders in there. Also it’s not realistic to expect them to treat such trespassing as a top priority offence with the full brunt of the law behind it… there are way worse things going on in Portland than underpass trespassing, after all.

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  • Paul Z November 23, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    I rode riverside bike trails in Boise and SLC this Fall, and saw ZERO graffiti and homeless camps. Boise had Police on bikes. What’s with Portland?

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    • Paul Z November 23, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      By the way, SLC’s BikeShare is up and running.

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    • eddie November 25, 2015 at 3:12 am

      Portland has a higher population, more temperate weather, more services for the homeless, and of course a population boom with all the associated issues: cars, pollution, theft.

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  • Spiffy November 23, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    sounds like a great trouble spot to report using the ORcycle app and let ODOT figure out who is responsible…

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  • Eric Leifsdad November 23, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    This isn’t a problem if you’re driving on the highway, which is how everyone from the “Oregon Department Of The highways” gets to work. Does ODOT need someone to help them figure out how to build a bike out of this pile of parts?

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  • Tom November 24, 2015 at 9:10 am

    ODOT says they are just the propety owner…it’s not really their problem. Funny how that excuse does not work very well for private landowners. If the city sites you for any number of violations involving your property you can’t just say hey I’m just the property owner. Rocks, concrete spikes, lights, repaired fences…it’s not that hard.

    ODOT needs to sued for aiding criminal activity and not maintaning their property.

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    • estherc November 25, 2015 at 9:45 am

      If I allowed criminal activity on my property, darn tooting it would be my problem.

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  • Aixe Djelal November 24, 2015 at 9:20 am

    sounds like a great trouble spot to report using the ORcycle app and let ODOT figure out who is responsible…Recommended 2

    Good idea to use the ORcycle app to report this. I tested out ORcycle on Friday midday to report a road condition. ODOT got back to me within a couple of hours, very polite email, forwarding my concern to PBOT because it is their jurisdiction. I have heard nothing from PBOT even though I sent them a followup email a couple days ago. However, ODOT indicated they maintain state routes, US highways and interstates, so I would hope that they are also responsible for UNDERNEATH highways, and that is why I think this is worth someone with first hand experience with the Boneyard submitting a report.

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  • Bald One November 24, 2015 at 10:02 am

    My neighbor (who is in second grade) just had his bike stolen from the local PPS elementary school – locked up, during school hours. What a bummer for him, as he rides to school every day, and his bike was a 24″, not exactly a hot re-sale item. Cable lock, but still – at school, in the school bike racks, during school!

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  • eddie November 24, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    I think one solution is to simply publicize the chop shops as much as possible, and then organize groups of people down there to claim their stuff. Politely but firmly. And, importantly, persistently.

    Enough pressure and on the long run it might at least minimize the chop shops. If my bike were stolen I’d definitely go, and I’d feel better about it if I had a posse.

    This kind of thievery isn’t going to go away, no matter what we do. Cop activity, prison terms, whatever, the population of pdx will grow and so will the theft. We can only hope to minimize it, and recover our stolen property as much as possible.

    Also: Mark your components! Permanently! Then you can try to recover them in the future.

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  • estherc November 25, 2015 at 9:44 am

    If i allowed people to use my property for illegal purposes I’d be in legal trouble. Why is UP and the city allowed to let bike thieves use their property for a bicycle chop shop? Isn’t it aiding and abetting?

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