Last night under the cover of darkness City of Portland transportation bureau crews cleared out the cones, signs, candles, photos and flowers that had created a traffic calming memorial to Fallon Smart on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
The makeshift memorial in the center turn lane at the intersection of 43rd Avenue had grown from a few flowers on August 19th to a memorial so large that it closed Hawthorne’s center turn lane. In fact, closing the lane was a secondary and symbolic goal of the memorial — since it was that center lane that allowed Abdulrahman Noorah* to speed recklessly past another driver (who had stopped) just before he hit and killed the 15-year-old Smart.
“Citing liability concerns might sound like one of those legalistic things bureaucracies do to try and shift attention away from their own inaction. That’s not the case here.”
— John Brady, PBOT Communications Director
City crews removed the memorial despite pleas from local businesses and safe street activists who claimed that the memorial — and the unsanctioned crosswalk that complemented it — was having a significant safety impact due to people slowing down as they drove through.
PBOT took about a week longer than they expected to remove the memorial, a delay that had some Sunnyside Neighborhood Association members thinking that perhaps there was a chance it would stay (PBOT said they honored the family’s request for privacy and didn’t want anyone to know when it would be removed). PBOT says they’ve been in communication with Fallon Smart’s family and they waited until the family was able to remove some of the items before clearing the site.
Katherine White, an employee at an adjacent business, met with the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association Land Use and Transportation Committee this week to try and persuade PBOT to keep the memorial up. In a September 28th email to Mayor Charlie Hales, PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick, and the three other city commissioners, White wrote, “Since the unofficial crosswalk and memorial were put in, drivers are slowing down and paying attention to pedestrians and cyclists. The memorial is raising awareness about traffic safety and I think people are considering the cost of their impatience behind the wheel. This is good for everyone, not just the people in this community.”
“The memorial in the center lane is beautiful,” White continued, “it is being well cared for, and it is working – it is calming traffic. It is giving some meaning to this tragedy by creating safety that can save other lives.” White implored PBOT to maintain the memorial until the city is able to invest in permanent safety measures.
“How do we work with city government when the only actions they take are obstructive? This is my first round with the bureaucracy and I am disillusioned and angry – but not giving up.”
— Katherine White, program director at One With Heart
PBOT Communications Director John Brady told us this morning that PBOT has completed a proposal for permanent safety changes to the intersection and is trying to schedule a time to present it to the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association. “Whatever we do end up installing there permanently,” Brady shared with us, “it would be up to standard.”
By “up to standard,” Brady means it would be designed to the city’s engineering guidelines as opposed to the unsanctioned memorial that was created by local residents. PBOT also made it clear that they wanted to “restore the center turn lane,” and with their actions last night they have done that. The guerrilla crosswalk at 43rd has been left alone, which leads us to believe it’s likely to be made permanent.
Adding to the community confusion and frustration around this situation on Hawthorne is how the City has responded to a separate unsanctioned crosswalk at Southeast Clinton at 19th. A crosswalk installed there by activist group PDX Transformation at the request of parents of an adjacent preschool has been removed twice now. An employee of the preschool said the crosswalk is badly needed. Brady said the agency “understands and appreciates the concern for safety that these actions represent,” and that, “as a Vision Zero bureau, it is a concern we share.”
“Why do we keep taking these crosswalks out? Isn’t that a waste of money and time?,” Brady wrote to us via email last night. “These are understandable questions.”
Brady says the answer is simple: crosswalks installed by people in the community aren’t built to the proper engineering standards and as such expose the city to legal risk. “If we were to let one of these non-standard crosswalks stay permanently and a crash occurred at the location, the City would be potentially liable.”
Here’s more from Brady:
“Citing liability concerns might sound like one of those legalistic things bureaucracies do to try and shift attention away from their own inaction. That’s not the case here. In the past, PBOT has faced liability claims tied to the specific state of our infrastructure and whether it met the required standards. As a public agency that is committed to the prudent use of public funds, we have a duty to do what we can to avoid exposing the City to such liability claims. That is one of the reasons we have removed the crosswalks at SE Clinton and 19th.”
When Katherine White and the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association said they would volunteer to count traffic on Hawthorne, the city said that’s not feasible. PBOT Constituent Services Coordinator Cevero Gonzalez stated in an email to White yesterday that, “PBOT can only use data collected by authorized city employees, gathered using standard data collection protocols, and as a result cannot consider volunteer pedestrian or vehicle traffic counts submitted by interested but unaffiliated parties.” White took that as an insult and she was also upset because Gonzalez told her the memorial was removed on September 29th — making it clear he wasn’t up to speed on the issue. “While they [PBOT] may not know what is going on in this neighborhood, I do. It is my community,” she wrote.
White is “angry” at how PBOT has handled the situation on Hawthorne. “It seems like the best way, maybe the only way, to get PBOT to use our tax dollars to take action is to ask them not to do something,” she wrote in an email to us this morning. “How do we work with city government when the only actions they take are obstructive? This is my first round with the bureaucracy and I am disillusioned and angry – but not giving up. Whether or not the process moves forward with the community and city government cooperating and showing mutual respect is now in their hands. And they are not off to a good start.”
An anonymous “agent” with PDX Transformation, the group that takes credit for the crosswalks at 43rd and 19th, is also not satisfied with PBOT’s responses so far. “We appreciate the City needs to focus its resources on areas that present greater danger,” the agent wrote to us this morning. “That’s why we bought the materials and installed them (safely, with flaggers and cones) at no cost to the city.”
“We don’t understand how the tiny chance of a lawsuit at this location exceeds the chance of legal action over the many, many locations where PBOT has either failed to install, or failed to upkeep, paint or other infrastructure that is required for safety,” the statement from PDX Transformation continues. “The bureau could have been spending its budget on those locations instead, substantially reducing its exposure to civil suits. This is especially true where the City is knowingly operating in violation of the law, such as failing to mark with signs and paint all the locations that street parking is in violation of state law, all of which create visual impediment to safe use of intersections throughout the city…. That the City has not paid out huge sums yet for these violations is due to luck, more than anything.”
While clearly antagonistic and in disagreement with the guidelines and criteria PBOT uses to make crosswalk placement decisions, PDX Transformation also has a cooperative tone. They’re offering traffic calming services at no charge to the City of Portland. They want to re-install the crosswalk at 19th and other locations: “We offer to fund and install another crosswalk built to City standards in another part of town, such as East Portland.”
For now PBOT seems unlikely to sway from their adherence to a more traditional approach. In an email last night Brady reiterated what we reported on yesterday, saying an engineering analysis at Clinton and 19th performed in October 2015 found that the road doesn’t meet the city’s criteria for installing a marked crosswalk. Specically he said, there aren’t enough people crossing at that location and the average speed people drive cars is lower than what would warrant a marked crosswalk. “Of course if the traffic patterns were to change,” he wrote in a follow-up email this morning, “we would take another look based on our guidelines.”
Beyond this analysis Brady opened a new line of reasoning for PBOT’s actions on Clinton: “It is important for the community to understand,” he wrote, “that there are other, more dangerous intersections, including intersections near schools, where we need to focus our resources.”
*Abdulrahman Noorah, the man who hit and killed Fallon Smart, posted bail three weeks ago and is currently under house arrest with GPS monitoring by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office. His next appearance in court is scheduled for October 24th.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org