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26th Avenue bike lanes in death throes as ODOT turns screws and advocates dig in


The bike lanes aren’t pretty, but they’re better than nothing (depending on who you ask).
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“PBOT believes there was evidence to justify the State Engineer to reconsider his decision and leave the bike lanes in place. ODOT has communicated to the City that they will not reconsider that decision.”
— Dylan Rivera, PBOT

The bike lanes on SE 26th Avenue approaching Powell Boulevard are on life support.

In a saga that has spanned nearly 30 months, PBOT appears to have finally acquiesced to the Oregon Department of Transportation’s demand that a pair of bike lanes that have been in use since the 1980s be removed in favor of the state’s preferred route for bicycle users two blocks east on SE 28th. It all comes back to a deal struck by PBOT and ODOT two years ago.

In order to build a new traffic signal and crossing at the intersection of SE 28th and SE Powell for their 20s Bikeway project, PBOT needed a special permit from ODOT and the blessing of State Traffic Engineer Bob Pappe. ODOT, who owns and manages Powell Boulevard, agreed to that permit only on the very specific condition that once the new signal was up and running, PBOT would remove the bike lanes on 26th.

Provisions included with PBOT’s permit application to install a signal on SE Powell Blvd. Signed by PBOT Policy, Planning and Projects Group Manager Art Pearce.
(Full document here).

ODOT says the 26th and Powell intersection is “over capacity for all users” and they feel it’s not nearly as safe for bike riders as 28th. “The separated crossing at 28th is smart and safe for bicyclists,” said ODOT 
Public Policy and Community Affairs Manager Shelli Romero in a phone call yesterday. Agency spokesman Don Hamilton (who was also on the call) concurred: “We’ve created a safer situation here than what we had before… We’ve taken a significant step to separate bicycles from the fray of 26th Ave.”

The bike lanes on 26th extend about 130-feet on both sides of Powell. Just a few blocks away is SE Clinton Street, the eighth busiest bike intersection in the city with 3,785 average daily trips (as per 2017 PBOT bike counts).

There’s certainly reason to worry about cycling conditions on 26th, given the grisly crash history at 26th and Powell and the fact that the bike lanes are very narrow at just three-feet wide. Even so, PBOT wanted to keep the lanes on 26th because the route is so well-known and relatively popular for bicycle users — and having even three feet of space, they argued, would be safer than having no dedicated space at all.

In August 2015 PBOT Bicycle Program Manager Roger Geller cited four research studies showing that even narrow bike lanes offer an important safety benefit. “Would the street operate more safely without bicycle lanes than with? Based on the evidence I’d have to say no,” he wrote in a letter to the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee.

The Street Trust is fighting to keep the lanes as well. In January 2016, former Executive Director Rob Sadowsky was firm: “Over our dead bodies,” he said, referring to ODOT’s insistence on the removal. “We will look at legal options if necessary.” And just yesterday, The Street Trust launched an online petition aimed at stopping PBOT’s plans:

“On top of dedicating space for bicyclists to ride on, the lanes help slow down traffic, which reduces the likelihood for crashes, even at times when bicyclists aren’t present. This positive safety impact is critical at SE Powell & 26th — not only is it one of the city’s most crash-prone intersections, but it’s located directly outside of Cleveland High School.

To remove this bike lane would be irresponsible and would necessarily threaten the safety of people riding bikes, students, pedestrians, and motorists as well. There is no excuse to increase the risk of death or injury each day.”

But despite this support and research backing up the bike lanes (and no public opposition to them whatsoever) ODOT has not wavered. They actually appear eager to get rid of the bike lanes.

In the past few years, PBOT has added green color and bike boxes in both directions.

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The new signal and crossing at SE 28th and Powell was conditional on the removal of the bike lane on 26th.

“We agreed there was nothing in the data that would merit a change of mind.”
— Shelli Romero, ODOT

In an email obtained via a public records request from ODOT’s Romero to PBOT Project Manager Rich Newlands in November of 2016, Romero wrote that the agencies had a “difference of opinion” about when the lanes should come out. “That needs to happen,” Romero wrote. “It can happen after the 28th Avenue signal is up, but it needs to happen sooner than a year’s time… I believe ODOT will want to add language to your permit application that ensures that the bike lanes on SE 26th Avenue are removed within a specific timeframe. I was a little surprised that your understanding of the lag time between installation of the signal and removal of the bike lanes on SE 26th Avenue would be about a year’s time. This seems too long.”

Reached on the phone yesterday, Romero said both agencies are now on the same page. “We’re not in any level of disagreement on this,” she said. “The city has agreed that the bike lanes are coming out.”

“We resisted this condition. However, given the importance of gaining a much needed traffic signal at SE 28th… we reached a compromise with ODOT.”
— Dylan Rivera, PBOT

That’s true, but PBOT is clearly not enthused about the situation. “Because it is the general policy of PBOT not to remove bike lanes and because we believed the bike lane on SE 26th would still serve the needs of people who bike, especially at the entrance to Cleveland High School even after the improvements to SE 28th,” wrote PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera in an email to BikePortland yesterday. “We resisted this condition. However, given the importance of gaining a much needed traffic signal at SE 28th to provide access to many SE Portland destinations, we reached a compromise with ODOT.”

As per their agreement, PBOT’s only chance to save the lanes was if a traffic count showed that a significant amount of bicycle riders still used 26th even after the 28th Avenue signal was up and running (June 2017). Those counts were completed in September and PBOT met with ODOT to discuss them late last year. Romero said of that meeting yesterday: “We agreed there was nothing in the data that would merit a change of mind.”

However, PBOT sees the data differently. Rivera shared yesterday that, “PBOT believes there was evidence to justify the State Engineer to reconsider his decision and leave the bike lanes in place.” But, he continued, “ODOT has communicated to the City that they will not reconsider that decision.”

Somehow in the name of safety, the safest road users have been told to go away.

Now it appears the only option left for those who want to keep the bike lanes on 26th Avenue is some good, old-fashioned activism. The Street Trust’s Gerik Kransky told us today that they haven’t given up. “The bike lanes are still on the street, for now, but the decision has been made. We are fighting today because we want to save the bike lanes and we think public pressure is the only option left.”

As for his former boss’s threats of a lawsuit, Kransky said, “We are reviewing the merits of a legal challenge and have not yet made a decision.”

Stay tuned.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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