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Hood River businesses take over street from ODOT in order to take over street

Posted by on July 23rd, 2020 at 12:45 pm

Not ODOT-approved.
(Image: City of Hood River)

The Oregon Department of Transportation is trying.

The agency that’s pushing to expand freeways throughout the Portland region and has become Oregon’s de facto advocacy organization for car users, wants to be seen as innovative and nimble; but a situation in the city of Hood River shows the lengths businesses had to go just to use a few curbside parking spaces on one of the agency’s state highways.

Earlier this month businesses along Hood River’s main drag of Oak Street started building “street seat” installations to give customers more space to eat and drink. The efforts were part of a parklet permit program launched by the City of Hood River at the end of June.

“[The parklets] are not acceptable in terms of where they are and how they’re constructed.”
— Rian Windsheimer, ODOT Region 1 Director

But according to ODOT’s Region 1 Manager Rian Windsheimer, Hood River never received final approval to permit businesses on Oak Street — which happens to be State Route 30, an ODOT-owned highway. “Unfortunately, Hood River proceeded with allowing businesses to go and put those in place on the Historic Highway and the State Highway without working with ODOT to approve the parklet plans,” Windsheimer told members of the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee at their meeting on July 13th.

Windsheimer went on to say that he supports the parklet idea, but the wooden benches, tables and other features built in the parking lane, “Are not acceptable in terms of where they are and how they’re constructed.”

ODOT claims their hands are tied due to federal Highway Trust Fund policy that allows only “transportation related activity” on state right-of-way.

One of ODOT’s suggestions was to relocate the parklets onto sidestreets; but the City of Hood River didn’t like that idea. “It’s a very fluid situation, we’re trying to figure out what to do,” Windsheimer said at the meeting.

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Two days later local media reported that ODOT crews planned to remove the parklets. Fortunately Windsheimer intervened and continued to negotiate with business owners. Those discussions helped inform official ODOT design guidance and a permit process for businesses along state highways.

ODOT photo of their new “Re-evisioning spaces” program in action outside a business in Grants Pass.

On July 20th, ODOT released a statement about their new Reopening Communities, Re-envisioning Spaces Program, an effort to, “Re-envision how to safely adapt public spaces within the state highway system.” ODOT offered an example of a business in Grants Pass that received a permit to place two tables on a sidewalk.

The big catch with ODOT’s permit program is that the agency will only allow “transportation” uses on state highways. This means no parklets or seating in the roadway. As you can see in the image ODOT shared from Grants Pass, the only new use they permit in the highway is people walking. “ODOT urges cities to re-envision additional [parking] spaces with ideas like detouring local traffic onto state highways, using alleys or empty lots, or transferring ownership of state sidewalks or streets to the city,” their statement said.

In order to maintain their outdoor dining tables and seating on the street, the City of Hood River had to request a jurisdictional transfer from ODOT to the city. ODOT has obliged and is working out the details. According to a story in Hood River News published Wednesday (7/22), one of the businesses will be allowed to keep their parklet on Highway 30, while another will have to move it to a private parking lot behind their business.

The businesses claim they built these parklets because ODOT signaled support, then they were threatened with having to remove them, now ODOT says some of them can stay. What a mess.

One interesting takeaway from this is how ODOT interprets the “transportation related activity” definition from the Highway Trust Fund. Under their interpretation, an empty parked private vehicle is transportation related, but an empty dining table is not. If ODOT is truly committed to, “re-envisioning how to safely adapt public spaces within the state highway system,” perhaps they should be more flexible. What if they allowed parklets as long as they’re equipped with wheels?

In related news, Washington’s DOT released a program earlier this month that gives local jurisdictions permission to re-allocate space on state highway lanes for the exclusive use of walkers and rollers.

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

They should use abandoned trolleys (a la Spaghetti Factory style) or wagons, etc to meet their ‘transportation activity’ requirements.

nate
Guest
nate

Hasn’t it always made more sense to put the seating that people are going to spend time in closest to the building (i.e., on the sidewalk) and have the more transitory pedestrian traffic in the reclaimed space in the street, whether from parking or a travel lane? I’m sure the servers would prefer not having to constantly look out for pedestrian cross-traffic and the diners would rather not be as close to the noise and fumes of passing traffic. I’ve never understood why all these plans put the tables in the street. What am I missing?

WestRiver
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WestRiver

“What if they allowed parklets as long as they’re equipped with wheels?”
This, exactly! Park some flatbed trailers, plop some tables and chairs on them. Done.

Todd/Boulanger
Guest
Todd/Boulanger

How about defining these cafe seating areas as “pedestrian refuelling & rest areas”?

“The origin of today’s rest area system was a provision in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 that stated “the States with the aid of Federal Funds may include . .. such sanitary and other facilities as may be deemed necessary to provide for the suitable accommodation of the public.” The intent of the Act was to increase [transportation facility user] safety and comfort by providing facilities for stopping and resting. Subsequent Federal-Aid Highway Acts, the Highway Trust Fund, and the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 gave authority, funding, and sub- stance to the rest area program.” – M.A. Perfather, Operation and Motorist Usage of Interstate Rest Areas and Welcome Centers in Virginia; TRB 1224

I am surprised at how fast ODoT reacted to this request (probably faster since it was NOT in Portland and in a small rural city) per politics. And also the good news that ODoT is working with the City of Hood River had to request a jurisdictional transfer. 😉

Todd/Boulanger
Guest

Additionally, perhaps Micheal Ronkin has been away from ODoT so long now (12 years?) that ODoT forgot about its Main Street Handbook manual? This Hood River project is a perfect example.
https://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/mainstreethandbook.pdf

AGE
Guest
AGE

I know it is hard to accept, what law says, but as a person involved with this issue, I can offer that there is specific clause in the highway fund that restricts the use of RoW to Transportation use. State routes are built and maintained by highway fund and DoJ has clear guideline that from that fund nothing can be directed to other things. We offered the City that we would accommodate pedestrian use of the road space if they could move the parklets to sidewalk. Problem was that city permitted businesses to install these parklets before they come to ODOT to get permit for use of Right of Way. Then our only option was to let the City take over the road.

Michael Mann
Guest

put little wheels on the tables. Gotta love bureaucracy.

Tom2
Guest
Tom2

With all ODOT has on their plate, I don’t know why they would want to be trying to micromanage every inch of a downtown business district which represents such a tiny fraction of the road miles they need to maintain. Its just so far out of their expertise and interest and seems like would just be a headache for them. These types of historic business districts should have been turned over to the local government a long time ago, so that the character of the district can be controlled by the locals. Just divert the portion of money that ODOT spends on these business districts to a state fund that towns can apply to for matching grants to improve and maintain them.

Fred
Guest
Fred

Am I the only one experiencing cognitive dissonance after reading the previous story (about PBOT’s objections to the Fed’s taking over the city ROW) and then this story (about ODOT’s objections to a city taking over the state ROW)?

Cyclists will fight to defend the ROW when it’s taken away from cyclists, but is that impulse not applicable for other modes? I get that ODOT is inflexible and bureaucratic and hidebound and whatever the opposite of “innovative” is, but consistency is still important.