When we think about the destruction wrought by car drivers in Portland, we usually think of broken bodies and broken car parts. But there’s another cost of driving we don’t talk about enough: The expense to repair and replace utility poles, traffic signals, bus stops, bike corrals and other streetside infrastructure damaged by low-skilled and/or distracted and/or careless car drivers.
According to PBOT, the $621,682 of damage last year is the budgetary equivalent of installing speed bumps on 85 miles of street, upgrading 518 crosswalks with high-visibility markings, or filling 8,022 potholes.
Now, for the first time ever, the Portland Bureau of Transportation has released a public tally of these expenses. They found that in 2020, car crashes led to $621,682 in damage to signals and streetlights at 210 locations. And that’s just a partial accounting of the expenses. It doesn’t include damaged signs, bridges, barricades, bus stops, outdoor seating, bike corral racks, homes, and so on.
These all-too-common collisions cost taxpayers and strain City of Portland staff capacity because not only do maintenance and engineering crews have to spend time fixing immediate safety concerns (like exposed wires and debris in the street) and on installation; but city employees also have to manage insurance claim paperwork and spend hours trying to recover costs. For fiscal years 2018-19 and 2019-20, PBOT recovered approximately $1.4 million in damages to the bureau’s infrastructure. That’s also a partial amount. PBOT says they are often unable to determine who’s at fault for damage, and in many cases, the person who was driving doesn’t have adequate insurance or money to pay.
PBOT says they repair damage to existing equipment on a daily basis and they often end up picking up the tab.
When PBOT spends time on money cleaning up the mess left behind by careless, reckless, and under-trained drivers, it means they have less time and money to spend on the things we need.
According to PBOT, the $621,682 of damage last year is the budgetary equivalent of installing speed bumps on 85 miles of street, upgrading 518 crosswalks with high-visibility markings, or filling 8,022 potholes.
How do we fix this mess? It’s simple: The fewer times people get into a car, the less chance they’ll have to run into something (or someone, but that’s a different conversation). We need to do everything possible to reduce driving trips and create a system where more people feel safe and comfortable outside of a car.
And when people do drive, they need to be less terrible at it. We can fix that by improving driver testing and doing more traffic law enforcement. The design of our streets can also help. Streets where we constrain drivers with medians, robust crossings, and lower design speeds, will incur less of this damage.
A silver lining here is that at least PBOT has done some accounting and is now, hopefully, more aware of the extent of this issue.
Back in 2017 I asked them for these exact numbers. PBOT said they don’t track all these expenses and they passed my records request off to the Office of Management and Finance, the agency that handles damage claims. In 2019, an OMF staffer responded to my request by saying, “We don’t know when most of the damage occurs, or what caused it, so we don’t process claim paperwork for most of the damaged property, just a portion.”
Given the extent of damage — which will get worse if distracted driving and traffic volumes continue to increase — the City of Portland should beef up its accounting response so we can recoup more of these costs and publicize the problem to make more people aware of the issue.
If you see damage in need of repairs, contact PBOT Maintenance emergency dispatch 24/7 at (503) 823-1700 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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Eeks! Not surprising given that we have essentially no enforcement of traffic laws in Portland. This needs to change! Think of all the traffic improvements that could be done with that money. 🙁
That article is really bad and it comes off as masked propaganda for the PPB to justify more spending. Instead of just quoting Hardesty they could have explicitly pointed out that the bureau has had a staffing problem for years and they could have acknowledged the the bureau chose to defund their own traffic division. Which to me comes off as retribution for having a very small portion of their budget reallocated and calls for them to be held accountable, just the same as the stories about them not responding to calls.
All the while they have cost the city millions in overtime to beat protestors, journalists, and bystanders that result in millions more in settlements. Who knows how much money and time our attorneys have to spend trying to determine fault and if they can actually hold any of these offending officers responsible.
There have been complaints about the lack of traffic enforcement in this city for over a decade the same sentiment you expressed can be found on almost every post here about PBOT redesigning a street or vision zero. This isn’t a new problem the PPB is just choosing to make it worse.
It’s not the fault of PPB. They were forced to prioritize immediate threats to life and limb due to the police defunding. Before the defunding there was a sizeable contingent of officers dedicated to traffic enforcement.
Huh? Sizeable force dedicated to traffic enforcement? When? A retired PPB motorcycle traffic officer told me when he retired (about 10 years ago), he and two others were the only ones dedicated to traffic enforcement.
There were 7 officers transferred from the traffic division to patrol on January 1, 2020 due to police budget reductions. So compared to 1 yes, there was a sizable contingent. However, yes I agree we need more than 8. The streets are chaos in motion.
See link below for details:
I remember the early 2000s when 20+ PPB motorcycle officers on traffic duty were assigned to harass Critical Mass cyclists instead of doing their real jobs, so not much has really changed.
Right, and when a school wants you to vote yes on a bond, they start talking about reducing school bus service due to lack of funding.
PPB very vocally eliminate one of the only services they provide that the community values in an attempt to pretend that their tiny budget reduction (all departments got reductions) actually impacted their ability to respond.
Nope, the PPB has to prioritize 911 calls and immediate threats to life and limb. Makes sense they had to eliminate the traffic cops and the Bike Theft Task Force due to the lack of support by the city (financial and otherwise). Now we all suffer from the mismanagement of public safety by the Portland City Council.
The police were actively ignoring 911 calls. The only thing they made a priority was trying to increase their budget and political influence.
Hi “Pete J.” I’ve deleted this and three other comments because I suspect you are using different usernames and emails to post multiple comments (aka sock-puppeting). That is not tolerated here. -If you think I’ve made a mistake, please contact me directly at email@example.com. Thanks – Jonathan
FWIW, police in PDX have not been defunded in any real sense; but they are choosing not to perform their essential functions, like a child having a temper tantrum. Police unions need to go, unlike other unions, they are not in the public’s best interest.
Which public employee unions do serve the public’s best interest? Unions exist to serve their members.
The fun fact is unions brought us the weekend. And job safety. And decent benefits like FMLA. And better working conditions.
Union workers make about 10-11% more than non-union folks. But when you lift up some employees, other potential employers have to compete to try to attract quality employees – so in areas with high union membership, even non-union folks make more.
Union membership and pay inequality are inversely related. If you’re wondering when the vast majority of weath began to be hoarded by the wealthy, instead of shared among society, it’s as union membership declined.
So if it’s the public best interest to have decent working conditions, health care, benefits, and some semblance of equity, thank unions.
Portland has far fewer police officers today than it did two years ago.
Call it whatever you want. I think it’s a problem.
Not really do to de-funding, tho. They weren’t able to hire people even before they had any sort of budget cuts and tons of them have been quitting.
We should probably start asking about why they couldn’t hire anyone? Why are so many officers quitting? Is the current incarnation of the PPB really serving the community in a sane, effective way? It’s definitely not a good look for PPB to have so many people quit and not have people wanting to serve the city.
Actually the PPB can’t hire and officers are leaving because of the virulent anti-police members of the Portland City Council.
If the police actually lived in Portland, they could vote for new council members!
My response is neither here nor there to the original argument (should police live in the communities they police), but I did want to speak to the glaring difference between police and the other professions you mention (nurses/teachers/etc):
Police are empowered by the state to restrict or remove personal rights, liberty, and even life. To require things of them not required by other professions who do not have this power strikes me as entirely reasonable.
What defunding are we talking about? The police had a small budget cut, but their budget was going up every year for how long? They were definitely not defunded. The only impact it had was that they closed a few openings – they did not have to get rid of anyone because of the budget change.
Many people make an argument that they closed their traffic enforcement as a political move to sway people so they could get more funding. I think that’s at least partially true. Truth be told, tho, they weren’t doing much enforcement before that change.
When was a sizeable contingent of officers dedicated to traffic enforcement, aside from parking?
We’ve all seen the destruction in our neighborhoods. Last year 2 telephone poles completely severed on Outer Powell, one resulted in a power loss to hundreds of households. Just this month damage to the pedestrian light on the SW corner of 162nd and Powell and more damage to the entrance gate to Powell Butte Nature Park. Park’s budget? All along Division at the pedestrian crossings installed at grade. Overhead crossings would save money in the long run.
I wonder what repair expenses are incurred at the other bureaus and PGE due to damage from autos and trucks?
Yes, overhead crossings for vehicles would save money, not inconvenience cyclists and pedestrians, and lead to safer streets.
Water Bureau infrastucture in the ROW is routinely damaged by vehicles, usually these incidents are hit and runs so the ratepayers end up paying. Not that long ago a vehicle jumped the curb and did extensive damage to the exterior of the Water Bureau’s operations building at N Interstate and Tillamook. Water quality sampling stations, fire hydrants and other equipment in the ROW is also routinely damaged.
People don’t use overhead pedestrian crossings. They tend to be inconvenient and difficult to use, compared to crossing at grade.
Smart people use all types of crossings when available.
Yes. But you don’t only design infrastructure for smart people. And judging by the fact that most pedestrian bridges are rarely used, most people either aren’t that smart or they view the bridges to be an inconvenient barrier.
My bad. Overhead lighting at grade crossings would be more ideal than having vehicles constantly destroying the at grade crossing lighting and hardware.
Seems like there ought to be some sort of tax on drivers, so that they have some skin in the game.
Skin in the game is a good concept. Maybe we should make those who actually cause the damage pay for the repairs instead of adding yet another tax. Of course we would need a functional police department to make that happen.
Speed cameras all over the city, with heavy fines. The people causing this damage are also the ones who speed excessively, run red lights, etc. Speed cameras will raise revenue and change behavior.
Your desire for more speed cameras blanketing the city is a pipe dream right now. It takes approval by the Oregon Legislature because it’s a statutory issue and several bills focused on expanding automated enforcement died in the 2021 session that just finished. And this is with Democratic supermajorities so I don’t know how you can expect the political climate to change in favor of even more automated enforcement.
Sometimes it’s the pipe dreams that keep life worth living.
Data shows a large fraction of the road side damage is from drunk driving, and distracted driving is believed to be a cause of the increase in damage over the years. DUI drivers and those being distracted tend to drive slower, not faster, so speed cameras are not the best approach for those offenses. Both can not be enforced using automation and are effectively suppressed using sufficient traffic patrol. If cameras are used as an excuse to keep manual enforcement low, then the citywide situation will only go downhill.
The capture of passenger biometric data by the existing speed camera setups is also very problematic. Faces should be auto-blurred by the system before storage, with license plate picture storage only. Storing passenger biometric data that can be easily fingerprinted is mass surveillance of non-suspects. In the past, mass analysis of large amounts of surveillance data had to be done manually, which meant it was only done in cases in which it was really needed. Now with automated facial recognition and AI that can be applied to any dataset and then networked to other data sources, the game has changed. Its now way too easy, cheap, and fast to abuse these biometric data sources by just the click of a button, and we are now seeing these abuses increase exponentially worldwide. Its not a matter if when, the abuses are already happened on a large and growing scale as these databases grow, are hacked/leaked, compiled and redistributed.
As an example of how easily mass surveillance can be abused, I encourage people to be open minded and review the story of the Pegasus spyware. Pegasus was a program developed to go after organized crime networks, and especially to discover how the players were connected. A noble cause. However, it quickly devolved into a tool to monitor human rights groups and their supporters, activists of all kinds, dissidents, journalists, and previously anonymous sources used by journalists, on a truly massive scale.
We can have traffic enforcement without the mass collection of biometric source data.
I think there should be speed/red-light cams all over as well, but “studies show” that consistency of fines, rather than severity is what will influence behavior. I’d say let’s make fines $50, and not require human intervention before sending out tickets to registered owners by license plate number. I’m wondering whether, if the fine is low enough, we’d be more willing to lower the tolerance for speed overage as well. If drivers knew that 3 over the limit through certain stretches of roadway would guarantee a $50 fine every time, it would have a much greater effect than a slim chance of a $250 fine.
I’m not sure I agree with your frequent but consistent low fine idea with no human intervention. It sounds good but I suspect that the first time the computer mis-identified a plate, there would be howls of protests.
I do agree that the fines from traffic violations should go to the registered vehicle owner, without having to necessarily identify the driver. Owner either pays the fine and/or gets points on their license, or tells to whom they loaned the vehicle. Loanee then gets points/fine. If you are going to license a motor vehicle for use on our roads, you are responsible for figuring out who is driving that motor vehicle. Only exception would be if the vehicle is reported stolen.
Also, in addition to speed/red-light cams all over, allow the public to submit video for a traffic violation. For example, you see the green car run the red light in the KGW story, linked above. That should generate a fine for someone. They do this in the UK. See, e.g., https://twitter.com/MikeyCycling No, the person submitting video does not get a bounty or a cut of the fine. Maybe they should.
This would also require a crackdown on obscured and missing license plates.
I found an article about consistency vs. severity here.
Your point about misidentified plates is a good one. Maybe a human confirmation step would be warranted, but one where all they see is a cropped image of the license plate (to avoid bias problems), and what the computer thinks it is. If the human viewer disagrees with the computer, then further action is needed before mailing a citation.
There would always be issues with vehicles traveling in a “platoon”, where individual vehicles might be hard to identify, or it might be difficult to determine which vehicle(s) in a cluster were actually speeding.
Would love the option of public-submitted footage. A couple months ago I got video of a car going possibly double the speed limit on 223rd in Gresham (other vehicles in the frame going same direction to compare), at the same spot where a driver doing something similar earlier in the year lost control and killed a little girl waiting for a bus on the sidewalk. Got a good pic of the license plate as well, since I was able to catch up to them at a stop light about a half-mile up the road. Tagged both City of Gresham and Gresham PD but nothing came of it.
Here you go – https://www.courts.oregon.gov/forms/Pages/citation.aspx
Maybe an excise tax on the purchase of a new motor vehicle? I hear that’s how bicycles are sold nowadays in Oregon.
What can we do to get rid of the dumb bicycle tax?
And the Arts tax too!
Although it is the “Portland way” maybe another tax is not the answer. How about having the guilty parties pay for the public infrastructure they destroyed?
Most of these are hit-and-run crashes, so that doesn’t really work.
Paint is not protection.
This statement could be read as either 1) paint is not protection, we need real physical barriers between cars and the rest of the world or 2) paint is not protection so cyclists and pedestrians better watch out. I’m hoping you intend the former.
To me, that’s two sides of the same coin.
Other Empires in history have been finished off ( once they were past the point of no-return) by various things. The Romans by the Goths, others by Genghis Kahn and his hordes. It is becoming apparent to me that the faltering U.S. empire will be finished off by motorized criminals in oversized vehicles. Destroying the infrastructure of civilization, running down innocent citizens and destroying the psyche of the population. Who needs an empire to be finished off by invaders when we have destructive clowns in SUV’s and Pickups?
Cue the Mad Max soundtrack?
When it came out the original Mad Max was seen as apocalyptic fiction. But lately too many motorists int the city of Portland and its outskirts view it as a self help video and are bent on acting it out in real life.
Given the political affiliations of most Portlanders and the outskirts…those motorists are decidedly liberal.
It’s not just Portland, we have similar behavior happening in TX. Multiple semi wreck caused by someone in an SUV in Mesquite just down the pike from my house.
It doesn’t help that the roads are being “buffed out” with ever-smoother surfaces, and all the big curbs at corners are being smoothed out with ADA ramps. I think the ramps are great, but when they follow the whole radius of the corner, you basically turn a speed-restricting tall curb into a race-track style low curb that everyone just drives over. Just check out all the rubber marks on some of these new curbs that show tires going right where you’d be standing to wait for a light.
Can we get Telephone poles installed at all corner curb apexes? Or maybe 12″ diameter, 4′ high steel bollards? Jersey barriers or planters in front of all the crosswalk reflective beacons, please. More PHYSICAL things in the road, that cars can’t just drive over, and drive away from.
We need to make it as simple as: If you can’t be trusted to keep your car in the lane, you don’t deserve to be driving.
The power pole at NE Halsey and 47th is extremely effective. I’ve never seen anyone cut the corner when turning south from eastbound Halsey. I have seen many, many gouges in the pole, however. That’s one of the safest corners to stand on in the city.
I think we have a strong argument for additional hardscape in this city. Drivers have proven again and again that they can’t be trusted.
You can’t solve distracted driving with more hardscape, hardscape is actually more hazardous to cyclists than it is to motorists; hit the curb in your car and you might need a new wheel and an alignment, hit the curb on a bicycle and you might need major surgery.
HA! Where? Seriously, where? In my experience, he city generally doesn’t bother with putting in more curb cuts, or modifying curb cuts unless the curb cut is specifically requested, and/or they are sued.
Well, Portland is upgrading 18,000 ramps (out of 40,000 corners), and any new construction is building these new-style curbs as well. So I’d say that’s a significant amount, and “your experience” will change in the years to come.
Yes, because they were sued. I have vague memories of the lawsuit- it may have been 2012. I knew a few people involved with it. change. This was *probably* a few years after I had put in requests for a number of uncut curbs to be cut, and a few broken ramps to be fixed. To the city’s credit, most of those were fixed, but I was told that the tallest curbs couldn’t be fixed because there were large basements underneath them. Yes, “my experience,” as you put it, will undoubtedly change. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
You keep forgetting to mention that these “18,000 ramps” Portland is upgrading was scheduled to take place over 12 years.
But won’t robot cars solve all this problem?
New & Improved!
The Surly iCab 6
– RetroTech 28 gram nanotech hydroform frameset
– Complete Shimanosram drive system
– A 75,000 watt Bosch iRobot biped system with Cybernetics Corp. GPP (Genuine People Personality) – to keep up with traffic and dodge ancient artifacts along the roadway
– A fully enclosed air-conditioned cab with Dupont Heatshield for those 110 degree chilly winter Portland nights and to protect against the periodic acid rain and methane storms
True mobility for your loved ones, pets, offspring, and service robots.
Other features include:
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Don’t forget street trees, not only from intentional running over but also incidental interactions of the roadway (like parking)
Developers cut down more trees than cars and trucks do…
If it weren’t for the no-good-terrible developer who built my house, I wouldn’t have somewhere to live.
This is evidence for the huge value of local reporting: it seems unlikely that the agencies in question would have compiled and announced this data without the very perceptive questioning by Mr Maus. In turn, by announcing it, they’re providing rhetorical evidence in favor of sensible but unpopular policies that might mitigate the damage and it’s subsequent cost.
It’s infuriating to see this generally un-acknowledged cost to our transportation system, especially after fending off complaints about how the city is wasting money on bike/ped projects. But this is great reporting and it warms my heart to see.
“its subsequent cost”