BikePortland.org

Errant Portland drivers caused $621,000 in damage to traffic signals and lights in 2020

Damaged bike parking racks on N Rosa Parks Way. (Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

A small sampling of the destruction.

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.

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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 pdxroads@portlandoregon.gov.

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