ODOT goes big on flashing beacons

A flashing beacon on SE Milwaukie.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Do you like those flashing beacon crossings? You know, the ones where you hit the beg button and lights flash and people (are supposed to) stop for you to cross? If so, you’ll be happy to hear that the Oregon Department of Transportation has announced many more on are on the way. “The beacons are a critical part of ODOT’s efforts to maintain a modern and safe transportation system,” read an ODOT statement last Thursday.

ODOT says the beacons are “an effective tool for improving safety on busy corridors, especially in areas with long distances between traffic signals” and that they, “provide an additional layer of safety and assurance for anyone crossing a busy road.” The agency also emphasized the value of these crossings for sight-impaired people.

Of the 25 additional flashing beacons ODOT says they’ll install in the next two years, ten of them will be on Southeast Powell Boulevard (Highway 26).


(Photo: ODOT)

This is the type of investment Metro Council Juan Carlos Gonzalez has said he wants ODOT to do more of — instead of funding more freeway lanes. “There’s urgency in communities like those I represent in Washington County to drastically improve pedestrian safety,” Gonzalez said in the ODOT statement.

Here are the Portland area locations where ODOT is either under construction on new crossings or has them queued up between now and 2023:

A flashing beacon is coming soon to this intersection at 82nd and Alberta where two people were hit and killed while walking back in April.

82nd Avenue at NE Pacific and SE Mitchell Streets
OR 99E at SE Boardman and SE Hull Avenue
NE Sandy Boulevard at NE 108th Avenue
*NE 82nd Avenue at NE Alberta
North Lombard at N. Delaware and N. Emerald
SE Powell Boulevard at SE 108th, SE 116th, SE 119th, SE 140th, SE 145th, SE 151st, SE 156th, between SE 157th and SE 160th, SE 166th and 168th
SE 82nd Avenue at SE Cooper Street, SE Clatsop Street

This doubling-down on beacons comes as no surprise, as this type of infrastructure has proven very popular with politicians and policymakers alike for years. At around $100,000 per crossing, they’re much cheaper than overhead “HAWK” beacons (like at E Burnside and 41st, which run about $400,000 a piece) or full-fledged signals (which can start at $800,000), and since they’re less intrusive to motoring they don’t tend to be very controversial.

Beyond their relatively low cost, these beacons give road agencies a relatively easy way to respond to community pressure after a fatal collision.

Since they were first used by ODOT in 2009, they’ve often been installed at locations after people have been hit and killed trying to cross the street. That was the case with Angela Burke on SW Barbur, and the tragic collision on SE Foster that killed Jennifer Leonard and her friend Jessica Finlay in 2010. *It continues with the forthcoming beacon on NE 82nd and Alberta, where Stephen Looser and Anthony Tolliver were killed back in April.

In their announcement about the new beacons, ODOT emphasized a companion educational effort on how to use them. However, Oregon law is already clear that if a person intends to cross a street at an intersection (marked or not), vehicle users are required to “stop and stay stopped” until they cross. While these enhanced crossing tools are helpful, they wouldn’t be needed if people traveled at a safe speed and with the requisite amount of attention and care on their task.

While a welcome sight for many, these beacons also represent yet another hoop we have to jump through to mitigate the harms inherent in our dangerous, driving-dominated streets and the dysfunctional traffic culture that perpetuates it.

CORRECTION: This story originally had outdated cost estimates for flashing beacons, HAWK, and full signals. The price listed now is 2-3 times higher than originally reported. I regret any confusion.

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