*UPDATE: Hardesty’s resolution passed. Scroll to end of story for full recap of council meeting
Following the death of Sarah Pliner in a traffic collision at SE 26th Avenue and Powell Blvd on October 4th, two of the many emotions our community felt were shock and surprise.
How on earth could we have a school where hundreds of students cross a state highway every day, located adjacent to a deadly multi-lane state highway and it not be designated a school zone? When I talked to the Region 1 Oregon Department of Transportation spokesperson two days after Pliner died, one of the first things he asked me was, “Is it a school zone?” The fact that they didn’t know was not a good sign.
Turns out it’s not. That means there are no signs telling drivers they’re about to pass an area teeming with teens whose brains are not yet fully able to calculate risk. It also means the legal speed limit is 30 mph on Powell (a state highway) and 25 mph on 26th.
On Wednesday, on the eve of SE Powell Blvd Community Safety Forum that will be held at Cleveland High School, PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty proposed a City Council resolution that would change that. Here’s what the resolution will do (taken from Hardesty statement this morning):
- Directs PBOT to install a school zone on SE 26th Avenue and requests ODOT create a school zone on SE Powell Blvd in both areas adjacent to Cleveland High School.
- Asks ODOT to install school zones at all schools on state-owned highways in Portland.
- Directs PBOT to pursue school zone installation at any street adjacent to a high school where the speed limit is higher than 20 mph, whether it’s a city street or state-owned highway.
- Directs PBOT to propose additional safety improvements on other parts of SE 26th Avenue, Inner Powell and other busy state-owned streets. The bureau would use safety improvements called for in ODOT’s Blueprint for Urban Design, which the state agency does not apply consistently in the Portland area.
- Directs PBOT to study the city’s freight routes and street classifications that may be leading large trucks to use SE 26th Avenue instead of streets that are wider and more appropriate.
- Directs PBOT to work with ODOT to develop a thorough cost estimate for the improvements needed to bring Powell up to city standards for safety and maintenance, from SE 9th Avenue to I-205. Without an understanding of the true cost of transfer and a commitment to fund the full cost, a transfer will not make the road safer.
- With a realistic cost estimate and adequate funding, these improvements could lead to a transfer of Powell to city control, using the recent transfer of 82nd Avenue as a model.
If a “school speed zone” is designated, the speeds would drop to 20 mph on both streets and related signs would be installed. PBOT says they’d get their signs up as quickly as tomorrow. It’s unclear how long it would take ODOT to follow suit — or if they’d do it all. Note that Hardesty is requesting that all schools on ODOT-owned arterials — not just Cleveland High — be designated as school zones.
In Oregon, state law requires that people obey that speed limit when special school zone sign lights are flashing or on school days between 7:00 am and 5:00 pm.
This is the most consequential request Hardesty is making of ODOT (but note that this is just a “resolution” which is not legally binding and carries much less weight than an ordinance). The other ones on the list are likely things ODOT will gladly do and/or is already working on. ODOT Director Kris Strickler said last week he wants to “quickly transform” Powell Blvd and that “no change is off the table.”
In a statement about the resolution released before today’s council meeting, Hardesty said, “I want to hold ODOT to their word and am optimistic we can work together as partners to make the streets around all Portland schools safer and start transforming Southeast Powell Boulevard.”
Underscoring the urgency for changes at SE 26th and Powell, a Cleveland High student was injured by a car driver on Wednesday. According to an email by school principal Jo Ann Wadkins, the student was hit while crossing the street on the way to catch a bus.
There will be a discussion about Hardesty’s resolution at today’s council meeting. I’m listening to it now and will update this story with new information as it comes out. I also expect to share a response from ODOT shortly. Stay tuned and refresh this page. All updates should be done by 12:00 pm today.
UPDATE, 11:20 am: The resolution has passed unanimously. Learn what happened at the council meeting below…
Commissioner Hardesty kicked off discussion of the resolution by holding a moment of silence for Sarah Pliner and “other who’ve lost their lives to traffic violence.”
After Hardesty laid out the proposal, Commissioner Mingus Mapps asked a few questions. One of those brought up PBOT City Traffic Engineer Wendy Cawley who clarified that if the resolution passes, the city plans to re-install the green bike lanes and bike boxes on 26th. This would be a fascinating move since PBOT agreed to a compromise with ODOT in 2016 that led to ODOT removing those same green lanes and boxes. Cawley said those could come in the “next few months.”
In addition to putting those bike facilities back in place, now that the resolution has passed, Cawley says PBOT will move forward with a new mid-block crossing with a concrete median on SE 26th north of Powell at the main entrance to Cleveland High School. This is likely a move to discourage students from using the dangerous crosswalk on Powell.
In comments before the vote was taken, Mayor Ted Wheeler said, “I was very surprised that we don’t have reduced speeds around all of our schools.” “That is probably going to come as a surprise to a lot of our state leaders as well,” he continued. “We should fix that. That should be part of our legislative discussion.”
Before he voted yes, Commissioner Dan Ryan said “It’s about time that we put safety of our kids in front of ODOT’s concerns.” And Mingus Mapps, who has a 12-year-old son, said making the changes outlined in the resolution “cannot come soon enough.”
Now that PBOT has marching orders from council, they still have to work with ODOT for the Powell Blvd portions of the requests. It remains to be seen how flexible ODOT will be and whether or not they’ll adopt this new school zone policy. All eyes (and ears) will be on ODOT Director Kris Strickler at Thursday’s community forum event.
Sensing the community’s ire toward ODOT and eagerness for changes, Hardesty urged folks to give ODOT Director Kris Strickler space for a partnership to develop. “This resolution is not about throwing [ODOT Director] Kris Strickler under the bus,” Hardesty said. “It’s about drawing a line in the sand about how we protect vulnerable people in the city of Portland.”
UPDATE: 12:45 pm: I’ve heard back from ODOT. Region 1 Public Information Officer Don Hamilton says the changes ODOT is working on (in partnership with PBOT over the past two weeks) are “significant.” Hamilton said more details will be released at Thursday’s forum. He also added that ODOT is already “updating painting and striping to improve visibility on key nearby intersections.” As for the school zone designation, he confirmed that ODOT will install one adjacent to Cleveland. We hope to have more details about this soon.
UPDATE, 10/20 at 8:00 am: Following the passage of the resolution on 10/19, PBOT says their crews will install new school zone signs this morning in front of Cleveland High.