Eight people died in traffic crashes in Portland in the past seven days. So far this month, our streets have claimed 11 lives — the highest monthly total since records were kept — and we still have 10 days left in the month.
The killing of Jeanie Diaz by a drunk driver on Southeast Cesar Chavez Blvd Saturday is still in the headlines, yet five more people have lost their lives in crashes since. I woke up this morning to police statements about three fatalities since I went to bed last night.*
(*Update, 12:17 pm: Portland Police say a third person has died in the collision on SE Powell Blvd last night. Two of the victims were just 18 years old.)
Even before these last three deaths, at a meeting of the Portland Bureau of Transportation Bureau Budget Advisory Committee (BBAC) Thursday evening, frustration over the seemingly unending traffic toll boiled over with one member lashing out at the leader of PBOT.
Meanwhile, there’s simmering frustration and a sense of helplessness from Portlanders about what can be done to stem this tragic tide, local transportation advocacy groups have been all but silent, enforcement of traffic laws is a joke, Transportation Commissioner Mingus Mapps has chosen to spend his time meddling around with charter reform, our vision zero plan hasn’t done enough, and PBOT says they just don’t have the funding to make necessary changes fast enough.
It makes me wonder: Who will lead Portland out of this darkness and what is their vision for doing so?
PBOT Interim Director Tara Wasiak (at her final meeting in that role as Millicent Williams is set to begin as PBOT Director Monday) acknowledged the recent deaths at the outset of the BBAC meeting. “We continue to have a tragic summer of traffic violence on our streets,” she said. And then Wasiak went to the same PBOT talking point we heard earlier this week. “Speeding and driving while under the influence continue to be two of the main factors and many of the crashes happening in the city.”
Wasiak then framed PBOT’s response in budgetary terms (she was a budget meeting after all). “As our budget problems grow, our ability to respond and make real concrete changes to our streets is diminished,” Wasiak said. “The problem isn’t our desire or ability to make the changes needed to make our streets safer, safer. The problem is that as as revenue declines, city council forces us to cut our budget we simply don’t have the money to make the changes to our streets that we need.”
BBAC member Ignacio Simon responded by lambasting Wasiak’s agency. “What have we seen since [making the Vision Zero pledge in] 2015 in terms of traffic violence and traffic fatalities?” he asked. And then before she could finish answering, he interjected, “The answer is we’ve seen a sharp increase., and putting up flashing signs that say ‘Drive Carefully’ is hardly a solution and I find it rather insulting.”
“What’s even the point of signing up to a vision zero pledge?!” he then asked. “I mean, what are you guys actually doing in terms of making our roads safer, especially for pedestrians?… I am ashamed in my fellow citizens in the city, who are not outraged that we’re seeing this level of traffic violence on our streets. I am ashamed. I am outraged. And I’m going to keep being outraged at you because you as a bureau are responsible for these things. And you will never stop being responsible for them until you start to take these things seriously.”
PBOT staff kept their cool and other members of the committee pointed out how PBOT is at the whim of political winds and City Hall is where Simon should point his passion.
Following these exchanges, committee members went through the brutal exercise of prioritizing which PBOT programs should be cut given the budget reductions the bureau faces.
In 2015 when the City of Portland adopted the vision zero stance that, “No loss of life is acceptable,” advocates pushed to include an amendment that would have set a firm date to reach zero deaths. But no one on City Council at the time, including former PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick, were comfortable with that strong of a commitment. They said the city lacked the necessary funding to reach zero deaths, and that there was too much political risk if they fell short.
Former Oregon Walks leader Noel Mickelberry was prescient when she testified at that 2015 meeting. “These deaths are going to continue to happen as long as we have streets that allow for it,” she said.
And in the same meeting, before voting to adopt the vision zero proclamation, the late Commissioner Nick Fish said, “I don’t want people to declare failure when you make progress.”
Almost nine years later and unfortunately Mickelberry’s statement is the one that has held up.
UPDATE, 2:30 pm: Commissioner Mapps’ office has shared a lengthy statement with BikePortland about the traffic death toll. Read it here.