What happened to SW 6th Ave improvements?

Corner of SW Broadway and 5th Avenue looking east. I-405 and the surface route of Hwy 26 create a no-man’s-land for people walking and on bicycles. (Lisa Caballero/BikePortland)

A few weeks ago the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) grappled with a thankless task, choosing between six patches PBOT had presented to it for routing cyclists into downtown from Terwilliger Boulevard.

That area surrounding the southernmost segment of I-405 serves as a surface street exchange for the confluence of three highways—Interstates 5 and 405, and Highway 26—and also Barbur Boulevard. Trying to carve a safe route for cyclists or pedestrians through the resulting jumble is like solving a Rubik’s cube. You can understand why a transportation planner might shout, “don’t touch that!” It’s pretty complicated.

On- and off-ramps from I-405 affect many surrounding surface streets

I say “patches” because PBOT doesn’t have the authority to really fix the underlying problem, which is the area’s numerous freeway on- and off-ramps. Those ramps are zones of hazard punctuating any PBOT safety effort. Truly addressing the problems in this area would require a lot of money, and ODOT’s cooperation.

So the BAC was being asked to recommend the best workaround for getting cyclists from Terwilliger Blvd to the intersection of 4th and Broadway—the portal into PBOT’s $17 million 4th Avenue project which, when completed, will be the main northern bike route through downtown.

The comments from readers into this post fascinated me. I pulled up a map and followed along as each commenter described how they navigated the mess. The riders fell into two main categories, those who approach downtown from the south using Barbur Blvd, and those riding in on Terwilliger. There was some discord between the two groups, and a side discussion arose about how PBOT determined route priority, why was routing Terwilliger riders onto Barbur more important than fixing the 6th Avenue/Broadway crossing? Which road got the most use?

But no one is more invested in fixing the 6th Avenue crossing than veteran bike advocate Keith Liden. Reader’s might remember BikePortland’s ride-along with Liden just last year, and his relatively inexpensive suggestions for making the intersection safer. In fact, making 6th Ave north of the intersection safer for cyclists is already part of the Southwest in Motion (SWIM) plan, project BP-02, “6th Portal to Central City,” and it comes with a relatively inexpensive $15,000 price tag.

Liden emailed Jonathan and me last week, “I’m really getting fed up with PBOT’s way of operating in a black box and prioritizing projects with no logic …” What had raised Liden’s ire was his discovery that PBOT had made a formal cost estimate, and had received project approval from ODOT, for a new project at the same location as SWIM’s BP-02.

The new project is for a rapid flashing beacon and pedestrian crossing of 6th at Jackson, and is estimated to cost nearly a million dollars.

Liden wrote PBOT:

Thanks for this information about the proposed pedestrian crossing improvements at 6th and Jackson. While I completely support improving this pedestrian crosswalk with an RRFB, it’s extremely discouraging to hear that the much less expensive and equally important bicycle improvements here will be kicked down the road until after $1 million drops from the sky to fund the RRFB (in other words, another decade +). This demonstrates PBOT’s consistent lack of interest for the plight of cyclists entering the city from Terwilliger for 25 years and counting. Other than Moody, this and 4th are the next busiest bike entries into downtown from SW. 
 
So why keep passing on any meaningful safety improvements for cyclists by placing this in the queue after an expensive project with probably no chance of being funded for years?  The anticipated 4th/Barbur project will help some cyclists, but it will be a cumbersome detour for many who are simply headed for destinations along 6th, PSU, or westerly portions of downtown.  There’s no substitute for a safe bicycle entrance on 6th.

Liden raised some good points, and it looked to me like the rerouting of cyclists from Terwilliger to 4th Avenue could be interpreted as backing off from a commitment to making 6th Avenue improvements.

I reached out to PBOT’s Communications Director, Hannah Schafer, to see if she could clarify the status of SWIM project BP-02. She took the time to look into the situation and responded to me with substantive answers which I will quote directly:

BikePortland: Has the Terwilliger/4th Ave project superseded the need for  BP-02? Has BP-02 been shelved? If not, what priority does BP-02 currently have?

PBOT: Because SW in Motion has limited funding opportunities at this time, PBOT staff are exploring the feasibility of including RP-02 Terwilliger to 4th Connector as part of the larger capital project to save on costs and increase the benefit of the SW Fourth Avenue Central City in Motion Project for people biking from SW via Terwilliger. BP-02 will still be prioritized as a Tier 1 project when additional SW in Motion funding becomes available. 
 
BikePortland: I’ve been told that PBOT received ODOT approval for an unfunded pedestrian RFB at Jackson and 6th, separate from the BP-02 bike lane improvement project at the same location. So it looks like BP-02 has become a lower priority than these other projects. Can you tell me what the PBOT thinking is concerning 6th Ave bike improvements north of 405?

PBOT: PBOT and ODOT staff collaborated on a concept design for a pedestrian crossing improvement at SW Jackson and 6th that utilized an RFB. While the design concept had the support of both agencies, we were unable to identify design and construction funding for the improved pedestrian crossing. The bicycle connection is similarly unfunded at this point. PBOT would like to implement both pedestrian and cycling improvements here but lacks discretionary funding to do so.  

BikePortland: Also, south of 405, are bike facility improvements planned for 6th between Sheridan and Broadway?

PBOT: PBOT staff are exploring bike improvements on 6th from Sheridan and Broadway. Funding for this connection has yet to be identified.

My interpretation of those responses is that the Terwilliger to 4th connector is a strategic response to underfunding, and is indeed a substitution for improving the crossing at 6th, and implementing SWIM BP-02.

After studying the BikePortland comments, I came away thinking that many riders heading east currently stay on 6th, and save their turns until after crossing over I-405. It’s an interesting situation, because any right turn prior to Harrison is prohibited, yet some cyclists do it anyway (the MAX runs along the east side of 6th).

The BAC is meeting is meeting next Tuesday, April 9th and on the agenda is, “SW Terwilliger Improvements: from Sam Jackson to Caruthers-4th (6:15-6:55):”

Continuing the March meeting discussion about Terwilliger, Roger Geller will discuss the results of the BAC’s April 4 field visit as well as two additional desired improvements on the corridor: 1) continuing the outbound bicycle lane on Terwilliger to the intersection with Sam Jackson; improvement to facilitate a left turn from 6th to Sheridan to access Barbur Blvd. Following discussion, the committee will consider drafting a recommendation regarding these improvements.

None of those desired improvements Geller lists cover the 6th and Broadway intersection. So there you have it, the underfunding of SWIM, a surface street quagmire caused by freeways, and murky prioritizations.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)

Lisa Caballero is on the board of SWTrails PDX, and was the chair of her neighborhood association's transportation committee. A proud graduate of the PBOT/PSU transportation class, she got interested in local transportation issues because of service cuts to her bus, the 51. Lisa has lived in Portland for 23 years and can be reached at lisacaballero853@gmail.com.

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blumdrew
1 month ago

I don’t think I commented on the prior post, but whenever I’m riding in the area I tend to cross 405 on 6th. Maybe this would change if there were better facilities on 4th, but as it stands now they are pretty much both equally bad so why bother heading down to 4th if the goal is to just get to Naito/Harrison anyways? Incidentally, I think 1st is an underrated choice, and usually is how I get from the Lair Hill area into downtown.

It’s this sort of interaction and story that really illustrates how low of priority implementing actual safety improvements for bike/ped is regionally and while it’s easy to blame PBOT, I think the really problem is ODOT. The horrifying conditions crossing 405 could be remedied for functionally no cost at all, but since the low-cost solutions might involve minor driver inconvenience they aren’t plausible. So instead, our only “serious choices” are to do some insanely expensive project (ala SW Corridor) or to wait decades until the road is in such a bad state of repair that the most minor of changes can be made when it’s rebuilt. Seems bad!

And a final note of no importance – technically 99W takes Naito from the Barbur/Naito interchange so the roadway of Barbur/4th is technically PBOT jurisdiction though structures and areas around onramps tend to be sort of squishy from a who owns it perspective as I understand it.

D2
D2
1 month ago
Reply to  blumdrew

I only traverse over to 4th when coming off of Council Crest via Broadway and getting to sixth would involve wiggling across several lanes of traffic which is impossible at any decent traffic volume.

Alexandar H
Alexandar H
1 month ago

This connection is…interesting, dare I say, useless?

I’ve ridden into downtown from terwilliger many times, I have never been interested in jogging over to 4th, because just taking sixth across the freeway and then making turns after that is easier. If there was actual bike infrastructure on 4th, that would be something I would change my route over, but there is no bike infrastructure on fourth. I know it’s planned, but until after it happens I’m not going to have any interest in riding there, particularly since 4th Avenue has more car traffic than 6th Avenue does.

My only gripes about that have been:
1, The lack of bicycle infrastructure on the north/east side of the freeway (I usually just take a lane).
2, lack of navigational aids. I have to remember which streets to turn on if I want to head down to the Naito bikeway, or up toward Washington Park. Signs on 6th recommending where to turn for those would be really nice, and not too expensive, I imagine.

cosmos503
cosmos503
1 month ago

I typically take 6th across and then turn right on Harrison to get to Better Naito. Crossing at 4th feels far more dangerous and takes more time. You have higher traffic volume, and two large roads to cross (and wait) at 4th currently, which isn’t fun. But if better bike infrastructure were added to cross at 4th, that does seem more ideal since 6th has the MAX tracks and few available turns in the PSU area once you are across the 405. Plus the road conditions going down Harrison are pretty awful in spots.

Unfortunately the construction on 6th between Sheridan & Caruthers has also made this whole section between Terwilliger and downtown pretty awful over the last year or so. I had some close calls there last summer.

I can’t wait for all of this to get better, because this is definitely one section I bike through that feels pretty unsafe. I also can’t wait for the 4th Ave improvements in general.

cosmos503
cosmos503
1 month ago

I may be naive here, but I’m curious why there is such a massive difference in estimated costs between BP-02 & BP-08, which seems like just essentially some additional bike lane paint?

BP-02: Extend bike lane on 6th across Broadway & 405.
Cost estimate: $15k

BP-08: Extend bike lanes on Terwilliger to fill gap at Sam Jackson Park Rd intersection.
Cost estimate: $150k-$300k

I’ll admit we’re talking about two lanes instead of one, and there is some mention of “an opportunity to coordinate and collaborate with the Bureau of Environmental Services as a part of the Sheridan Sewer Trunk Alignment Study project” as well as the fact that “design must be sensitive to impacts on adjacent property, and must include all relevant stakeholders in the development of any recommendations” – but that is a 10x-20x cost difference for what appear to be similar projects.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 month ago
Reply to  cosmos503

The lower cost is simply for the materials themselves (thermoplastic, wands, and RFFBs), The higher costs are for personnel, cost overruns, public outreach, 9 years of redesigns and value engineering, a cut for ODOT, the various scandals involving city councilors and PBOT directors, 3 trips to Amsterdam, and the various stakeholder committee meetings.

donel courtney
donel courtney
1 month ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Good one David, funny, but sadly, true in Portland where “the process is the product”

Mark
Mark
1 month ago

I also ride from Terwilliger northbound across I-405 onto 6th to then turn right onto Harrison. If and when there’s an alternative option via 4th, I’ll try it and see whether it’s safer or more convenient than my current route. So I think PBOT should consider the whole area before spending $. Which improvements give the best solution for the money?

Greatdane
Greatdane
1 month ago

The improvements to 4th/405 and the transitions from Terwilliger/Sam Jackson to there would have to be massive and actually designed for relatively efficient bicycle travel to get me to switch from using 6th to Harrison (or whatever other direction I go), even with no improvements made to 6th. The road conditions on Sam Jackson, 6th, and Harrison are atrocious, but I find that potholes and streetcar tracks are less annoying than 3-4 lanes of inattentive, impatient drivers on their way home from work. Or than multiple bike-specific signal-controlled turns one will have to wait on to get to 4th, and which some drivers will go through on red anyhow, if Better Naito is any indication. The right lane on 6th across the 405 has little traffic and there is plenty of room on Harrison. I just can’t come up with a logic where directing bike traffic to 4th makes more sense than making the 5th/6th transit mall a more bike and pedestrian friendly way to get to other facilities in downtown. As a frequent rider through this section, it’s mind-boggling.

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
1 month ago

For those in the ODoT loop…does ODoT (yet) have anything similar to the WSDoT “Multimodal Permeability Pilot (MPP)” guidance [or adopted the FHWA’s the Guidebook for Measuring Multimodal Connectivity (2018)] on making sure that project “solutions” / “improvements” do not require cyclists to go further in out of direction travel?
https://wsdot.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2021-11/MultimodalPermeabilityPilotReport-Aug2021.pdf

dw
dw
1 month ago
Reply to  Todd/Boulanger

What do you mean? ODOT already thinks multi-modally. They make sure all modes of transportation can flow smoothly; cars, trucks, and most importantly, SUVs!

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 month ago
Reply to  dw

When I lived in Portland, “mixed land use” meant a mix of housing, commercial, and maybe industrial; in the Midwest it meant a mix of retail, office, auto repair, and food stores or restaurants; here in the Deep South it means a mix of owners in the same office park or strip mall.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago
Reply to  dw

My comment of the week (won’t be picked – too snarky but still great).

csghor
csghor
1 month ago

I tried a few different routes over my years commuting between Kerns and OHSU/Marquam Hill and back. Most often I would stay on 6th northbound into downtown, then turn east on either Columbia or Madison on my way to the Hawthorne Bridge. If the traffic did not permit safely turning, I could make a full stop and wait for the light. I still felt considerably less exposed than the times I opted to take Sheridan.

I found Harrison easier to turn onto than Madison, but harder to merge onto 4th at that point due to higher car volumes and speeds. After trying several alternatives over almost 2000 commute days, I found that 6th avenue traffic’s constraints usually meant better flow and a better feeling of safety (that MAX train wasn’t going to suddenly swerve into my space).

The number of unfavorable traffic signals, lanes of traffic, and road conditions/rail tracks on the path NE from 6th and Sheridan into downtown made it my least preferred choice, even when the construction between Sheridan and Caruthers was at its worst.

Taking this transition on a dedicated path through the north end of Duniway Park, in combination with a priority bike signal at 4th and Sheridan, plus a real separated bike lane on 4th, would make a big difference in this calculus.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago
Reply to  csghor

a dedicated path through the north end of Duniway Park

Is there room for a dedicated path? I haven’t heard anyone bring up this idea but it sounds intriguing.

foobike
foobike
1 month ago
Reply to  csghor

I frequently ride down Terwilliger coming off Council Crest heading eastside. My go-to route is Terwilliger/6th over the 405, then a right onto College, then another right onto 5th then bear left onto Lincoln with easy access to either Naito or Tillikum. It works ok for me, ymmv.

As you mentioned, it was a little stressful when construction was bad between Sheridan and Caruthers on 6th, but that seems to a non-issue lately (that covered walkway that made it impossible to see the traffic light on Caruthers until you were in the intersection was fun!). Getting over the 405 merge lane on the right to make that right turn from 6th to College is a little janky especially negotiating the rough pavement there – but not too bad.

Granted I’m going a couple 2-3 blocks out of the way but Lincoln is pleasant way to bypass the downtown traffic. And I like having the option of crossing the river via the Tillikum, that bridge always brings a smile to my face when I ride over it.

Wade
Wade
1 month ago

Why not close the off-ramps? We could be like San Francisco when they closed freeway off-ramps and it would revitalize an entire part of downtown/SW Portland! The cars will find another way and it could potentially improve traffic on inbound 26 with fewer cars merging…

Wooster
Wooster
1 month ago
Reply to  Wade

Freeways shouldn’t have any off-ramps at all. They should be a trap that you never escape from. That would do a lot to reduce driving demand.

Surly Ogre
Joe Bicycles
1 month ago

why does the 405 have exits to 4th Ave AND 6th Ave?
Does anyone know why the westbound 405 after Marquam Bridge has an exit to 4th Ave AND an exit to 6th Ave?
Does Portland really need two freeway ramps that are two blocks apart ?

dw
dw
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Bicycles

Also, why are there entrances on Broadway AND 5th. Talk about overbuilt car infrastructure.

Wooster
Wooster
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Bicycles

Easy…PSU. PSU wanted direct access to their parking garages on 6th Ave, and they got it. Good luck getting them to support removing it.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago

What I hope isn’t lost in this conversation – or on the BAC – is that you have TWO cycling routes in this area, and still no one is discussing the second one:

  1. Terwilliger to 6th
  2. Barbur to 4th.

From what I can see, they are used by separate cycling populations.

I tend to reach downtown via Barbur/4th, and I’m surprised to see how many commenters take Terwilliger/6th.

I still think the squiggle PBOT is considering – which would make the Terwilliger folks squiggle over to 4th – makes no sense. Yes, cyclists will continue to take the lane to cross 405 and reach 6th, but is anyone really expecting moms on bikes with eight-year-olds on their bikes to traverse this area? That ain’t gonna happen til ODOT finds million$ to fund an entirely new paradigm in this area.

Greatdane
Greatdane
1 month ago

I hate to say it, but OHSU no longer advocates for its employes. Unless it involves making money for the institution. It is true that there is a good bike mode-share out of necessity, but I’ll eat crow on the day OHSU does anything to actually make it better for their employees who ride their bikes up and down the hill.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago
Reply to  Greatdane

Wasn’t that why OHSU built that bazillion-dollar aerial tram – so you could park your bike at the bottom and take the tram up the hill and not need your bike up there? Or can you actually take your bike on the tram and have a fun fun fun roll down the hill on your way home?

Greatdane
Greatdane
1 month ago
Reply to  Fred

Haha. I highly doubt bikes are among the reasons they built the tram, but I’m open to whatever literature you find. Pretty sure they built it because there was literally no more parking on the hill and they could put another big parking lot at the bottom allowing more people to drive. As I understand it, the bike valet at the bottom came later and is operated by a non-OHSU entity. And it’s a great option depending on where you are actually located on the hill. For me it takes at least 15-20 minutes just to get between my office and my bike at the bottom of the tram. then I still have to ride home, which is another 15 minutes. Riding home from top of the hill takes 15 minutes total, and is mostly really fun, so I’ll always choose that! [I will openly acknowledge I have the easiest bike commute possible…]

BTW – you can take your bike up the tram, but you are required to board before everyone else – so you frequently wait for the next tram even when one is there loading. I do it sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, but generally just ride up for the exercise and because it doesn’t really take that much longer…

I will also say in response to your original comment that I think a lot of people with kids and trailers do actually pick Terwilliger over Barbur. Despite different issues with both routes, many people I know still view Terwilliger as a much lower stress route than Barbur.

dw
dw
1 month ago

Reading these articles and associated comments have been really interesting for me. Seeing all the different ways that people have puzzled together approaches to this mess when biking, the thing I’m thinking in the back of my head is “yeah, no wonder most people opt to drive”.

It’s really illustrative of how highways divide and destroy communities. Not the just the highway itself, but all the associated spaghetti to let cars zip on, off, and between them. Those cars spill out on to the surface streets, operated by agitated and impatient drivers. We just have this ridiculous status quo that isn’t really good for anyone’s mental or physical health.

Until there’s a paradigm shift at the state and ODOT realizes that moving traffic is only a part of infrastructure “working”, I think PBOT’s puny little painted lane is all we’ll get. Maybe there were some plans for this spot as part of the SW MAX extension, but that failed so I guess we’ll just have to wait another lifetime.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago

How about we get a big bike ramp over this mess? Isn’t that the kind of big project that ODOT loves?

John V
John V
1 month ago
Reply to  dw

Comment of the week.