Photo of the scene looking west on SE Powell toward SE 26th intersection.

Someone has been killed by a truck driver while trying to cross the street near Cleveland High School.

The Portland Police have confirmed that it was a bicycle rider. The collision happened at SE 26th and Powell Boulevard (Highway 26). According to PPB, the victim, “appeared to be a female in her mid to late twenties.” Three blocks of Powell Blvd are closed during the investigation.

According to a photo from the scene, the truck driver appears to have been driving eastbound on Powell. The victim’s bicycle can be seen lodged into the left rear wheels and their body came to rest near the southeast corner of the intersection.

There was a lot of confusion over the age of the victim, with us and many others jumping to the conclusion that it was a student. While the PPB initially said it was a woman in her 20s, they have just released an update to clarify that, “the victim was an adult female in her forties, and not a high school student.”

Former Portland Public Schools Board Member Rita Moore shared on Twitter just now that, “A great many students and staff witnessed it. Happened at the beginning of lunch, so lots of people around. That intersection has been treacherous for years.”

Slide from a 2014 Powell Blvd safety audit by Kittelson & Associates (for ODOT) shows Cleveland students trying to stay out of the street.

We heard from another source who was in contact with students at the school who described a gruesome scene unfold right in front of them.

A BikePortland reader, who I’ll refer to as KM, happened to be at Powell Park across the street from the school immediately after it happened. She walked over to the scene to offer help and said the campus security team and counselors were already there directing traffic around the body. “A person was lying near the SE corner [of 26th and Powell], about 10 feet into Powell, along the eastern crosswalk crossing Powell,” she described.

There was a group of Cleveland students who were also at Powell Park eating lunch when it happened. Teachers asked KM to help direct the kids back to school, across Powell Blvd, which was by that time completely blocked by first responders.

As Rita Moore mentioned above, this is a very notorious intersection. SE Powell is owned and maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation and there’s a legacy of activism and protest against how they’ve managed it.

The streets outside the school are so dangerous that in March 2018 we reported that the principal of Cleveland High issued a warning to students about it prior to a national walkout protest event. “I do not want any of our students to be hurt or injured as a result of the fast and heavy moving traffic on Powell,” Principal Ayesha Freeman wrote.

In May 2015, Portlander Alistair Corkett was hit by a pickup driver while biking at the same intersection and his leg was torn from his body and later amputated. Just a few weeks after that crash, another bicycle rider was hit and suffered a broken leg at the same location. Protestors showed up to the intersection in large numbers for a rally, with many calling out ODOT directly. “Highway 26 Crime Scene: ODOT Guilty” read one of the signs pulled behind a bicycle rider during the protest.

Three months later, ODOT decided the intersection was too dangerous for bicycling, so they told PBOT to remove a narrow bike lane that used to be striped on SE 26th. Instead of the bike route being on 26th, ODOT insisted that PBOT direct riders to SE 28th where they’d install a new, bike-friendly crossing of Powell. With backing from The Street Trust and outrage from the public on their side, PBOT pushed back and convinced ODOT to give them two years to prove that 26th was the better bikeway option.

As a decision loomed in February 2018, there was another big protest at the intersection by cycling and safety advocates who refused to give into ODOT’s plan. Ultimately, with The Street Trust helping to forge a compromise, PBOT relented and ODOT succeeded in making the driving space on 26th even wider and the official bike route was moved to 28th.

Both ODOT and PBOT agree that, similar to 82nd Avenue, Powell Blvd should be in the hands of the City of Portland — not the State of Oregon. Powell Blvd ranked #1 in Metro’s 2020 jurisdictional transfer study. But before that happens, both sides would have to agree to fund updates to bring the street into a “state of good repair.” In 2017, legislators awarded $300,000 to for ODOT to study inner Powell and come up with a list of projects and a cost estimate. That study was completed in 2019 and found the total cost for the upgrades would be around $31 million.

If someone could come up with $31 million, Powell could be taken away from ODOT for good. That’s less than half the $80 million the legislature gave to 82nd to make that transfer finally happen. It’s worth noting that 82nd jumped the queue only after two people died at the same intersection in less than two weeks. As grim as it sounds, nothing is more effective at breaking bureaucratic gridlock than death.

Bike Loud PDX, a local advocacy group, has announced an emergency meeting to plan a protest. “ODOT must be held accountable,” they said in a tweet.

According to our Fatality Tracker, this is the 42nd traffic death in Portland so far this year.

UPDATE, 10:45 pm: The victim was Sarah Pliner, an accomplished and well-known Portland chef who owned Aviary, an award-winning restaurant on NE Alberta that closed in April 2020.

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