Students cross SE 26th Ave outside Cleveland High School on October 5th. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

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 the salient excerpt:

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Portland City Council directs PBOT to install and request ODOT to install a School Speed Zone adjacent to Cleveland High School, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Portland City Council requests that ODOT install School Speed Zones for any and all schools on state-owned arterials, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that PBOT shall undertake a study of freight classifications and routes that impact the volume of freight vehicles using SE 26th Avenue, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that PBOT shall partner with the ODOT on further immediate safety improvements on SE Inner Powell and SE 26th as well as additional safety improvements on State owned urban arterials per the ODOT’s Blueprint for Urban Design, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, PBOT shall partner with the ODOT in jointly developing a cost for transfer that achieves a state of good repair and safe SE Powell Boulevard from SE 9th Avenue to the I-205 interchange following the model of the recent successful transfer of 82nd Avenue from the State to the City.

Source: ODOT

If a “school speed zone” is designated, the speeds would drop to 20 mph and related signs would be installed.. 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. Note that Hardesty is requesting that all schools on ODOT-owned arterials — not just Cleveland High — be designated as school zones.

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 11:00 am.

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