16 days after the death of Sarah Pliner outside Cleveland High School, the City of Portland and the State of Oregon have implemented the first pieces of a plan they hope will ensure it never happens again.
This morning just after 9:00 am, Portland Bureau of Transportation crews added new “20 MPH Speed Limit” and associated school zone signs to SE 26th in front of the high school. This comes about 24 hours after a resolution passed with unanimous support at Portland City Council gave them the authority to do so. When I visited the school this morning, I also noticed that new zebra-striping (a.k.a. “continental crosswalk”) has been added to all four of the existing crosswalks at the 26th and Powell Blvd intersection.
At the southeast corner where Pliner was hit by a truck driver, additional paint striping has been added to create a visual space buffer for turning drivers. Plastic turn-calming bumps (already in use citywide) are also in the plans and should be installed on this corner soon.
And these are just the start of changes in store.
PBOT Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera was at this morning’s sign installation event (PBOT invited the media an hour before it happened). From his comments it sounds like there has been very close and positive communications between PBOT and the Oregon Department of Transportation. This is notable not just because the two agencies often clash over infrastructure designs and priorities, but because they had a very ugly battle at this specific location four years ago that could have played a role in the death of Sarah Pliner.
In 2018, ODOT forged a compromise with PBOT over existing bike lanes and bike boxes on SE 26th at Powell Blvd. ODOT was nervous about bike/truck safety issues given the long history of collisions, and PBOT wanted to build a new signalized crossing for a neighborhood greenway just a block south on SE 28th. (Since 28th crosses Powell — a state highway — ODOT has total veto power over any PBOT plans.) Seeking ODOT permission to build the 28th Ave crossing, PBOT agreed to remove the bike lanes on 26th in a bid to persuade riders to avoid it and use 28th instead (PBOT was under pressure to demonstrate high volumes of bike/walk users at 28th because ODOT requires minimum traffic counts to comply with FHWA “warrants” needed to permit a new signal). But since many people still biked on 26th, the risks remained while the infrastructure was made even more dangerous. ODOT promised to install wayfinding signs on 26th to direct bike traffic to 28th — a request made by The Street Trust — but those were never installed.
Then Sarah Pliner was hit and killed.
Then ODOT Director Kris Strickler made a public statement about the intersection that was unprecedented in its tone and timing. He said no change would be off the table, that he wanted to “quickly transform” Powell Blvd, and that it, “should not, function as a traditional highway anymore.”
Those are jaw-dropping things for the most powerful person at ODOT to say. But did he really mean it? So far it seems like he did.
Today, PBOT’s Rivera said ODOT has been a willing partner. The first sign was the new striping in the crosswalks on Powell, which Rivera said PBOT pushed for and ODOT obliged.
In addition to that striping and the new school zone signs and speed limit reduction outside Cleveland High, PBOT also plans to: move two bus stops on 26th north of Powell to pull them further away from the intersection; stripe a new mid-block crossing with a concrete median island mid-block in front of the schools main entrance on 26th; reconsider freight route classifications to remove as much truck traffic from 26th as possible; and re-install the green bike lanes and bike boxes that were removed in late 2018.
That last item got my attention. I can’t recall PBOT ever re-installing a bikeway that ODOT forced them to remove. It would be quite a coup if that were to happen. And it would demonstrate an amazing level of self-reflection and maturity from ODOT. I asked Rivera what’s different today than back in 2018. “We’re hearing a different message from ODOT today,” he replied, carefully.
Rivera also let slip that there could be a median island as part of a new crossing treatment on Powell in the future. That would be another huge move from ODOT since they are typically very reluctant to reduce driving capacity on state highways. (On that note, it’s telling that no one has brought up the one thing that could lead to a substantive change in the safety of traffic on Powell Blvd: A road diet.)
A missing crosswalk safety tool
Rivera also said PBOT “would like to see” the installation of leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs) on the 26th Avenue crossings. These are proven safety tools where the signal turns green for crosswalk users before other lane users so they get a head-start into the intersection (not to be confused with a “scramble signal” where all traffic is required to stop for people crossing the street).
It’s important to note that back in April 2018, ODOT Region 1 Manager Rian Windsheimer promised to install LPIs here. In a letter (PDF) to The Street Trust (cc’d to PBOT director and commissioner staff), Windsheimer wrote, “ODOT will be implementing LPIs on the crossings of Powell Blvd at SE 26th Ave. This will allow pedestrians to get into the crosswalk where they are more centered in a driver’s field of vision, before the driver can begin making a right turn.”
But a leading pedestrian interval was never installed.
This morning I asked ODOT Region Public Information Officer Don Hamilton why. “It’s on our list of things to do at 26th,” he replied. “Coming soon.”
ODOT owns the signals on Powell, but they have an agreement with PBOT for the city to maintain and operate them. PBOT’s Rivera said the LPIs haven’t been installed yet because the software that runs them needs an update. “We need to swap out a controller part,” he shared in a phone call a few minutes ago. “We believe we have the funding and the ability to do that in the next several months at 26th and 21st.”
It sounds to me like PBOT planners and engineers have swung quickly into action with a suite of changes they want to see on and around SE 26th and Powell — and that ODOT is giving them a much warmer reception than usual. This shouldn’t be a big deal, given that this is an urban area in the city of Portland where a lot of people have been injured and killed over the years. But unfortunately the bar of expectations for ODOT in these situations in the past has been set extremely low.
What does Rivera make of all this?
When I asked him if PBOT was going out on a limb and pushing their plans over ODOT objections, he said that wasn’t the case at all. “ODOT has decided to accept the things that PBOT has been proposing, designing, and advocating for,” he said. “This is not, kind of a ‘going rogue’ and see how they [ODOT] respond kind of thing,” he continued. “We’re encouraged by what we’re hearing in our conversations with ODOT and we really feel like we’re going to be able to accomplish a lot.”
Learn more about what’s in store at tonight’s SE Powell Blvd Community Safety Forum.