TriMet buses are often slowed in traffic in downtown Portland. (
Within the next five years, Portland has pledged to create bus-only travel lanes on the approaches to three downtown bridges, build a network of protected bike lanes on both sides of the Willamette River and improve dozens of dangerous pedestrian crossings in the city’s center.
The City Council on Thursday approved a $36 million project list, the culmination of an effort which dates to 2012 and which transportation leaders say would make downtown streets more efficient, safer and equitable for all Portlanders. The city still faces a $9 million funding gap to make the projects a reality. The overall effort, known as Central City in Motion, includes an additional $37 million in projects to build within the next six to 10 years.
The vote amounts to one of the most significant council actions on bike and transit projects in years, and transportation officials say it’s critical to give Portlanders a safe and efficient option to get around other than driving — especially as the region grapples with how to meet its ambitious carbon emission reduction goals.
“For too long we’ve only been addressing one end of the spectrum, which are car drivers,” said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation, “while neglecting the other end, until relatively recently.”
Eudaly said the city was intentionally spending tens of millions on bike, transit and pedestrian projects and not on developments directly benefitting motorists. “We all own the streets,” she said.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish were absent from the meeting with previously approved excuses, leaving outgoing Commissioner Dan Saltzman with Eudaly and Amanda Fritz as the sole elected officials voting.
Saltzman, in one of the last significant votes in his City Hall career, said it was critical to make biking safer for all Portlanders and said he could relate to the testimony from concerned riders who said their spouses don’t ride because of the conditions on Portland’s streets. “That’s me, too,” Saltzman said, “I won’t ride because I’m too afraid.”
Saltzman said the city must also step up its traffic enforcement for distracted drivers, cyclists and jaywalkers who break the law. “Unless we do that, these strategies will all look good,” he said, "but be ineffective.”
The vote came after hours of public testimony, largely from transit and business groups who support the project list.
The top priorities:
A $5.3 million plan to build protected bike lanes, and bus and right-turn-only lanes on the Burnside Bridge and for blocks extending on either side.A $6.6 million protected bike project in downtown, turning Fourth Avenue into a northbound route and Broadway into the southbound connector downtown.A $4.5 million plan to turn Seventh Avenue in the Central Eastside Industrial District into a protected bike route.A $4 million plan to convert the seasonal Better Naito bike lane into a permanent two-way cycle track on the riverfront road, which would convert one of the northbound travel lanes into the bike path.
Transportation officials described, at length, how Portland has fallen behind its peer cities nationally and in North America in how it treats transit and bike projects in particular. Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle and Denver have all taken concrete steps in recent years to dedicate travel lanes to buses and to build protected bike lanes in their city centers.
Gabe Graff, the Portland transportation staffer who led the project, said Seattle had added 60,000 jobs in its city center but 4,500 fewer people were driving alone to work because of the transit and bike improvements.
The cumulative project list would result in about 1,000 curb parking and loading zone spaces being removed, leaving 19,328 spaces in downtown and the inner-eastside neighborhoods.
Representatives from Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State backed the project list.
Bernie Bottomly, executive director of public affairs for TriMet, said bus or right-turn-only lanes on the Burnside, Steel and Hawthorne bridges would help sped up 13 bus routes on their journeys throughout the metro area. Bottomly said it’s critical that Portland get the projects out the door and soon to show voters in the region the benefit of speeding up transit and making it safer to bike. Metro plans a region-wide transportation bond in 2020, which could include up to $20 billion in projects.
Several Central Eastside business owners or representatives expressed concern about the proposed removal of parking spaces or loading zones on Seventh Avenue, which runs through Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods.
The city wants to have a robust bike lane to connect with the Sullivan’s Crossing, the bike and pedestrian bridge expected to begin construction in 2019 which will connect the neighborhood to the Lloyd District.
A representative from Elephants Delicatessen said losing much of the loading zone around the popular business’s main kitchen and distribution center would be “devastating.”
Fritz introduced an amendment, which passed, that ensured that adequate access and convenient loading zones will be maintained for those eastside businesses.
Eudaly later cautioned that projects were not “carved in stone.”
“We’re picking 18 projects,” she said. “The next step is more engagement, more outreach, before we build them.” She said the city would create a working group to oversee the project list.
Transit and bike advocates pushed the council to dream big and to move along with the projects faster than the five-year time frame.
Paul Frazier, a North Portland resident, told the council he biked to the meeting and witnessed a cyclist narrowly avoid a vehicle that turned right without looking. “The only thing that we don’t know,” he said, "is do we have the courage and will to do this?”