This spring, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is as busy as the bees—even if they’ve yet to leave the hive.
Powell Boulevard is on the verge of seeing some drastic shifts. As previously reported (“82nd Avenue will receive less state funding in 2018,” MCM February 2018), the Oregon legislature gave the high sign for a jurisdictional transfer for the section of Powell east of I-205 as part of House Bill 2017. HB 2017 allows for new bike lanes and pedestrian walkways along outer Powell before the official city takeover of this arterial state highway.
Even before HB 2017, ODOT was planning two big projects along Powell: the U.S. 26 Powell Boulevard Safety Project and the Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project. The jurisdictional transfer will have to wait until both projects reach completion. An official deadline for the takeover is to be determined.
The U.S. 26 Powell Boulevard Safety Project has already “gotten started,” according to ODOT public information officer Don Hamilton. It concerns the bustling section of Southeast Powell between 20th and 34th avenues. Along this sliver of the once-orphaned highway, ODOT has big plans. The U.S. 26 Powell Boulevard Safety Project will install three enhanced pedestrian signals (or Rectangular Rapid-Flash Beacons, also known as “RRFBs”) at Southeast Powell and 24th, 31st and 34th avenues; high-visibility striping; and center islands to promote safer crossings. You’ll see a wider pedestrian waiting area on the southeast corner of 26th Avenue near Cleveland High School aimed at aiding students as they cross at Powell Boulevard. New signals will be implemented at the intersections of 21st, 26th, and 33rd avenues with enhanced safety features. And the list doesn’t end there.
While the U.S. 26 Powell Boulevard Safety Project pushes forward, news from ODOT on the Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project, the second of these two independent initiatives, has been scarce.
A mini history lesson
In 2012, ODOT began design work for the four-mile stretch of Powell from east of I-205 (approximately Southeast 99th Avenue) to the Portland/Gresham city limits at Southeast 176th Avenue. It was then buoyed by the state legislature in Fall 2015 when the Legislature approved $17 million to design and construct on Powell from Southeast 122nd to 136th avenues. This beefy check allowed for the likes of the Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project. Since 2003, the intersection at Powell and Southeast 122nd Avenue has been one of Oregon’s “top 5 percent sites for the number and severity of crashes,” according to ODOT’s webpage for the Safety Project.
Matt Freitag, the project leader for the Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project, suggests Outer Powell has been on ODOT’s mind for years. “It’s been on our radar since 2012, and in 2014 we looked at the environmental impact.”
Part of Powell’s problem, despite being run by the state rather than the city, has been the speed of its development. “This area has grown so much in the last couple of years. It wasn’t that long ago that it was a remote rural part of Portland, and now it’s more urban. We’re working on other roads, but it’s important that this section of this critical road meet the needs of the 21st century,” says Hamilton.
Powell pedestrian safety prioritized
Susan Hanson of ODOT’s community affairs explains the divisive nature of Powell’s growth spurt and why the Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project is necessary. “One of the main ideas is to reduce fatalities and injuries on Powell. It’s a busy corridor. We want to make sure we’re providing people with safe crossings, and we’re adding a lot of features to enhance the safety for pedestrians and cyclists, such as continuous bike lanes and crosswalks. New pedestrian-activated crosswalks will be at three locations: one near 125th, one near 130th, and one over by 132nd.”
With the Outer Powell Project, there’s a little something for everybody––and not just for pedestrians and cyclists, as some residents might fear. Hanson mentions automobiles, too. Fender benders are common along this stretch of outer Powell. The Outer Powell Project would construct center turn lanes.
As reported a few years back (“Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project open house held,” MCM January 2015), the first public open house held by ODOT for the Outer Powell Project arrived on Dec. 9, 2014. Its most recent open house was over a year ago, on March 21, 2017. Though things have been quiet, ODOT officials contend that the design process is sticking to its proposed timeline.
Asked if there have been any major shifts in the project’s design since the last open house, Freitag denies any significant change. “Not really. That’s why you haven’t seen a lot of open houses. We heard loud and clear what was needed. Since then, we’ve been delivering what we said we were going to deliver.”
A community advisory committee made up of about thirteen individuals held meetings to discuss the project periodically from 2015 to 2017. Hanson believes ODOT has been active and scrupulous in receiving community input.
“We’ll become more active as we get closer to construction,” says Hanson. “On this project, we made a robust effort to reach out to all the people in the Powell corridor in this area, as well as businesses owned by non-English speaking people. It’s a culturally diverse area, and we wanted to hear all voices. When we produced written materials, we translated what we had into five different languages. Right now, we’re finishing up design.”
Freitag concurs. “We’re still in the middle of the design phase, but we’re nearing the end, and we expect to finish around August. Then we can bid by December.”
If all goes as planned, both projects should top out by 2020. Another open house will appear closer to construction time. ODOT will mail more information to all residents near the general project area, including traffic impacts. ODOT encourages residents to sign up for the project mailing list on the project’s webpage so they’ll receive all news fresh from the oven, as it were.
To learn more about the Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project, visit ODOT’s official webpage for the project at outerpowellsafety.org/index.php.