If you had asked any official a month ago if a jurisdictional transfer of 82nd Avenue from the state’s hands to the City of Portland was in the cards sooner rather than later, nobody would have given you a straight answer. Then, with the click of a “send” button, everything changed. 

On March 26, a host of Portland political heavyweights stomped their boots and distributed a letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, the city and Metro Council. The letter bemoaned the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT’s) decision not to prioritize 82nd Avenue—the problematic “orphan highway” with skinny, dangerous sidewalks, too few crosswalks and an alarming death toll—in its 2018 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). The RTP prioritizes major transportation funding projects for the next three to four years. Signees include Mayor Ted Wheeler, City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, District 23 Senator Michael Dembrow and Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. Another notable signature comes from Radcliffe Dacanay, the project manager for the city’s 82nd Avenue Study, an outreach study designed to discover barriers to development along 82nd. What’s notable about Dacanay’s signature is that the 82nd Avenue Study has yet to release its results. 

The letter makes its case as follows: “Every five years, the region creates a vision for our transportation system for the next 20 years with our highest priorities. A failure to include this project in the RTP and follow-up with immediate funding for planning and design could result in this critical improvement being delayed for decades. For people walking in Portland, 82nd Avenue is the most dangerous street, with 140 pedestrian collisions in a 10-year period, including seven pedestrian deaths and 25 serious injuries. In addition, 82nd Avenue is the sixth most dangerous street for bicyclists and twelfth most dangerous street for people in motor vehicles.” 

In Portland’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan, it mentions 82nd Avenue and, in contrast with ODOT’s aspirations or lack-thereof, aims to carve it into several neighborhood nodes. Still, the most unexpected sentiment expressed in the letter is this: it calls for a jurisdictional transfer. For the 82nd Avenue Improvement Coalition, which was somewhat aimless in directing this goal just a month ago, the letter was a sweet melody added to their chorus. “The letter from March was the first real political momentum toward a jurisdictional transfer,” explains Brian Wong, who helped form the 82nd Avenue Improvement Coalition. “It was the first written indication that the city is interested, even though Wheeler mentioned it in 2017 at our public forum.”

For its part, the Metro Council agrees with city politicians. “The city was not happy, and the Metro Council has the authority to say we don’t support the RTP as is. I believe the Metro Council has supported the jurisdictional transfer in the past and has tried to gain funding from the state to speed up the process,” states Nick Christensen, the Metro Council’s senior public affairs specialist. 

Christensen points out that Metro Council President Tom Hughes issued a response on April 12 to the politicians. It promotes 82nd Avenue as one of a few orphan highways that “already functions as a local road” and that “transformational change of these corridors is necessary to meet the region’s safety and equity goals.”

Letter No. 2 
The next bomb dropped on April 18. Michael Dembrow of Senate District 23 and Alissa Keny-Guyer, Oregon House Representative of District 46, sent a follow-up letter to Ted Wheeler and the powers that be at ODOT and the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). This letter calls for an “expedited transfer of ownership of 82nd Avenue from the State of Oregon to the City of Portland.” Dembrow and Keny-Guyer suggest that Wheeler, PBOT and ODOT get together and hash out the nitty-gritty of a jurisdictional transfer—and fast. “I support that letter,” says Jessica Vega Pederson, Multnomah County District 3 commissioner, which encompasses swaths of Portland from the Sunnyside to the Parkrose neighborhoods. “The reason why it’s important is that ODOT considers 82nd a highway, and so the upgrades or improvements they would make would use highway standards. These are different from community standards that people who live and work on 82nd want, such as wider sidewalks or bicycle lanes.” 

This sudden ticking clock harkens back to the results of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Implementation Plan, which were released this January. The Plan was key in illustrating local ambition for the street, as well as ODOT’s limits for meeting those interests. The two didn’t add up.

As previously reported (“82nd Avenue will receive less state funding in 2018,” MCM February 2018), the 82nd Avenue of Roses Implementation Plan was a multi-year process motivated by direct community input in recommending ODOT funding solutions for tidying up 82nd over the next seven to 10 years. Despite the extreme effort of the Implementation Plan, 82nd would see fewer state resources this year than last. This didn’t sit right with public faces like Wong. The highway’s absence from the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan further solidified his conclusions that 82nd Avenue is not a priority for ODOT. “When they [ODOT] surveyed the community, there were three big things we wanted: better sidewalks, improved crossings and for the road to be paved,” explains Wong. “The report didn’t offer any way to move forward on any of those three things. It talked about paving, but it didn’t talk about what the funding might look like or where it would come from.”

ODOT supports transfer to city
Considering all of this, make no mistake: ODOT hasn’t been silent on the issue of a transfer. In fact, ODOT has veered toward support. Now, it’s making that clear. “ODOT welcomes the leadership of our state legislative representatives and looks forward to the opportunity to work with all the jurisdictions of this region to develop a strategy for the transfer of state-owned arterial state highways to help better achieve their community vision,” says Rian Windsheimer, ODOT’s regional manager for the Portland area. “It’s important not to judge ODOT’s commitment to safety and our significant investments in safety by looking at the small subset of projects we deliver that are reflected in Metro’s RTP. ODOT is investing in safety on the City of Portland’s Top 25 High-Crash Corridor network to the tune of over $240 million in recently completed and programmed safety and active transportation improvements, including $35 million on 82nd Avenue over the last ten years.”

When ODOT’s public information officer Don Hamilton was probed about official talks for a transfer, his response was short. “We’re on board.” 

Last year, Oregon House Bill 2017 passed, allowing for two other jurisdictional transfers to occur. Another “orphan highway,” or state-owned highway that’s utilized as a city arterial––Outer Powell––received the go-ahead to be transferred from ODOT to the City of Portland. Unlike 82nd Avenue, ODOT is currently dedicated to two high-profile projects along Powell that may delay the transfer. The other transfer outlined in the bill is from city to state. It will see the windy Cornelius Pass Road in the Tualatin hills change hands from Multnomah County to ODOT. 

The bottom line appears to be that a jurisdictional transfer for 82nd Avenue has gone from a pipe dream to a work in the pipeline. For Wong, the reward is almost in arm’s reach. “It’s very exciting, and we feel very fortunate. The coalition will be working with the city to get the appropriate legislation to occur,” says Wong, who submitted a letter on behalf of the coalition to Wheeler, PBOT and ODOT on April 21. “People want segments of 82nd to have a unique neighborhood feel, but ODOT would keep it homogenous from one end to the other. There would be no distinction. I feel like that’s something the community really wants for 82nd: a sense of place. Right now, I can’t tell if I’m in the Jade District or Montavilla.” 

Wong’s letter asks for “development of an integrated plan for 82nd Avenue that includes upgrades to vehicle and pedestrian infrastructures, as well as affordable housing and local business development.” 

Looking ahead with bright eyes, the letter defines the transfer as “self-determination” in the “transformation of 82nd avenue.” 

For background information on the 82nd Avenue of Roses Implementation Plan, check ODOT’s official webpage for it at oregon.gov/odot/projects/pages/project-details.aspx?project=17PF120. For more information on the 82nd Avenue Improvement Coalition and its vision for 82nd, go to 82ndavenue.wixsite.com/about.