Portland’s 122nd Avenue Safety Project celebrated the unveiling of a new crossing signal with a press conference and ribbon cutting. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and former Commissioner Steve Novick were among the speakers at the event; this was significant for several reasons, the most obvious of which being that Eudaly defeated Novick just two years ago for the commissioner’s seat she now occupies. Additionally, Novick’s presence was notable as he was the main driver of the road safety initiative, which cost $4.7 million from the city of Portland’s general fund.
The event, held on a brisk and sunny Monday morning this past Sept. 10, was less about introducing the addition to the community as it was an opportunity for the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and the city itself to show what they do with public funds allocated for projects of this magnitude. The project was certainly costly, but it was not the kind of shiny attention-getter a new park may be, for instance. Attended only by press, the small gathering at the corner of Northeast 122nd Avenue and Stanton Street featured brief speeches by Commissioner Eudaly, former Commissioner Novick, Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, TriMet Chief Operating Officer Maurice Henderson II and interim PBOT Director Chris Warner.
“Today, basically, is the fulfillment of an idea that came about in 2014. At that time, PBOT and TriMet began to talk about how to make safety and mobility improvements on this street,” said Director Warner in the opening address, “and as you can see, the needs for improvement are obvious.”
While 122nd Avenue isn’t particularly faster or more dilapidated than other major thoroughfares in the east Portland, it is one of the most notoriously dangerous. Additionally, its size, relative thinness of its sidewalks, frequency of traffic and lack of clearly negotiable crosswalks have all contributed to making it a major pain for pedestrians and public transportation commuters alike, not to mention wary drivers. An article from The Oregonian in July of this year identified the 20 worst intersections in the city in terms of accidents, injuries and fatalities. Nearly every single one of them is on the east side of Portland, and five of them of them—a quarter of the worst intersections in the city—are on 122nd Avenue. Based on data from 2012 to 2016, 122nd Avenue accounted for 487 crashes, over 637 injuries and at least one death. The number of accidents is eye-popping, though the fatalities were fortunately lower than one would expect. There have been five deaths from accidents on 122nd Avenue in 2017 and 2018 alone.
“122nd Avenue has long been a priority for east Portland community leaders.” said Eudaly in her remarks. “I’m very happy that we were able to deliver this today.” She also had kind words for her predecessor, Steve Novick, who she credited with doing the heavy lifting to get the project on track long before she took over as the commissioner who oversees the city’s transportation.
The ribbon cutting was largely symbolic, as the crossing signal at N.E. 122nd Avenue and Stanton Street had already been operational for several weeks. However, it was an important event in that it not only makes the dangerous street safer but also allows TriMet to add a Frequent Stop bus line on 122nd Avenue. These select lines, of which there aren’t many in the whole city, run every 15 minutes, vastly expanding transportation options for eastside residents. Line 73 is the Frequent Service route serving 122nd Avenue.
“The line runs north-south, so it’s now our east-most frequent-service bus line,” said Maurice Henderson II. “Line 73 started about two years ago, and today we are continuing the fulfillment of the deal we made with the city.”
Steve Novick, a University of Oregon alumnus and graduate of Harvard Law School, is most well-known to Portlanders (and people across the country who pay attention to politics) as the long-shot who mounted a quixotic bid to dethrone Republican Senator Gordon Smith, the junior senator from Oregon, losing by a shockingly close three-point margin to current Senator Jeff Merkley in the primary. By running to the left of the liberal Merkley, Novick is credited by some as signaling that traditional notions of tempering one’s views to win office might be ending. After that 2008 campaign loss, he turned his attention to becoming a city commissioner, with a focus on transportation safety. During his tenure, he was the driving force behind the 122nd Avenue safety initiative—but then found out how much of a trend he may have started with his bid against Merkley when he was himself defeated by the upstart, farther-left-leaning candidate Chloe Eudaly. He didn’t help himself much with voters when he arrogantly taunted them to vote him out of office over the “street fee” issue in 2014, which they did at their first chance two years later.
Describing a 2012 meeting with former TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, Novick reminisced about the roots of the project.
“I said, ‘If the city can afford to spend millions of dollars on a streetcar to Lake Oswego, which was under consideration at that time, then by God, we should be able to afford frequent bus service on 122nd Avenue.’ Then I got out of his office and discovered the city doesn’t have the money for a streetcar to Lake Oswego,” said Novick. “[In fact,] the city doesn’t have any money at all!”
Over the course of the intervening years the project has inched forward, with Novick constantly agitating for increased bus service. Once it became clear that the street improvements would be necessary to make that a reality, he shifted focus to an ill-fated plan to raise money for the safety project (and others in Portland) through a “street fee,” a tax on homes and businesses in 2014. Ironically, though he won on his liberal values (and later ostensibly lost on his lack thereof) the idea of raising taxes cost him big politically, even with Portland’s overwhelming majority of liberal voters. Ultimately, the project came together through a pact between the city and TriMet that freed up the $4.7 million dollars for the project.
Though the celebration of the project’s completion was centered on 122nd Avenue and Stanton Street, there are new, signs, signals, sidewalks and other improvements all along 122nd Avenue, which will hopefully have a measurable effect on one of Portland’s deadliest streets.