Mayor makes it official: PBOT will close Wheeler Ave tomorrow

Mayor makes it official: PBOT will close Wheeler Ave tomorrow

Wheeler Ave traffic and meeting-15

Mayor Adams at a meeting this morning
about the N. Wheeler Ave closure.
(Photos © J. Maus)

In a meeting with over a dozen representatives from businesses in the lower Albina district, Mayor Sam Adams announced this morning that he will move forward with a partial closure of N. Wheeler Ave. PBOT crews will install a median barrier in the northbound lane of Wheeler and make other adjustments by tomorrow morning. The step is being taken to prevent right-hook collisions that have plagued the intersections for many years.

PBOT first floated the idea of a Wheeler closure on August 10th, saying it was the only “immediate” fix that would prevent right hooks and thus further injuries to people bicycling down Broadway. (PBOT analysis shows that Broadway/Wheeler has more bike/car collisions than any other in the city.) When it became clear that some business owners were not on board with the idea, PBOT delayed action to hash out their rationale and meet with those who would be impacted.

Addressing meeting attendees this morning, Adams said, “We have a very serious problem and it’s an urgent problem and it’s literally matter of life/death in the near term.”

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“It’s not a question of if I like bikes or cars better, or whether or not I’m pro business… I’ve sat with too many families that have lost loved ones who were killed under trucks, or sideswiped by cars… I’m not going to wait to sit with another family member of someone that dies or is seriously injured.”
— Sam Adams, Mayor of Portland

While Adams made it clear that there are much bigger plans that will address safety and access issues in the coming years, he said he can’t sit idly by while people continue to get hurt. “It’s not something I feel I can let continue as it is for any longer,” he said, “It’s not a question of if I like bikes or cars better, or whether or not I’m pro business… I’ve sat with too many families that have lost loved ones who were killed under trucks, or sideswiped by cars… I’m not going to wait to sit with another family member of someone that dies or is seriously injured.”

Addressing the major public narrative (which is, not surprisingly, the focus of media coverage) about whose at fault for the collisions (many people are upset that so many bike riders ignore the stop sign at N. Flint, which is just a few yards away from where the Wheeler collisions are happening), Adams said, “There’s plenty of blame to go around. Bikes plow through the stop signs, cars don’t turn on their blinkers in time… or if they do turn on their blinker the structure of the intersection makes one wonder whether they’ll turn at Flint or if they’ll turn on Wheeler.”

On that note of people not obeying the stop sign at N. Flint, prior to this morning’s meeting, Mayor Adams visited the intersection while a Portland Police motorcycle officer did an enforcement action.

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Wheeler Ave traffic and meeting-7

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The motorcycle cop barely had time to rest between writing tickets. In the few minutes I was there, I saw three people on bikes pulled over. The officer was there for several hours and was busy the entire time. I heard one report that he pulled over someone in a car; but the vast majority of tickets went to bike riders and he was focused primarily on the Flint stop sign. (You’ll recall that enforcement focused on bicycle traffic has been going on at Flint since at least 2006. It is always controversial, and it doesn’t seem to be working. It’s also important to remember that there are many other high-volume, law-breaking behaviors at this location by all road users.)

At the meeting this morning, Adams emphasized that this partial closure of Wheeler would be a temporary fix. He said he’s focused on a traffic signal in the coming years — but that it would cost $500,000 and it still wouldn’t fix the right-hooks during green lights.

There was some concern and opposition aired at Adams from business reps at the meeting, but Adams countered each one of them with a laser focus on solving the immediate safety concerns.

One man asked Adams if PBOT had considered limiting the number of people that bike down Flint. “If I thought that was realistic,” Adams replied, “I’d pursue it. But it’s not. Respectfully, that’s just not realistic… They’ll go down the path of least resistance.”

When someone called for more enforcement at Flint, Adams answered, “We’ve had enforcement out there 1-2 days a week for many months. There’s plenty of tickets we could right for everyone involved. When engineering of intersections is this chaotic, people forget to turn on their blinker, they forget to stop if they’re coming down the hill on Flint.”

First Inc. owner Bob Huckaby continued; “There’s got to be more law enforcement. That’s what we’re lacking out there.” Again, Adams countered:

“We’ve been putting significant law enforcement out there. Let’s say there were no cops there, we still have this problem. We can have a cop out there all day long and we’re still going to have the problem. They’re blowing with the cop sitting right there. The geometry of the area makes it hard for people to even see the officer sitting on the sidewalk. I understand you don’t like this. I’d say we’ve invested a lot of money on the work-around and I don’t think this, in the scheme of things, is a very big price to pay to save lives and prevent injuries.”

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Bob Huckaby, owner of First Inc., a furniture installation company based just north of Wheeler Avenue.

“We believe in safety,” Huckaby said in response. To which Adams quickly replied, “Well then, what do you suggest we do?… You tell me you care about safety, I need to hear if you have a better option for safety. What I’ve heard is to close Flint. That’s not realistic.”

Adams spoke with confidence and respect and showed a solid grasp of the transportation issues faced by businesses in the area. For truckers concerned about limited access on Wheeler, Adams urged them to not use the street at all, pointing out that the City spent million upgrading N. Interstate Avenue as a main truck route and that large trucks negotiating Wheeler is inherently unsafe. (Adams drove a few alternate routes himself and found avoiding Wheeler would only result in about 30-45 seconds delay.) The mayor made it clear that he and PBOT staff plan to work with businesses to make access as smooth as possible. “We can work with you on curb cuts [to increase truck turning radii], removing parking, all of those things. I’m not going to leave you guys stranded out there,” he said at one point.

PBOT traffic safety project engineers gave a presentation to complement Adams’ closure plan. Greg Raisman said they’ve found collisions at Wheeler are caused by an even split of people riding down Flint and down Broadway. “Our analysis is that this location suffers from a significant geometry problem,” said Raisman, “Even if everyone behaved like angels here, we’d still be looking at a high-crash intersection.”

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PBOT staffer Greg Raisman went through the City’s rationale for the closure.

Far from a knee-jerk reaction, Raisman explained (to the appreciation of meeting attendees in my opinion) that they have taken a very thorough look at the issues and have found the Wheeler closure to be the best solution at this time. He called PBOT’s approach “access management” and said the goal is to “reduce the number of conflict points.”

Wheeler Ave traffic and meeting-1

A view from east, looking west at the Broadway/Flint/Wheeler triangle. The black sedan is turning right on Wheeler; the people on bikes are stopped at N. Flint; the Jeep in the foreground is coming off of the I-5 slip ramp.

Raisman also acknowledged that there are myriad other problems (both with infrastructure and behavior) in this area and he assured everyone that PBOT is working on them. “But what we’ve got right now,” he said, “Is a critical safety problem.”

By the end of the meeting, the mood in the room seemed collaborative and productive, not angry.

In the end, Adams said, “This is transportation, no matter what we do it’s always controversial… We’ve gotten criticism for waiting as long as we have. We’re taking action; but we recognize your needs and we want to work with you.”

The closure is set to begin Wednesday.

— Read our full coverage in the archives.

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