Mayor makes it official: PBOT will close Wheeler Ave tomorrow – UPDATED

Mayor makes it official: PBOT will close Wheeler Ave tomorrow – UPDATED

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 and 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 are plenty of tickets we could write 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. He has concerns about the closure, and feels more needs to be done to improve Flint stop sign compliance; but he is also very reasonable and understands the safety concerns.

“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.

UPDATE, 3:18 pm: Mayor Adams has just released a statement and a diagram of their fix…

Statement from Mayor Sam Adams on Safety Measures at Intersection of Wheeler, Flint, and Broadway

Today, after extended planning and engineering evaluation, I have made the announcement that the City is closing Wheeler Street to right turn traffic from NE Broadway as a short-term safety solution. As we go forward with the N/NE Quadrant plan, unanimously approved by stakeholders, we will be implementing a long-term solution that increases safety and supports freight and other needs. In the short term, Wheeler will be closed to right-turn traffic starting Wednesday morning (see attached diagram.)

For some time I have been concerned about this dangerous intersection that proves hazardous for cars, trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians. From 2000 to 2010, there were 20 reported crashes at this intersection. Seventeen of the 20 collisions were right-hook crashes involving a bicycle and an automobile.

After years of study, we have found that what makes this intersection so dangerous isn’t only the behavior of those using the roadway, but the roadway itself.

The blind curve of Broadway as it reaches toward Flint is a geometric puzzle that has one solution: closing Wheeler down to right-turning traffic. Even if every driver and every bicyclist that moves through this intersection follows every road rule perfectly, this would still be an extremely dangerous intersection because the curve of the road does not allow cars and trucks to see and respond to bicyclists moving downhill quickly and does not allow bicyclists to see and respond to cars and trucks.
Since 2008, the City has installed a long list of safety measures that did not bring about the needed outcome. Including:

– Installed a stop bar across the bike lane on Flint.
– Installed a legend that says “BIKES STOP”.
– Installed left turn only travel from northbound Wheeler.
– Installed large curb extension to reduce wrong-way driving/riding as people go from Wheeler to Flint.
– Adjusted the travel lanes on Broadway to bring travelers further away from the complicated traffic weaving on the north side of the street.
– Increased traffic enforcement by police officers.

Despite all of this reengineering, this section of Broadway continues to be hazardous to all who use it. When I became mayor, I made road and transportation safety a major focus. As transportation commissioner, I have had to make difficult decisions. It is a difficult decision, but Wheeler needs to be closed to right turn traffic in order to save lives until the longer-term solution offered by the N/NE quadrant plan can be implemented.

The team at PBOT will be working closely with the business community to find solutions that support their needs. We will all work together to keep things safe and keep things moving.

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