BTA urges Portland city council to study traffic impacts of Barbur Blvd road diet

BTA urges Portland city council to study traffic impacts of Barbur Blvd road diet

Screen grab of BTA website.

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) has stepped up their effort to move the SW Barbur Blvd road diet proposal forward. Their chosen tactic is to urge the Portland City Council to pass a resolution next week that would begin a collaborative effort between PBOT, Metro and the Oregon Department of Transportation to perform a traffic impact study.

The BTA — who made a Barbur road diet a key focus of their Blueprint report — posted their “reasonable request” to Portland city commissioners on their website a few minutes ago. They are calling on specific resolution language (see it below) to be included in Council’s vote on the Southwest Corridor Plan that’s on the agenda next Wednesday (October 9th).

Here’s the resolution language:

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the Council directs staff to initiate a transparent and collaborative process with Metro and ODOT to study the Barbur lane diet option on SW Barbur Blvd. from Terwilliger to Hamilton. (SW Corridor Plan Projects #5006 & #1019)

And here are the two projects from the SW Corridor Plan that are referenced:

5006 – Barbur Lane Diet: Terwilliger to Capitol – Reduce number of northbound travel lanes on Barbur from Terwilliger to Capitol Highway (north) from two to one to reduce speed and improve safety. Adds bike lanes over W Newberry (sic) and Vermont bridges.

1019 – Barbur Lane Diet: Capitol to Hamilton (reduce northbound lanes from three to two with multi-modal improvements) – Reduce number of northbound lanes from three to two from Capitol Hwy (north) to 1/4 mile south of Hamilton to reduce speeds and improve safety, improve ped/bike crossing safety and add protected bike lanes.

Calling for a study might not seem like a big deal, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Or at least we think there is. Here’s our analysis…

The Portland City Council is set to vote on the Southwest Corridor Plan next week. The “Barbur Lane Diet” exists within that plan in two (slightly different) forms as project number 1019 and project number 5006. They’re two of about 75 projects currently under consideration in the plan, and they’re aren’t particularly high on the priority list. As we reported yesterday, ODOT Region 1 Manager Jason Tell has already stated publicly that the Barbur Lane Diet project has already been “discussed” and it is “wasn’t chosen for early implementation.”

If the BTA succeeds in their plan at council next week, the road diet proposal could find new momentum because it would become a City of Portland priority, independent of the regional planning process (which is long-range and not very nimble). One of the issues plaguing the project right now is a disagreement over what would happen to traffic if new lane configuration was implemented. ODOT says their initial analysis of traffic data proves that the traffic impacts would be negative and significant. However, other expertsincluding a Metro traffic engineer — dispute ODOT’s framing of the analysis.

Addressing this debate in their action alert, the BTA writes: “Past efforts to study the impact of building safer bicycle lanes and places to walk have been decidedly inconclusive. There is nothing controversial about gathering information.”

It’s worth noting that PBOT, the president of Lewis & Clark College, Oregon Walks, the BTA, and many others feel that a Barbur road diet is a good idea and that it should move forward more quickly than the SW Corridor Plan allows. So far, no one has publicly stated their opposition to the idea, but ODOT says some “stakeholders” in the SW Corridor Plan process object to the proposal (we have filed a public records request with ODOT to find out which stakeholders are opposed).

“Past efforts to study the impact of building safer bicycle lanes and places to walk have been decidedly inconclusive. There is nothing controversial about gathering information”
— BTA Action Alert

This brings us back to the BTA’s action alert and the important City Council action on the SW Corridor plan next week. The Council’s vote on the plan is a standard step in the process; but the unexpected part is that in addition to a vote on the plan, they’ll be asked to pass a resolution with language specifically about the Barbur road diet.

Contrary to ODOT Region 1 Manager Jason Tell’s characterization that the BTA wanted to speed up the road diet project outside of the SW Corridor Plan process, today we see that the BTA is not doing that. The BTA’s position is to prioritize a traffic study on the Barbur project as it exists within the plan. (UPDATE: According to the BTA, this move would make the road diet an explicit City of Portland priority, independent of the SW Corridor Plan).

Since a renewed push for a Barbur road diet began back in January, ODOT has deferred the discussion to the Southwest Corridor Plan. Some advocates and citizens in favor of the road diet (including the publisher of this website) are concerned that keeping the road diet idea solely within that plan would effectively kill the idea. There are two main reasons for this line of thought: The SW Corridor Plan is a long-range planning process set up to choose a high-capacity transit option in the corridor. Given the scope and cost of such major projects, construction isn’t expected to begin for 10-15 years. That’s too long, some say, given the clear and present safety issues that exist. The other reason people are skeptical of keeping the road diet in the SW Corridor Plan is that the process is by nature a regional process (the lead organization is our regional planning agency, Metro). That means that the steering committee that decides which projects get implemented includes mayors and other leaders from cities all throughout the region — some of whom have constituents who commute into Portland on Barbur and who favor keeping it as fast and wide (for cars) as possible.

The BTA knows that the debate on the road diet proposal can’t really get happen until everyone agrees on the traffic impact data. Given that some experts have already said that adding bike lanes to Barbur between (approximately) Terwilliger and Capitol Hwy wouldn’t have a significant negative impact on traffic capacity, it’s likely the study results will bear that out.

Then, with those study results in hand, PBOT, the BTA, and others would likely be in a better political position to push for the road diet.

The risk in this tactic by the BTA and PBOT is that instead of pushing to work on the Barbur road diet proposal outside of the SW Corridor Plan, they are advocating to work on it within the plan. While that’s more politically palatable (you can see how ODOT’s Jason Tell was eager to criticize the BTA for stepping out of the process), it means that the project could be subject to the timeline and regional interest constraints we detailed above.

(Note: I have learned since posting initially that the BTA is seeking to make projects #5006 ad 1019 explicit city priorities that can be worked on independently of the SW Corridor Plan process.)

Stay tuned for next week’s council meeting. We hear injured Barbur hit-and-run victim Henry Schmidt plans to testify.

UPDATE: Portland-based walking advocacy group Oregon Walks has penned a letter of support for this resolution. Read their letter here (PDF).

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