Media coverage of St. Johns Bridge fatality makes ODOT answer for lack of safe bike access

Media coverage of St. Johns Bridge fatality makes ODOT answer for lack of safe bike access

KGW's Q & A with ODOT is a must-read.

KGW’s Q & A with ODOT is a must-read.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is being forced to answer questions about unsafe biking conditions on the St. Johns Bridge after 55-year-old Mitch York was killed while biking on it Saturday.

All four of the major network news outlets led with follow-ups on the story during last night’s newscast.

As we continue to do our own reporting about the fateful decisions ODOT made during a multi-million dollar renovation project on the bridge in 2003 (to prioritize motorized vehicle capacity at the expense of everything else, summarized by this commenter who was around at the time), let’s take a look at how the issue has been covered so far by KOIN (CBS), KATU (ABC), KPTV (Fox), and KGW (NBC).

(Note that three of these four newscasts included my comments shared via on-camera interviews. Those videos are embedded below.)

KOIN: “Is it time for bike lanes on the St. Johns Bridge?”

“Some are calling on the Oregon Department of Transportation to remove a lane of traffic and create a safe path for bikes,” KOIN says in the lead paragraph of their story. In response, ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton says, “the solution may not be that simple.”

Here’s the rest of Hamilton’s response:

“I don’t know if a bike lane would have made any difference,” Hamilton said, adding that the department is looking into whether it could have helped avoid the crash.

Hamilton tells KOIN 6 News the St. Johns Bridge is a freight route and a state highway that also has to meet the needs of heavy traffic. While a bike lane isn’t out of the question, the old bridge’s narrow lanes may make it challenging to do.

Adding bike lanes could also cause serious traffic backups, Hamilton explained.

KATU: “Bike community demands ODOT readdress St. Johns Bridge safety”

KATU’s story includes a statement from BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky where he says the organizations wants ODOT to “create physically separated bike lanes similar to what we have on the Hawthorne Bridge.” Sadowsky also told them the BTA wants, “Our criminal justice system to stop letting drivers have multiple chances.”

Hamilton from ODOT told KATU that his agency must, “make sure that this is an effective avenue for freight, for motorists, for commuters, for bicyclists, for pedestrians.” “We’re trying to do what safest for everybody,” he said. Then he made a familiar promise we’ve heard from ODOT many times in the past: “We’re going to look carefully at this and find out if anything additional can be done.”

KPTV: “Driver accused of killing cyclist on St. Johns Bridge has history of traffic crimes”


KPTV reported that advocates are “calling for traffic changes to make the bridge safer,” but that ODOT isn’t likely to oblige because the bridge is “a major freight route and building a bike lane would cause ‘bottlenecking.’”

KGW: Bike lanes on St. Johns Bridge were nixed 13 years ago

KGW has had the best coverage of the story so far. Their story delved deeper into ODOT’s 2003 engineering decisions and an obscure state statute that regulates freight capacity on roads that’s known as “hole-in-the-air” (ORS 366.215, read our coverage of that issue here).

ODOT spokeswoman Kimberley Dinwiddie made an interesting assertion in an interview with KGW. She said state law requires freight routes like Highway 30 over the St. Johns Bridge to be 19-feet wide in each direction. Since the total curb-to-curb width of the bridge is 40-feet, Dinwiddie told KATU, “If we placed a bike lane with a separated barrier we would be in violation of the state law.”

After an exchange about this on Twitter yesterday, KGW updated their story with insights from BTA Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky. He disagrees with Dinwiddie’s interpretation of the statute. He knows a lot about the statute because he was part of the 2012 lobbying effort that pushed back ODOT’s attempt to further strengthen it in favor of truck drivers.

KGW then did a Q & A with ODOT’s Dinwiddie to try and clarify the disagreement. It’s a must-read:

Is it really true that freight routes have to have a 19-foot lane?

Freight routes in Oregon require by law that freight haulers have at least 19 feet of width in each direction they’re traveling. On the St. Johns Bridge it’s only 40 feet wide, so if we put protected bike lanes in each direction on the St. Johns Bridge, it would prohibit us from following that law. The entire width of the bridge is 40 feet wide. The 19-feet cannot be obstructed by any barrier. It doesn’t matter how many lanes there are, what matters is the width. And it doesn’t matter whether that 19-feet is in one lane or two lanes. What matters is that its unobstructed with any barriers or curbs.

Could you lose a lane… in order to get bike lanes?
We have studied removing travel lanes. We discovered in that study it would cause backups on U.S. 30 as well as into the St. Johns Neighborhood. In addition it would limit the width available to freight haulers.

You said that based on ORS 366.215 the roadway must have 19-foot unobstructed lanes. Does that mean a TOTAL of 19-feet of unobstructed travel lanes in each direction? So, two 10-foot wide lanes each way satisfy the requirement? But one 10-foot wide lane plus a protected bike lane would not?
That is correct.

Does state law allow any flexibility in this? Would the city of Portland or Multnomah County be able to request an exemption? What would that process look like?
The process to change the exemption would require a possible change in the statute but it would also have to be approved by the Oregon Transportation Commission before that could be moved forward

You referenced a previous study on this bridge. Do we need a new road study? It’s been a decade since the 2005 study on the St. Johns Bridge – the region and it’s roads have clearly grown and become more taxed by changing demographics in Portland. In particular, North Portland seems to have experienced a major growth spurt. Would ODOT support a new study? What would it take get a new study done?
At this time we have not had any discussions about a new study.  The study that took place in 2003 included projections for up to the year of 2020. 

To make room for bike lanes could ODOT create a flexible traffic pattern with 1 dedicated lane each direction and a center lane that would change based on flow of traffic for freight? 
That has not been considered in either study and it’s not under discussion.

This is a really sad reminder we have to take responsibility for the safety of others every time we get behind the wheel.

We had the study in 2005 as we were leading up to the rehabilitation project for the bridge. And what we did was we widened the sidewalks around the bridge spires to allow for more room for people who choose to walk or bike on the sidewalks. In 2012, we looked at this again to see if there was anything else we could do and we still came to the same conclusion that bike lanes, and especially a separate bike path, was not feasible for the St. Johns Bridge. What we have done instead is install sharrows and signs to warn drivers that there are bikes in the travel lane and they have the legal right to be in that travel lane so people who are driving need to expect there are going to be bikes in that travel lane and to give them their room and to slow down.

At this time there is no further discussion to place bike lanes on the St. Johns Bridge because of the congestion and dangerous situations that could occur from that.

KGW deserves high praise for this line of questioning. It’s way more detail than we typically see from local networks on transportation issues.

That being said, Dinwiddie’s perspective is both jarring and illuminating. This Q & A and the other statements from her ODOT colleague Don Hamilton make it crystal clear that ODOT still places motorized vehicle capacity at the top of their priority list. This is disappointing for an agency that just released a Transportation Safety Action Plan with strong verbal commitments to a future with zero traffic deaths.

We have more coverage of this story coming. Stay tuned.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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