Street barriers installed without public review
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly makes abrupt reversal in response to pandemic
Recent media attention has explored the possibility that governments worldwide are seizing opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine rights of their constituents.
Locally, Chloe Eudaly, commissioner of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, announced a citywide program restricting motor vehicle traffic on 100 miles of residential streets. The first public announcement of the initiative on April 28 came a week before it was implemented. There was no opportunity for public input before the program rolled out with its first installation at Northwest 22nd and Flanders streets on May 7.
Slow Streets/Safe Streets involves nine streets signed for “local traffic only” in the Northwest and Pearl districts.
The goal is to give pedestrians and cyclists priority on streets designated as greenways, at least during the pandemic and recovery period. Motorists can still use these streets, though rows of orange cones designate some lanes for non-motorized traffic only.
A-frame signs in the right of way advise pedestrians to “keep 6 feet of distance from one another.”
The first audience to Eudaly’s announcement, the PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee, had reason to be surprised by the sudden reversal of her recent public statements. Earlier that month she told Oregon Public Broadcasting that “making radical changes with the way streets are used” is not “the best use of our time and resources.”
On April 16, she had told the committee, “I’m really not seeing overcrowding. We don’t need streets closed.”
“What a difference a few weeks makes!” wrote Bike Portland Editor Jonathan Maus. “Last night, PBOT’s Art Pearce said he and his staff have spent about a month tracking other cities’ responses to COVID-19. Pearce was clearly excited that he and his staff finally got the green light from the commissioner’s office to go public with their ideas.”
Bike Portland reported that PBOT Senior Planner Nick Falbo, architect of the initiative, told the advisory committee that PBOT is, “keeping our eyes on the prize about the future. … We don’t have to just recover to where we were. We can recover to where we want to be.
“We have a rare moment to mobilize our bureau and enter this phase with eyes wide open; to plan for what’s happening next,” Falbo added.
While people running the transportation department may have had open eyes, the citizenry was kept in the dark.
One of the first to point out the problem was Robert McCullough, former president of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association. His 440-word critique of the opaque decision-making process quickly circulated citywide.
“Where do you find the ‘weeks of bureau analysis and community outreach’?’ McCullough asked, referring to a claim in Eudaly’s announcement. “The answer, to the best of my ability, is that you don’t.
“This looks like a replay of the [Office of Community and Civic Life] code change initiative Commissioner Eudaly pursued a year ago, where a somewhat mysterious process recommended eliminating public involvement in land use and environmental issues from the city regulations.
“It is interesting that Commissioner Eudaly continues to pursue ‘public involvement’ without the public,” he concluded.
Another Eastside neighborhood association activist found the matter beyond interesting.
“Eudaly is going rogue again with an illiberal plan to restrict access to 100 miles of public streets by erecting barricades and cement diverters,” the activist wrote. “It is being implemented under the cynical guise of addressing our COVID crisis by enhancing social distancing.
“I’d like to ask everyone to write not just Eudaly’s office but also the other councilors with the concern that she is harming our democratic system by using the crisis as cover for implementing a controversial and unpopular project without the proper public engagement.”
Such suspicions did not surface in the Northwest District Association, which took no action after hearing a presentation on the Safe Streets program last month.
“While I am personally supportive of the program broadly, the Transportation Committee did not take up any official position or vote on it,” committee co-chair Damien Erlund said.
NWDA President Ciaran Connelly attended the presentation but did not comment on the merits of the program or the enactment process.
PBOT planner Zef Wagner assured the committee that the initiative “is just temporary for this crisis” and would not overlap with NW in Motion, a separate local diverter program going for City Council approval in July.
Wagner said the two programs are “not in the same time period at all” and he was doubtful that temporary Safe Streets measures will remain when NW in Motion improvements are installed.
After NWDA Transportation Committee member Larry Kojaku expressed fears that a double dose of diverters in close proximity could create incoherent traffic patterns, Wagner admitted that some elements of Safe Streets may become permanent.
“People may say, I love this. Can we please keep it?” Wagner said. “We want to be open to that.”
Former Transportation Committee Chair Phil Selinger called the program “an opportunity to introduce some ‘soft’ treatments that can be a transition to the more substantial greenway projects in the draft NWIM plan.
“We did not vote or even seek consensus on whether the program is a good or bad idea,” Selinger said.
Kojaku, who chose not to run for the NWDA board last month after a partial term, thinks the committee should have been more skeptical of the program.
“Is Flanders and Northwest 22nd a busy intersection? Does Flanders need traffic restricted for pedestrians to socially distance? You would think that the neighborhood association would want to have input into such determinations,” he said.
“Also, if the city is in the midst of across-the-board budget cuts, required furlough days, etc., why is $100,000 being spent on an optional and questionable initiative?
Northwest Upshur Street resident Bill Dameron wrote the NW Examiner the day after barriers went up.
“All was well before,” he wrote. “Who complained? Were there serious traffic studies?
“As evidenced by this latest surprise, neighborhood taxpayers are not consulted now so there is great mistrust of PBOT.”
Dameron said the barrier at Northwest 24th and Thurman streets makes it more difficult for drivers to reach the post office while providing no benefit to the few pedestrians on the street.
The NWDA Transportation and Planning committees are tentatively planning to hold a joint meeting in June to consider their differing response to the traffic diversion programs.