Plans to improve outer SE Powell Blvd. creep forward

Many neighbors say they oppose making portions of this street as wide as five lanes. Find out why they prefer three lanes – and the reason City and State planners insist there are places where this road must be much wider …

Tom Litster, a senior consultant with Otak, explains how the Outer Powell Boulevard Plan is a combination of highway design and land use planning.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For years, everyone has agreed that SE Powell Boulevard, between Interstate 205 and the Gresham City line, needs serious renovation.

Finally, the “Powell Boulevard Project”, started last summer – by doing research in the community, and asking for input at East Portland Expo in July. Then, in November, City of Portland and State of Oregon transportation planners held an open house to review the “needs, opportunities and restraints” related to improving Powell Boulevard.

> See our story about that open house: CLICK HERE.

Steve Szigethy, of Portland Bureau of Transportation’s “East to Portland in Motion”, talks with folks about the initiative.

In the entryway, Steve Szigethy – project coordinator with Portland Bureau of transportation’s “East to Portland in Motion” initiative – talked with neighbors about the work to “prioritize pedestrian, bicycle and access to transit projects over the next five years”.

This initiative is “Action 33” in the Portland Plan, Szigethy explained. “It’s funded by several sources, including State gas tax funds that Mayor Adams has designated for sidewalk construction. There’s also some sewer money that is used for building the bikeways, and there’s funding from the ‘Safe Routes to School’ program.”

The Portland Bureau of Transpiration’s April Bertelsen outlines the progress made on the Outer Powell Boulevard Project so far, in a formal presentation.

“The plan will identify improvements for Powell that will serve vehicle traffic movement – while also improving the safety, accessibility, and the aesthetic environment for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders,” recapped April Bertelsen, of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, at a March 16 open house at Ron Russell Middle School.

Like the November open house, this event featured two formal presentations, and the opportunity for neighbors to take self-guided tours of several display stations, staffed by City staff members and consultants.

At the open house, neighbors are encouraged to look at the detailed drawings and plans – and to leave comments for the planners.

Wide cross-section concerns
A good portion of SE Powell Boulevard traverses the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood; and their Safety Committee Chair, Tom Barnes, expressed frustration arising from his participation on the project’s Citizens Advisory Group.

“At every meeting that we have gone to, as a representative of the neighborhood association – and the Centennial neighborhood is with us, on this – we’ve stated repeatedly that we don’t want to see Powell be more than a three-lane road,” Barnes began. “That’s one traffic lane going each way, a center turn lane, sidewalks, and bio-swales to handle rain runoff and fix some of the flooding issues we have.”

However, Barnes said he’s frustrated because the consultants and planners keep coming to meetings, showing off plans for a four lane cross-section from SE to 136th Avenue to SE 162nd Avenue – and a five lane road out to 174th Avenue. This plan, he asserted, will cause two chokepoints – one at either end of the project.

“I feel somewhat like I have wasted my time [working with the committee] for the last five months,” said Barnes exasperatedly. “I’ve gone on the record at every meeting that we’d not support more than a three lane cross-section – and the other neighborhoods along the road agree with this.”

Alan Snook, senior transportation planner with DKS Associates, listens as neighbor Mike Ross expresses concerns about a center divider that will prevent him from entering his home’s driveway on SE Powell Boulevard.

Says plan reduces future ‘overcapacity’ situations
We asked project consultant Alan Snook, a senior transportation planner with DKS Associates, about the varying widths proposed for Powell.

“We took a look at the traffic operations and the demand for traffic out here in 2035, in the evening peak hours,” Snook began. “We realized that there were many hours during the day when there would be so much demand, that the intersections would be at overcapacity with a three lane [wide] section. If we really want to try to help balance the modes – that is motor vehicles, plus pedestrians and bicycles, and transit use out of this area – we needed to look at a wider cross-section to accommodate the motor vehicle component.”

Pointing out Barnes’ concern about the chokepoint at the Gresham City line, Snook responded, “Actually, [the proposed five-lane cross section] meets up with a five lane cross-section at 174th Ave. in Gresham. Just past that, it narrows back down to two lanes. But, we see a lot of traffic actually heading eastbound, turning right down 174th Avenue. It’s heading down to Happy Valley and outer southeastern areas.”

Asked if he sensed neighbors’ frustration with the plan, Snook acknowledged, “Yes, they feel like they’re not being heard; the concern that was raised at the CWG meetings.  I told them that we are hearing their concerns, and we are looking at a three-lane section. But, what we’re finding from a motor-vehicle-operational perspective is that the narrower option just isn’t working at the east end of SE Powell Boulevard. We’re looking at other options and alternatives.”

Bertelsen said that she, also, was aware of the neighbors’ frustration.

“I think nobody wants to build a bigger road than is needed,” Bertelsen remarked. “And, since it is a State of Oregon highway, because of its regional role, we have a responsibility to consider the long-term and future needs more broadly. We’re going to be balancing multiple, sometimes competing, objectives.”

About the CAG, Bertelsen added, “The working group’s input continues to be very valuable. There’s a lot to inform and understand around this plan, and the needs that we are balancing. We absolutely appreciate their work and their input, because we’re about to make some decisions in the next couple of months about the 20-year plan for outer Powell Boulevard.

Leslie Lum, an urban designer with Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, talks with neighbors about potential streetscapes along outer Powell Boulevard, and how this project will impact private property.

When the first formal presentation got underway, some 50 people were at the open house. But, folks kept filtering in – until about 100 neighbors had come by to learn how the plan is progressing.

A Hazelwood Neighborhood resident, bicyclist David Hampsten, said that he, as a “bike commuter”, often uses Powell Boulevard, and finds the proposed concepts “appropriate”.

Hampsten added, “I’m very concerned about how they’re going to handle the intersections. Right now, with the turn lanes it’s going to take a larger area and become more dangerous.  I suspect they’re going to have to put in roundabouts to reduce the danger of the intersections; there’s a lot of controversy on that.”

There’s no date to start rebuilding SE Powell Boulevard, but this illustration shows the area that is the plan’s focus.

Report due this summer
According the timetable, during spring 2011, alternatives for how SE Powell Boulevard should be improved will be selected.

“We expect to have another open house in May or June to review the recommended alternatives,” Bertelsen said. “We’ll develop the final plan by June 30 and expect to take it to the Portland City Council for adoption during the summer.”

If you missed the open house, you can see all of the materials presented by going to the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s official project web site: CLICK HERE.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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