City considers ideas for unpaved road improvement

It’s true: some unpaved City streets may be turned into gardens or parks! Take a look and see what transportation leaders have in mind …

After looking at panels that depict non-traffic uses for unimproved neighborhood streets, participants listen to PDOT’s plan to create a “toolbox” of accepted uses.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
When mayoral candidate Charlie Hales was campaigning for office, he continually decried the ignominy of a major city like Portland having 60 miles of unpaved roads – some of them located in his own neighborhood, Eastmoreland.

Consequently, City of Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Traffic Safety Specialist Greg Raisman was willing to step out of an outer East Portland meeting at the East Portland Community Center on November 5 to told East Portland News about his Bureau’s new initiative.

Portland Bureau of Transportation Traffic Safety Specialist Greg Raisman says they’re considering non-vehicle uses, and narrower streets, instead of paving all of Portland’s 60 miles if unimproved roads.

“It’s true; we do have almost 60 miles of completely unimproved roadways,” Raisman said. “But, as you’re probably aware, the City is not in a financial position to improve all of them.”

But as he and other staffers have traveled the area, and cataloged each of the unimproved streets, they’ve learned a lot.

“Some people say they don’t want a paved road; they like it unimproved,” said Raisman. This is a specially the case when homeowners are faced with paying for it themselves, under a Local Improvement District (LID). The ‘Street-by-Street’ approach we developed last year could cut those costs way down.” This provides us room between doing nothing, and doing a full LID.”

Josh Albert, a policy advisor in Mayor Charlie Hales’ office, describes the locations of Portland’s unimproved roadways.

In this process, neighbors are helping PBOT to “re-imagine the space – like providing for community garden space, or a hangout space, or a place where a kid can play foursquare or hopscotch,” Raisman explained.

“So, what we’re doing is starting to improve our ‘toolbox’ of what is available, and what is possible. Instead of spending a quarter-million dollars per block installing sidewalks and streets, we can do a ‘lighter level of service’, such as paving a 16 foot wide road that’s managed at 15 miles an hour for example.”

Asked if Portland would really shut down a residential street to vehicle traffic and instead install a community garden, Raisman thought a moment before responding.

“We have a lot of examples of local gravel streets that don’t carry a lot of traffic where this actually is happening. We would be looking at every case individually.

Portland State University associate professor Dr. Kevin Kecskes explains the research program that students are undertaking to determine uses for unimproved neighborhood streets.

“For example you might end up that they keep the center of the street open to traffic – our normal right-of-way is 60 feet wide. Or, a street could be ‘cut off’ in the middle of the block, and residents would be provided access from either end.”

The following day, East Portland News spoke with Portland Commissioner of Transportation Steve Novick about the ideas being presented.

“Our State Representatives have gotten the Legislature to say that it’s okay for us to build some streets that have a curb only on one side, and the sidewalk on the other side,” Novick began. “And, it’s okay to have some streets where there is no sidewalk at all, making it a shared street where we expect there to be really slow vehicle speeds and cars, bikes, and pedestrians can coexist.”

Portland Commissioner of Transportation Steve Novick says PDOT needs to first go through a prioritization process before making firm plans regarding paving the City’s many unimproved roads

The City is also looking to raise some additional money for transportation, Novick added. “It will be for maintaining the roads that we already have that are falling into grave disrepair, and building additional sidewalks and safety features. And, we’re also working to come up with something financially realistic than we can do for unpaved streets.”

PDOT will need to “go to a prioritization process” to balance spending on repaving, maintenance, infilling sidewalks, and installing safety crossings – and paving unimproved streets – Novick said.

“Obviously, the more of a street you have, the more expensive it is. A full-width street with sidewalks on both sides – and a new system to take care of stormwater – that’s going to be really expensive.

“Neighbors may be willing to start the LID process. Others say it’s too expensive,” commented Novick. “One day, we might find a pot of money, sort of like matching-funds money – to defray up to, say, 40% of the money for an LID.”

PDOT’s goal is to select four unimproved streets from the sites proposed by community groups and homeowners throughout the City, for an initial pilot project in 2014. The next step will be setting the criteria for evaluating candidate pilot street projects, and further engagement this winter with neighborhood and community groups.

For more information, contact PDOT’s project leader, Denver Igarta, at (503) 823-1088 or by email at

© 2013 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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