Project to improve outer SE Powell Blvd. inches along

The question is, ‘When will they actually start turning this country cowpath into a real city arterial highway?’  We’ve got the answer – in this insightful look at a long-stalled highway improvement project …

More than 100 people turn out for the Outer SE Powell Boulevard Conceptual Design Plan open house to hear the speakers – and to ask questions.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For years, this storied boulevard – a modern, State-owned thoroughfare in Gresham, and west of the I-205 Freeway – has remained a dangerous two-lane country road, lacking even the most basic of improvements.

Years ago, we recall a team from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) visiting the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association meeting, and explaining how they were trying to get funding to initiate a study which would lead to making a plan, to improve the roadway.

With lax zoning enforcement, some property owners have built improvements within feet of the existing road – some actually encroaching into the public right-of-way. Sidewalks are nonexistent, as are stormwater-handling facilities. With tall trees towering on either side of this country road, and with few streetlights in some sections, driving on rainy nights is hazardous – and walking or riding a bike is downright treacherous.

This PDOT graphic shows the area of SE Powell Boulevard targeted in the study.

City plans to improve Powell Blvd.
April Bertelsen, of the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation, agreed with our general summary of the sorry state of outer SE Powell Boulevard, when she spoke at a public meeting on November 15 at Ron Russell Middle School, a couple of blocks south of SE Powell Boulevard, on SE 112th Avenue.

“It is an inadequate transportation facility,” Bertelsen affirmed. “It still is a bit of the old country road, and it does lack facilities. That’s the purpose of having the Outer SE Powell Blvd. Conceptual Design Plan study.”

The overall concept, we learned, is to widen Powell Boulevard to five lanes from I-205 to SE 122nd Avenue, and then four lanes east of SE 122nd, while providing bike lanes and sidewalks throughout.

During the meeting, Bertelsen said that PDOT will show the community what’s been done, and get feedback. “We’re doing this through a series of short presentations; the presenters will stay on, to speak with participants at presentation areas.”

The topics formally presented include:

  1. Urban Design Concept Plan presented by Bureau of Planning and Sustainability’s Leslie Lum;
  2. Future Traffic Demand hosted by Alan Snook with DKS Associates;
  3. Needs, Opportunities and Constraints presented by PDOT’s Stewart Gwinn; and,
  4. A Toolkit of Street Improvements”.

Leslie Lum, from the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, tells how Urban Design Plans interact with the project.

Presenters seemed surprised they needed to use the facility’s PA system, because as many as 100 neighbors and interested folks had come by to learn more about the effort.

Says City to partner with State on project
We asked Bertelsen why the cash-strapped City of Portland is involved in a highwy that is owned, and supposedly maintained, by the State of Oregon.

“We’re involved because Powell Boulevard is vitally important to the community,” Bertelsen responded. “We are looking to coordinate the effort with the State, as we did on the inner SE Powell Boulevard Project – by going into the community, and working on identifying improvements.”

It’s more than just a paving project Bertelsen continued. “This isn’t a short-term plan; we’re looking at what the future needs of Powell Boulevard will be.”

Areas of consideration, she said, include:

  • Road width;
  • Conceptual design;
  • Number of travel lanes;
  • Bicycle facilities to be added;
  • Sidewalks; and,
  • Stormwater management.

How much traffic should outer SE Powell Boulevard be able to handle in the future? Alan Snook, of DKS Associates, talks about the complicated analysis required to answer this complex question.

Meeting major challenges
“The challenge, the crux of the project, is how we meet multiple needs – both very local needs, as well as ‘through traffic’ needs,” Bertelsen explained. “This includes all modes of transportation.

“While providing these improvements, we’re studying how it can be accomplished with the least amount of impact to the adjacent properties. We’re trying to figure out how we can minimize the impact, and still provide the [needed lane] widths to serve each transportation mode.”

ODOT’s role
Ross Kevlin, a planner with ODOT Region One, came by to speak with us. “We’re involved in the project from the start to the finish. And we’re working with the City of Portland, trying to involve the community, so we have a consensus and a well-supported solution for the street.”

While the Outer SE Powell Boulevard Conceptual Design Plan is a long-term program, Kevlin pointed out, ODOT is working on a ‘small safety project’ in the next two years or so.

“It’s from SE 122nd Avenue to SE 136th Avenue. We’re talking about putting in three lanes, with a center turn lane, bike lanes, and sidewalks. We thought we had funding for it – but it the funding was [insufficient] to tackle the problems out here.”

Plan timetable
The timeline set out for the Outer SE Powell Boulevard Conceptual Design Plan – this is the study, remember, not the actual project – is:

  • Winter, 2010-2011 – Develop Alternatives
  • Spring, 2011 – Alternatives Analysis, Evaluation and Selection of Plan Recommendations
  • June 30, 2011 – Complete Final Plan Recommendations Report
  • Summer 2011 – City Council Hearing to Adopt Plan

Neighbors write comments on sticky-notes, and place them on a graphic depicting outer SE Powell Boulevard.

Neighbors question street improvement plan
“I’m already worried about this plan,” said Paul Bronson, who said he lives in the area and uses the road daily. “It looks like they’re more interested in building another fancy bike path, than moving cars and trucks safely.”

Others echoed his concerns – specifically, that they believe that there is currently lower bicycle use in outer East Portland than in the more urban areas.

Another public comment to opportunity
The public will be included in the process, Bertelsen said. “We’ll come back to the community in February or March to share what we came up with. We’ll be asking for input on anything we’ve missed, or that we should tweak in the final report.”

Interested in keeping up on this vital project? Then check PDOT’s official web pages dedicated to the Outer SE Powell Boulevard Conceptual Design Plan: CLICK HERE.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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