PORTLAND — Two men were struck and killed while walking across the same stretch of Northeast 82nd Avenue in April, a sobering reminder that the east Portland arterial remains one of the most dangerous roads in the Portland metro area.
Fatal crashes, regardless of whether those killed by drivers were walking, in a vehicle or riding a bike, are nothing new on the five-lane state highway that carves through some of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the city and state and on into Clackamas County. But in the past two years, each marking the deadliest in Portland history since 1996, no one died on 82nd Avenue. In the decade preceding, 16 people were killed along its roughly seven miles inside Portland city limits.
Then within less than two weeks, drivers traveling along 82nd killed first a 66-year-old man, then a 30-year-old. Both men were killed at night at or near the same intersection with Alberta Street, police confirmed. The younger man, Anthony Tolliver, was struck by a hit and run driver. Tolliver was Black. According to a report from the nonprofit Oregon Walks, Black pedestrians were killed at a rate three times greater than whites in Portland in fatal crashes in the past three years.
The recent deaths put renewed urgency behind a decades-old call, so far still a work-in-progress, to try and tame 82nd, which is also home to TriMet’s busiest bus route and forms the spine of Portland’s Jade District, with its concentration of Asian American businesses.
It’s a monumental task. Smaller efforts have included installing accessible curbs and revamping traffic signals or adding pedestrian crossing beacons in some places. Ultimately, there’s a growing effort to turn the state-owned road over to Portland control.
Arlene Kimura, a longtime resident of the Hazelwood neighborhood that lies east of 82ndwho has advocated for east Portland transportation investments extensively since 1996, said despite all the advocacy, 82nd remains “a totally unsafe street.”
Kimura believes her work and the heightened attention to safety issues in east Portland have helped, but action has been around the edges. More seismic moves are needed, she said.
“We’re not going to be making a breakthrough,” she said of currently planned safety improvements.
When in addition to freeways like Interstates 5, 405 and 84, Portland has about a dozen state highways within city limits, roads so designated because the state built them. They once ferried commuters across scarcely populated areas. Now they function largely as main streets but still look like highways: four or five wide lanes in many places, with speed limits at or above 35 miles per hour and long stretches without traffic lights or safe places to cross. Even when there is a pedestrian “refuge island,” it’s still hair-raising to stand in the middle of a river of traffic.
Those roads — including 82nd, Barbur Boulevard, Powell Boulevard, Lombard Street and others – have long since transformed into busy urban streets that are, in many cases, lined with housing, businesses and people coming and going all about town. All are some of the deadliest streets within the city.
City leaders and advocates like Kimura accuse the state of letting those roads fall into disrepair. Transferring ownership, they argue, isn’t possible until the state forks over cash to bring those streets into better shape.
According to city figures, 13 people have died on state highways or freeways in Portland so far this year, twice the death toll at the same time last year.
“The continued crashes and resulting deaths occurring on 82nd Avenue are preventable tragedies that show just how urgently the ODOT-owned 82nd Avenue needs safety infrastructure improvements after decades of neglect,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the city transportation bureau. She is the lone member of the Portland City Council who lives east of 82nd.
Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, one of the chief sponsors of the most expansive bill that would set in motion plans to transfer so-called orphan highways to city control across the state, said the decades of piecemeal changes and inability to make 82nd Avenue safer was one of the reasons she ran for office.
“The government isn’t doing anything,” Pham, who was elected in 2020, said of addressing dangerous highways like 82nd. “I’m feeling really fired up to be honest. We can’t let another summer go by,” she added.
Pham wants to tap COVID-19 relief dollars to address 82nd Avenue’s safety as soon as possible. Oregon received $2.6 billion in federal support it can spend as it chooses from the American Rescue Plan Act, and budget writers earmarked $780 million in the next biennium for “urgent investments to revitalize Oregon’s economy and provide worker and families the resources they need to recover from the impacts of the pandemic,” according to House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office.
Legislative leaders in March asked each member of the House and Senate to submit a written list of suggestions on how to spend the windfall.
Pham requested $100 million to bolster jurisdictional transfers for state highways like 82nd Avenue. She envisions the money going into a pot to be created if her bill, House Bill 2744, passes. The money would ensure urban highways are brought up to a “state of good repair” before passing ownership and maintenance duties to cities.
In an interview, Pham said she had 82nd in mind when she made the $100 million request.
Lindsey O’Brien, Kotek’s chief of staff, said the speaker is working with Pham to make 82nd safer. “She believes safety upgrades and overall livability improvements to this state highway are long overdue,” O’Brien said in an email.
Pham said $100 million is just a down payment. “These deaths are also a public health crisis,” she added.
Lawmakers also are scheduled to get a guaranteed dose of money for their districts to focus on community priorities. Representatives will get $2 million, and senators $4 million. Pham said 82nd is “clearly a priority” for her district.
“This is the time to seize the moment,” she said.
Portland’s Vision Zero program, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025, has focused on lowering speed limits as one way to make streets safer because speeding and impaired driving are principal factors in fatal and serious injury crashes.
The city must get state approval to reduce speed limits on its own arterials, let alone those like 82nd that are owned by the state. The city in May 2020 requested a speed limit reduction on 82nd.
Don Hamilton, a state transportation spokesman said a year later, it’s still being reviewed.
“We expect to have a decision in the next few weeks,” he added.
Portland police are still investigating both of April’s pedestrian deaths but said that speed wasn’t believed to be a factor in either.
The first crash, which killed Brookings resident Steve Looser, “could be light and visibility related,” Sgt. Kevin Allen said in an email. The driver cooperated and remained on scene, police said.
The Oregon Walks fatality report determined lighting is a significant factor in pedestrian injuries and deaths and that 79% of crashes from 2017-2019 occurred “in the dark with potential lighting inadequacies identified at a majority of these locations.”
Hamilton said the state is “saddened by the loss of any life or any person seriously injured” and said the department and its staff “work every day to make the system safer.”
“Let’s acknowledge as well that the neighborhoods around 82nd Avenue have grown substantially in recent years, and we’re working to make sure the corridor can meet community needs and sufficiently respond to the safety demands of the area,” he said in a statement. “Safe lighting and safe roadway crossings have been and will continue to be among our top priorities.”
But many of those projects are years away. The state is starting to plan a round of projects to be carried out from 2024 to 2027, Hamilton said, that will be backed by a “historic level of funding” approved by the transportation commission in December.
“We are looking forward to working with our partners and the community to identify opportunities for improving safety and better connecting our communities with these additional funds,” he said.
He shared a document dated January 2020 that referenced $27 million in projects completed in the past decade. Those include $14,000 for a pedestrian island at Northeast Wygant, near where the two men were killed. Another $26 million in projects would break ground in the next five years, according to the document, including a $700,000 rapid flashing beacon at Southeast Mitchell Street expected to begin this year.
When asked for specifics about lighting improvements, Hamilton didn’t provide any.
But as with much on 82nd, the issue of street lighting is a complicated one. On some portions of the road, the state is responsible from curb to curb. In the area where the two men were killed, the state is also responsible for the sidewalks, which includes streetlights. A city transportation spokesperson said crews noticed this week there’s only lighting on the west side of the road where the men were killed. If Portland wanted to install a light on the east side, it would have to request permission from the state. It’s not yet done that.
In 2019, the city estimated it would cost $12 million to address the vast street lighting shortage east of 82nd. Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed budget released this week includes $3 million for or ADA compliant curb ramps, accessible open spaces and new streetlights in east Portland.
Kimura said she didn’t need the reminder of 82nd Avenue’s perilous nature.
“How many more people have to die,” Kimura asked, saying she’s tired of hearing local, federal and state leaders talk about their financial issues and what they can’t make happen on 82nd and other state highways.
Kimura is tired of the financial finger pointing between the city, the federal government and the state, about who has the money and who is responsible for the road. She wants collective action.
“It’s a ‘we’ problem,” she said.
Portland-area voters in November overwhelmingly rejected a payroll tax on employers that would have funded pedestrian safety measures on 82nd and elsewhere in the metro area as well as the region’s share of a light rail line to Bridgeport Village.
The light rail project overshadowed other big-ticket items that were focused on transportation safety on state highways. The project included $330 million for McLoughlin Boulevard, $800 million for Tualatin Valley Highway and $790 million for 82nd Avenue.
Massive portions of those figures included new bus-rapid transit projects, but hundreds of millions of dollars would’ve funded critical and long-planned safety projects.
Some $295 million would’ve funded new or improved sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, street lighting and pavement maintenance issues on a nine-mile stretch of 82nd The project also would’ve helped facilitate the ownership transfer to Portland.
Metro documents note 196 people died or were seriously injured on the highway from 2007 to 2017.
April’s two deaths occurred in areas that weren’t included in the Metro package, which called for work starting just to the south, at Killingsworth.
As of April 26, 22 people have died on Portland-area streets so far in 2021, according to the city. That was ten more than at the same time last year.
But two more people died this week, one a 47-year-old man who was seriously injured while walking across Northeast 122nd Avenue earlier this month in Kimura’s neighborhood. The man, who is believed to have been operating a mobility scooter, passed away this week.
He, too, was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
Pham, the freshman lawmaker, said she’s not deterred by the lack of progress.
She said the diverse businesses and populace in her district and elsewhere on 82nd may not have clamored publicly for improvements, but as a former community organizer, she heard from them directly. Transportation and road safety issues were always a top concern, Pham said, but people felt powerless to see real changes. That’s one reason Pham said she ran for office.
“I do think we have a lot of work to do in terms of reminding people that we can actually demand more,” Pham said. “We can raise expectations of what we can do collectively.”
Some members of the communities lining 82nd are now stepping forward. Leaders on Saturday announced a rally May 7 to raise awareness about the street’s dangers.
— Andrew Theen; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-294-4026; @andrewtheen