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  • 19 Sep 2014

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Foster Road to go on a road diet, losing travel lanes

Foster Road in Southeast Portland is going to be safer and slower, though it’ll take a couple of years.

Portland City Council voted 5-0 Wednesday to approve a new “road diet” for Foster, which will shrink the number of vehicle lanes to one in each direction, from Foster’s juncture with Powell Boulevard east to 89th Avenue. The $5.3 million project is aimed at reducing accidents on Foster and making it more of an inviting place to walk, bicycle and shop.

Two of the four vehicle lanes on Foster will be eliminated, replaced by a middle refuge and left-turning lane and bike lanes. Sidewalks will be widened in some places and lights and street trees will be added.

Neighborhoods on the western part of Foster lobbied for the project, hoping the gritty thoroughfare can become an inviting “Main Street.” Residents living in East Portland weren’t so keen on the idea, because it will slow their commutes to and from downtown.

Right now, Foster “feels like a highway, so people go faster,” said Matt Froman, who works at Buck’s Stove Palace on Foster.

“We want people to slow down, get out of their car and notice,” and stop to eat or shop, said Mayor Charlie Hales. “You don’t have to speed off to some distant chain store,” he said.

Eastside resident Jeff Manley opposed the idea, saying it will make traffic worse and still won’t make Foster safe for bicycling.

“Cutting it down to one lane, you’re going to paralyze Foster completely,” he testified.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman praised the project, saying the city has been trying to “conquer Foster” for years. However, he added, “I do have some worries about going from four lanes to two lanes.” Motorists might be tempted to pass in the middle lane when Trimet buses cause traffic to back up as buses stop for passengers, Saltzman said.

In the past decade, there’ve been eight fatalities along this stretch of Foster, and more than 1,200 crashes, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation. PBOT predicts the project will lead to at least a 20 percent reduction in accidents.

That’s been the experience at Southeast Tacoma Street near the Sellwood Bridge since the number of lanes was reduced there more than a decade ago, said Diane Dulken, PBOT spokeswoman.

Lately, the city has been adding more road diets, though PBOT prefers to call them “road reconfigurations.”

In 2012, the city reduced the number of lanes on Northeast Multnomah Street in the Lloyd District. Last year, the city completed road diets on Southeast Division Street between 60th and 80th avenues, and on Glisan Street at roughly the same cross streets. Now those streets offer traffic for one lane in each direction instead of two lanes.

Another road diet recently was approved for Northwest Everett Street between 19th and 23rd avenues. Road restriping will occur later this month or in early July, Dulken said.

The Burnside East Business Association and the Kerns and Buckman neighborhood associations are asking the city to put East Burnside from 14th to 32nd on a road diet, reducing the number of vehicle lanes to one in each direction. That’s still in the discussion stage, Dulken said.

PBOT calculates the Foster road diet will tack on three minutes to the rush-hour drive through the more than two-mile stretch between Powell and 89th. Some say that’s a good price to pay for reducing auto, pedestrian and bicycle accidents, and encouraging a more lively commercial strip. Skeptics note that three extra minutes each way, five days a week, add up to 25 hours a year stuck in traffic — the equivalent of three work days.

City Commissioner Steve Novick said he recognizes that being stuck in traffic an extra three minutes each time isn't a trivial matter. Novick, who oversees PBOT, said he was particularly concerned about improving safety for students at Arleta School south of Foster. Many of those students must cross the busy street to get to and from school.

The Lents neighborhood, which straddles Foster from 82nd to 89th avenues, and includes areas to the east, is split on the Foster road diet, said Jesse Cornett, chairman of the Lents Neighborhood Association. Cornett, a bicycle commuter who lives near 84th and Foster, likes the project, which will add a crosswalk near his house. “Something like this is long overdue to make sure Foster is a safer street,” he said. “It slows things down; it makes things safer.”

In contrast, Cornett said, “The travel times are a hard sell for, like, the janitor and the painter that live next door to me that work long hours.”

Residents in East Portland, who already face longer drives to work or school, wonder why city leaders want to make it harder for them to drive downtown. Many say the city’s goals of boosting bicycling and transit use don’t work for them.

But a lot of folks in East Portland don’t vote, Cornett said. And city councilors hear support for road diets from people who live near the vehicle lanes being eliminated.

"Every stretch of a major street is a neighborhood street for the people who live along that stretch," Novick said, "and it's a commuter or freight route for other people, and there are tradeoffs involved."

Novick suggested PBOT needs to devise a list of streets that are appropriate, or not, for road diets. "We can't assume that we're going to slow down traffic on all of them," he said.

Hales said the city isn’t going to forget the motorists, but merely wants to have more of a balance with pedestrians, bicyclists and others.

Some plans like the one approved Wednesday tend to gather dust on the shelf, but money is available to pay for the Foster improvements. The city scored $3 million in federal transportation funds, and the Portland Development Commission agreed to put in $2.3 million in urban renewal funds from the Lents Urban Renewal Area.

Design work can now begin for the approved project improvements, Dulken says. Then the city would put projects out to bid. Construction is expected in 2016.

Steve Law can be reached at 503-546-5139 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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