Residents demand Highway 8 fixes following neighbor's death
Michael Jerome hopes no one ever has to make the call he made to his girlfriend's parents three weeks ago.
On Jan. 14, just before 7 a.m., Leslie Schmadeke, Jerome's girlfriend, was crossing Highway 8 about a mile east of Cornelius to catch the eastbound TriMet bus on Line 57, as she normally did to go to work. It was dark, and a westbound driver didn't see Schmadeke in time.
First responders provided medical attention to Schmadeke at the scene, said the Washington County Sheriff's Office. She was taken to the hospital, where she later died.
The 1½-mile section of Highway 8, also called Tualatin Valley Highway, where Schmadeke crossed doesn't have any crosswalks. Sidewalks are intermittent, and there are few streetlights.
The speed limit along the section of highway is 50 mph, but Jerome and other neighbors say they frequently see cars driving at interstate highway speeds. The trauma surgeon who treated Schmadeke the night she died told Jerome the driver who hit her was going 60 mph, Jerome said.
"She was amazing," Jerome said of Schmadeke. "She was sweet, caring, wonderful. She worked at the (Portland) Children's Museum. That was her day job. Nights she worked at the Moda Center."
When Schmadeke would return from her shift at Portland Trail Blazers games or concerts, Jerome would walk to the end of Northwest 341st Avenue and meet her walking back from the bus stop.
"I still walk down here," Jerome said, looking out at the highway.
Schmadeke was part of a group of neighbors living near the 1½-mile section of Highway 8 between Cornelius and Hillsboro who have, for years now, been calling on local elected officials to make it safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.
Currently, the Oregon Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over the road, which means any safety improvements would have to be made by the agency. There's an initiative by Metro that could transfer jurisdiction of the highway to local governments, who could then make safety improvements. The section of highway could also receive investments from a planned transportation ballot measure from Metro this fall.
But Schmadeke's neighbors want immediate action. They warn there will be more fatal traffic accidents along the highway if ODOT doesn't make improvements soon.
Dennis Eubanks has lived off 341st Avenue for more than 40 years. He said he's seen the highway in front of his street transform from a rural roadway into a major commuter route as the population of western Washington County grows.
Eubanks has urged state legislators and city officials in Cornelius to make safety improvements along the highway for most of the time he's lived there, he said.
"This highway is a mess," Eubanks said. "In the last 28 months, there have been six deaths on that road. Two of them were pedestrians."
Data from ODOT shows that there's been an increase in fatal crashes along the section of the highway recently. From 2012 to 2017, there was one fatal crash — the first of six fatal crashes to which Eubanks referred. During that five-year period, 103 people were injured, including five pedestrians, in 124 crashes.
The frequency of fatal crashes has spiked since then.
In October 2018, a bicyclist was struck and killed while riding on Highway 8 near Southwest 331st Avenue.
Just over a month later, in November 2018, a woman was killed and five others were injured in a head-on collision in between 341st and 345th avenues.
In February 2019, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing the highway at Northwest 334th Avenue.
In November 2019, a driver died after he attempted to turn left onto the highway from 334th Avenue in front of oncoming traffic and was T-boned by a truck.
The traffic safety issue is personal for Eubanks, too.
In 2018, Eubanks was involved in a crash when another driver turned onto the highway in front of him. Eubanks' sternum was broken in the incident, and the other driver and another passenger were also injured.
Don Hamilton, a spokesman for ODOT, said the agency is starting to take a closer look into the safety of the 1½-mile section of highway.
He said ODOT is planning to conduct a safety audit this summer. Traffic engineers will meet with local officials and residents to identify unsafe areas, which could lead to both short-term and long-term improvements.
"This area has grown a lot in the last 10, 20 years," Hamilton said. "We're starting to look at this section of road in a more serious way, and we'll see what we can develop."
Hamilton said it's important to use data to inform what kinds of improvements ODOT implements, and that such actions don't happen quickly as a result.
"We look at the growth patterns, we look at what the data tells us," Hamilton said. "Cause, time of day, was there impairment, was there distraction? What are the tools that can address the problems we have seen? It's not a fast process, but it is ultimately an effective process."
He said ODOT has recently installed "rapid flash beacons" — signs with yellow flashing lights at crosswalks that pedestrians activate when they're about to cross — at other problem areas of the highway. The beacons could be one solution to pedestrian safety issues, Hamilton said.
Michael Mlynski, another resident who has lived near the highway for about 30 years, said he gets frustrated when statements issued by the Sheriff's Office following crashes that involve pedestrians imply that it was the pedestrian's fault.
The statement issued following Schmadeke's death pointed out that visibility was poor that morning due to fog, and that Schmadeke was wearing dark clothing. It advised people to wear bright, reflective clothing or carry a flashlight when crossing busy roads in the dark.
"Why do they point out Leslie's possible mistakes — that she's to blame instead of the engineers, the politicians, who haven't taken action on creating a safe environment for everyone?" Mlynski asked rhetorically.
He thinks if officials are going to approve housing developments near the highway, developers should be required to make safety improvements to accommodate the increases in traffic.
"I don't want to give the impression that I'm anti-development," Mlynski said. "People are moving to the area because they're getting jobs. But why don't engineers and politicians demand that developers pay for adequate public safety standards, when their developments endanger those very standards that may endanger life?"
Mlynski said he's happy that ODOT plans to conduct a safety audit, but he hopes action is taken quickly because the danger remains.
Two initiatives by Metro could also bring safety improvements to the highway.
One is an effort by Metro to identify which state-owned highways in the region should be transferred to local ownership to meet roadway needs, which have evolved over time. Highway 8 is on the list to potentially be transferred. Metro expects to start developing an implementation plan for the process in September.
Metro also plans to place a transportation funding measure on the November 2020 ballot, which could bring improvements to all of Highway 8, including a $10 million to $15 million investment in the section of highway between Cornelius and Hillsboro. The area might receive a planted center median, protected cycle tracks, sidewalks and additional bus infrastructure, according to documents from Metro.
Juan Carlos González, who represents western Washington County on the Metro Council, said Highway 8 has risen to the top of Metro's list of highways that need improvements.
González posted a message about Schmadeke's death on Twitter the day that she died.
"Yet another pedestrian fatality on TV highway for trying to cross the street," González wrote. "Unacceptable. We've got to do everything we can to address the obvious deficiencies our transportation faces."
González grew up in Cornelius and now lives in Hillsboro. He said he knows how much the area lacks adequate pedestrian infrastructure.
"I've seen people my entire life risk their lives running across five lanes of traffic to get to a bus stop," González said in an interview. "The level of improvements that need to be made to that road is something that's really personal to me. I also know that victims of tragedies like this, they want action and they want urgency, and that's something that I feel a lot right now."
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