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Local mother channels tragedy to help public transportation safety measure pass Oregon Legislature

COURTESY PHOTO - Rep. Barbara Warner-Smith (D-District 45) and Gov. Kate Brown congratulated Darla Sturdy, right, and her granddaughter Maggie Zelinka on the passage of their bill to increase oversight on public transportation-related deaths.  A Gresham mother is celebrating newly approved legislation she championed to create third-party oversight to investigate TriMet-related crashes that result in injuries and death.

Darla Sturdy wrote Senate Bill 1053, which establishes a TriMet Crash Advisory Committee tasked with reviewing serious and fatal accidents that occur within the local public transportation system. It also provides a third-party review of what happened and the changes needed to prevent it from happening again.

"I've given up time with my family to do this," Sturdy said. "It's been an exciting journey, and I am so happy to see it pass."

COURTESY PHOTO - Aaron Wagner-Sturdy, right, with his sister, Savanna, and mother, Darla, a few weeks before he was fatally struck by the TriMet MAX light rail outside Gresham City Hall. The legislation was born from tragedy. Sturdy's 16-year-old son, Aaron Wagner-Sturdy, was riding his bicycle home after a busy day on June 23, 2003, when he was hit and killed by a MAX light-rail train outside Gresham City Hall on Eastman Parkway.

That unthinkable accident led Sturdy down her path of transportation reformation.

"It's good for us to remember what happened," she said. "The fear after losing a child is no one will remember them. I don't know if I would have made it if I hadn't channeled that energy into something important."

Immediately after the crash, Sturdy brought changes to the TriMet system through years of advocacy. Eventually, more than 45 stations received safety updates to the barricades and crosswalks, including the station at City Hall, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway, where Aaron died.

Now, thanks to Sturdy's latest efforts and the work of many elected officials, the Crash Advisory Committee — rather than a grieving mother — will take the lead on safety changes and recommendations at MAX stations.

"It makes me proud for my son that we put this together with God's help," Sturdy said. "I'm thankful to make a difference."

COURTESY PHOTO - Darla Sturdy posed with two bills she was working on at the start of the recent Oregon legislative session. The legislation was a rocky path through Salem. It began life as Senate Bill 747, and had about six initial sponsors backing the plan, including many East Multnomah County elected officials.

But the bill was mired in the Senate Transportation Committee with no signs of life, so Sturdy went to the House and asked Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, to take it on. There the bill was renamed HB 3443 — a good omen for Sturdy, as 34 was her son's number in football.

But the bill was also dropped in the House.

"I thought it was over," Sturdy admitted. "But people kept coming up to me with ideas and support. Everybody helped me through this whole process."

A lobbyist suggested she try a bill-pull to force the legislation onto the floor for a vote, but many elected officials were hesitant to go that route, because it is an unpopular political maneuver.

Eventually Sturdy connected with Senate Republican leader Herman Baertschiger, who spoke on her behalf with Senate President Peter Courtney. Courtney was supportive of the legislation and lent his assistance. He changed a few things to make the bill more palatable — most notably having the committee selected by TriMet's general manager.

Finally, after Sturdy spent months in Salem fighting for her bill, the legislation passed the Senate on Saturday, June 29, and the House one day later. Now it only awaits a signature from Gov. Kate Brown before it goes into effect.

"This is to allow a third party to judge these terrible accidents," Sturdy explained.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Aaron Wagner-Sturdy was struck and killed by a MAX light-rail train at the Gresham City MAX station in 2003. Under the previous system, cases where a person was struck by a TriMet vehicle led to an internal investigation. There was also oversight from agencies including the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Rail Administration and Oregon Department of Transportation Rail and Public Transit Division.

The new bill adds another layer of oversight at the local level. And Sturdy plans to take what was created in Salem and implement it across the country.

"I know my son is proud," she said.

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