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Businesses drive effort to reverse city's decision to trim number of car lanes

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rush-hour traffic moves up and down the four lanes of Southeast Foster Road. The city will be paring down the number of lanes to two, along with bike lanes and a turn lane.A culture clash is raging on Foster Road in Southeast Portland, and the signs are everywhere.

Several longstanding Foster Road merchants, mobilized by furniture store owner Jon Shleifer, have plastered their storefronts with large signs protesting city plans for a “road diet” on the bustling thoroughfare from its juncture with Southeast Powell Boulevard to 90th Avenue. Next year, the city plans to start construction on a $5.3 million project that will shrink the number of car lanes to just one in each direction for that 2.3-mile stretch, plus a center turn lane. The city also will widen sidewalks along Foster and add on-street parking, flashing safety beacons, street trees and striped bicycle lanes.

It’ll be Portland’s most ambitious road diet yet, following smaller projects reducing traffic lanes on stretches of Tacoma, Glisan, Division, Everett and East Burnside streets.

City traffic engineers say such road diets make traffic slower, more orderly and safer — especially when a left-turn lane is added. The projects reduce accidents and create more walkable, bikable business districts.

“We want people to slow down, get out of their car and notice,” and stop to eat or shop, said Mayor Charlie Hales when the Foster Road diet was approved by the City Council in June 2014. “You don’t have to speed off to some distant chain store.”

But Shleifer and other skeptics have noticed long lines of traffic forming on Division and other streets that lost travel lanes, especially when there’s a TriMet bus stopping to load and unload passengers. Many Foster business owners fear the road diet will make congestion — and traffic safety — worse.

“There’s 30,000 commuters and freight trucks using it every day,” says Shleifer, owner of EuroClassic Furniture on Foster near Southeast 67th Avenue. He posted a string of signs on his extensive storefront to mount an eleventh-hour protest, and walked door to door to drum up several allies. “I thought these 30,000 commuters should know what’s happening to them,” Shleifer says.

One of those allies is Clay Tyler, vice president of Mt. Scott Fuel Co., a 97-year-old company that sells bark dust and other yard supplies on Foster near 69th Avenue.

“I haven’t seen a decrease in cars or people moving into the area,” Tyler says. “So how come you’re decreasing our roads?”

Though their protest may not cause the city to budge, it’s another sign that not everyone is on board with the city’s ongoing efforts to topple cars from their position as kings of the road.

The dispute also highlights a chasm between old-line Foster business owners, who tend to oppose the loss of vehicle-traffic lanes, and a newer, younger generation of merchants who want the seedy neighborhood to resemble other hipper, closer-in business districts.

In effect, the road diet will help gentrify the commercial and nearby residential areas.

“It’s a street in transition,” says Matthew Micetic, owner of Red Castle Games on Foster near 64th, and president of the Foster Area Business Association. “Once this streetscape goes in, it’s going to be a tremendous asset in growing property values.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Southeast Foster Road property owner Bob Tousignant is upset at the city for reducing the street from four lanes to two. He says that the changes will hurt small business owners, in favor of large developers.

Easy does it

The city calculates the Foster road diet will add three minutes to the rush-hour commute each way. That may not sound like much, but for regular commuters it equates to 30 more minutes stuck in traffic each week — and three workdays over the course of a year. That angers some commuters from East Portland and Gresham to the east, who already face long drives to work. Some predict the delays will be worse than projected.

Eastbound traffic already backs up on Foster in the evening rush hour, causing some motorists to have to wait additional light cycles to turn south onto 82nd Avenue. “It’s going to add 10 or 15 minutes to a wait time each way,” predicts Bob Tousignant, who owns the building housing the Sew & Vac store on Foster near 67th.

Shleifer’s campaign seems to have generated many complaints to City Hall. Andrea Valderrama, policy adviser for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, says she’s talked to 15 to 20 people complaining on the phone, and received emails from others.

But there’s no sign the city will rethink its approval of the project.

Steve Novick, the city commissioner in charge of PBOT, didn’t return phone calls requesting his views. Novick, who is running for re-election, asked Chris Warner, his chief of staff, to do the talking.

“At this point we’re not reconsidering anything,” Warner says, rather emphatically.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Southeast Foster Road business owner John Shleifer is angry at the city for a planned reduction of car lanes along the road.

Safety the overriding goal

When the road diet, officially called the Foster Transportation and Streetscape Project, was approved in 2014, PBOT determined there’d been eight fatalities and 1,200 accidents in the prior decade on this stretch of Foster.

“Foster is on our list of high-crash corridors for the city; it’s in the top 10,” says Rich Newlands, project manager.

The city has tracked accident rates on several streets after they got the road diet treatment.

“The changes in crash rates can vary between 20 percent up to 50 percent,” Newlands says.

There are tradeoffs, he concedes, such as longer travel time on Foster. But those are only for rush-hour traffic, he says. “Most other times of the day, you’ll see no reduction in travel time. What you’ll probably see is a safer street.”

Change in plans

Calls to improve Foster are not new.

In 2003, the city approved the first version of the Foster Transportation and Streetscape Project. That design called for “bump outs” — extending sidewalks out into the parking strip — so pedestrians only have to cross the equivalent of four lanes, rather than six. The city also would have installed old-fashioned streetlights and bike racks, but no bike lanes.

That plan was very sensible, says Tousignant, whose son runs the Sew & Vac store in his building. Anticipating that Foster would be improved, he soon bought an apartment complex on Foster near 84th, and a three-story commercial building on Foster near 65th.

But that project never got funded.

Neighbors and businesses agitated the city to revive it around 2009, which led to a new version with the road diet and bike lanes, among other features.

Tousignant, who is convinced there will be more bicyclist fatalities on Foster as a result, decided to sell those same two properties after the City Council approved the new plan in 2014.

“I bought (the two properties) based on the city’s 2003 streetscape plan for Foster,” Tousignant says. “I sold them because of the nightmare that was going to ensue” from the road diet.

Many of the businesses opposed to the new vision for Foster rely on car traffic and vehicle deliveries: furniture, plumbing and sewing machines, bark dust. Many are the old-timers on Foster.

Shleifer worries motorists will simply avoid long lines of cars on Foster, spilling traffic onto side streets and reducing his customers.

“It won’t flow any more; it will be sort of like a dead street,” he says.

In contrast, newer arrivals tend to like the idea of having more foot and bicycle traffic on Foster. They include restaurants, coffee shops, design firms, Portland Mercado and others.

“A lot of our employees bike to work, and they won’t go on Foster,” Micetic says. “A lot of the new business owners, they come to Foster because they were excited about the change in streetscape.”

Even Shleifer’s ally, Tyler of Mt. Scott Fuel, figures it’s a lost cause, that the city already has made up its mind.

“The money’s in the pipeline,” says Nick Christensen, the former Lents Neighborhood Association chairman who was a lone voice in opposition to the road diet a few years ago. The protest signs “haven’t created a lot of buzz,” he says.

But some critics might not give up easily.

“It may require an injunction,” Tousignant says. “Several of the people are talking to lawyers at this point.”

By Steve Law
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