LAST YEAR, Valentine's Day weekend packed a brutal one-two punch on Portland's streets.
On Friday, February 14, a pickup driver ran down an elderly couple attempting to cross SE Division near 84th, killing a 78-year-old woman.
The next day, a 60-year-old man was struck and killed near SE Powell and 124th.
East Portland's known to be treacherous for pedestrians, but the deaths—rapid-fire as they came—got active transportation types especially enflamed. That weekend, some advocates started a petition to Portland leaders: a clear signal that deaths on city streets are simply not acceptable.
Hundreds signed on, and now—just over a year later—the city's agreed.
Last month, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) released a new two-year plan called "Portland Progress," and my god is it shiny. The $150,000 document lays out all the fondest hopes and dreamiest dreams PBOT could cram into 96 pages.
Still, in some ways, it's a $150,000 re-hash. There are the familiar pledges—around 170 in all—to take care of streets and fix bridges, to make neighborhoods more "livable" and improve conditions for truck traffic.
PBOT Director Leah Treat defends the price tag, saying no one's ever seen the bureau's priorities so clearly defined.
The thing catching everyone's eye, though, is what Treat calls "a whole new conversation" for PBOT (one she's had in former posts in Chicago and Washington, DC). Like cities around the country, the agency will embrace "Vision Zero," a movement to bolster road safety—via crosswalks, speed limits, sidewalks, and whatever else works—so that, 10 years from now, there will be no road-related tragedies in Portland.
It's an easy idea to embrace, right? Just the type of big effort we all expected to see from Treat when she was hired back in June 2013.
But this is Portland, and it's transportation, and if the floundering conversation around the "street fee" over the last year has taught us anything, it's that these things are far, far more complicated than just setting goals.
While advocates are cautiously cheering PBOT's newfound allegiance to their cause, it's not hard to find similarly sparkling bits of goodwill that have lost their way. (Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030, anyone?)
Treat and other PBOT staff also readily concede we don't have anywhere near enough money for certain "stretch goals," like eliminating road deaths.
And, as ever, the city's business interests have their own ideas for PBOT's competing priorities. The Portland Business Alliance has railed against suggestions that new money should go to "safety" improvements. They want it spent on better roads.
The PBA's not alone. Corky Collier, the executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association, has spent years on a citizen board that helps PBOT work out its budget. He called the plan a "great new educational tool," but sort of scoffed at the Vision Zero part.
"Any time that you're making a strong point, it can easily verge on hyperbole," says Collier, who spends his days vying for better conditions for trucks. "Vision Zero is kind of walking that line."
Treat laughed when told of the comment. But if Portland's going to eliminate more Valentine's Day massacres, she'll have to do much more.