Artist Alex Chius mural at the NE 82nd MAX station.
Artist Alex Chiu's mural at the NE 82nd MAX station. TRIMET

The future of 82nd Avenue was one of the focal points of the city's sole legislative agenda town hall, held Tuesday night at the Portland Community College's Southeast Campus. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Amanda Fritz hosted the meeting.

The town hall was held to give Portland residents a chance to give input on what the city’s lobbying priorities should be going into the 2019 Oregon Legislative Session. During an hourlong public comment period, people weighed in on air pollution, homelessness, and affordable housing—as well as the possibility of 82nd being transferred from state control to the city.

East Portland's 82nd Ave is currently classified as a state highway, and is governed by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), rather than the Portland Department of Transportation (PBOT). But because 82nd serves a relatively small portion of the state, it is low on ODOT’s list of priorities—which, according to Portlander Brian Wong, is why the road is covered in potholes and lacking in safe pedestrian crossings and street lights. Wong heads the 82nd Avenue Improvement Coalition.

“The state views their roads as a system,” Wong told the Mercury. “In that system, roads like 82nd are a low priority. However, cities looking at their roads as a system see roads like 82nd Avenue as a high priority.”

Oregon state legislators, including Senator Michael Dembrow and Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer, are working on legislation that would outline how ODOT could easily and affordably transfer Portland "orphan highways" like 82nd (SE Powell is another), to city authorities. Wong didn't see that specific piece of legislation mentioned in the city’s draft legislative agenda—so he showed up at Tuesday’s town hall.

“We are here asking your support and partnership moving that bill forward,” Wong told Wheeler and Fritz. The mayor and city commissioner didn't have a chance to give a detailed response to Wong's comments, as the purpose of the town hall was to gather as many comments as possible.

One questions still up in the air regarding 82nd’s transfer is how much it would cost, and where that funding would come from. Estimates as high as $150 million have been thrown around, but Wong said not enough research has been done yet to know how much it would cost to bring 82nd up to a condition where the city could take it over.

“It’s sort of like asking a contractor to give you a bid on a remodel of your house, but without the contractor ever coming to your house,” he said.

Those initial improvements would probably include paving, new pedestrian crossings and improved lighting. Wong said that in the future, after the city takes over 82nd, he envisions it as a thriving road with five distinct neighborhood zones. The area is already among the most diverse in the city, and includes the Jade District, home to many Asian Americans.

“I think we could get the ball rolling if we just get the asphalt fixed,” said Gary Sargent, of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association, at the town hall. “I’m very enthusiastic to see it turned over to the city.”

But bringing up neighborhood improvements in Portland also brings up fear of gentrification, and of current residents and businesses being priced out of the area. Wong’s vision relies on affordable housing to keep that from happening—and he said that the city needs to establish a standard for affordable housing that’s relevant to the area, not to the city as a whole.

“The economics of downtown Portland certainly look a lot different than the economics of someone in Southeast Portland,” he said.

If the road is transferred someday, PBOT would only take over the seven-mile portion of 82nd that is within Portland city limits. The future of the stretch of 82nd in Clackamas County would need to be worked out between ODOT and Clackamas County officials.

The plan to revitalize 82nd has been in the works for a few years—ODOT recently finished the 82nd Avenue of Roses Implementation Plan, which lays out improvements the road needs and mentions jurisdictional transfer as a possibility. But with legislation being developed in Salem, this is the most momentum a jurisdictional transfer of 82nd has seen.

In 2017, the legislature passed a bill allowing outer Powell, east of 1-205, to change hands from ODOT to PBOT. ODOT is handling improvements to Powell now before hanging it over to the city.

Tuesday's town hall was at the Portland Community College Southeast Campus, which is on 82nd. One month earlier, ODOT and PBOT had held a town hall at the same location to discuss the future of the orphan highway. Officials indicated they were willing to work together to transfer 82nd, should legislation pass—which Wong said “was huge.”

For now, it’s up to the legislature to determine a funding and transfer process. Wong said that despite the issue’s absence from the draft legislative agenda, he does feel that the city of Portland supports the effort.

“I think they’re trying to do their due diligence,” he said, “and not biting off more than they can chew.”