East Portland boosters and transportation advocates celebrated when 82nd Avenue was transferred to the city of Portland last year. The move enabled work to begin on a plan to turn the major arterial into a "civic corridor" complete with improved transit service, active transportation access, housing development, and landscaping. The idea? Fix longstanding safety issues while rebalancing long-standing equity gaps that have left east Portlanders with less shade, hotter summers, and less access to frequent, reliable transit service.

The plan was bolstered by $80 million in federal funds—an investment that garnered a visit last week from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg—but if Portland wants to see its vision come to life, it will have to work at lightning speed.

Before the city took it over, 82nd Avenue was a state highway owned and operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), built as a major throughway on the eastern edge of the city before Portland annexed East Portland into its official city limits. State highways within city limits are sometimes referred to as "orphan highways," a name that refers to the history of neglect along the streets as they have evolved to serve different purposes.

"For years, [82nd Ave] was thought of as a highway to get through Portland," a Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Corridor Analysis of 82nd Avenue states. "More recently, areas along the corridor have developed into places where people live, learn, work, visit, gather, and linger." 

But before 82nd Avenue's major transformation can begin, the city of Portland and ODOT are tasked with some grunt work to get the seven-mile, high crash arterial—currently one of Portland's most dangerous streets—in decent condition. Since the jurisdictional transfer was made official in June 2022, PBOT has initiated its $80 million 82nd Avenue "critical fixes" plan to bring near-term safety and maintenance repairs to key places along the corridor. The "critical fixes" plan is funded through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). In addition to the $80 million in federal funds, the city will receive $70 million from ODOT for the next stage of the project, matching the investment with $35 million of the city's own money.

The 82nd Avenue plan study area. (PBOT)

To recognize the federal investment, Oregon politicians hosted Buttigieg on July 7 in East Portland. There, political leaders touted the 82nd Avenue plan as indicative of the city and state leaving car-dominant transportation planning in the rearview mirror to reach their climate and equity goals. 

"We are fully acknowledging the direct connection between our infrastructure and access to transportation and our quality of life, prosperity, and equity,” Gov. Tina Kotek said of the 82nd Avenue plan at the event. Buttigieg's stop in Portland was part of an Invest in America tour, which included a stop in Washington state earlier that day.

For local leaders and advocates, many of whom have worked for years to get the city to pay attention to the need for change on 82nd Avenue, the project represents Portland's potential, given the right political will and funding. However, others acknowledge the importance of the work planned for 82nd Ave, but bristle at the rosy picture painted by people like Kotek. They're asking officials not to lose sight of challenges that stand in the way of transportation improvements citywide—even if that requires agencies like PBOT and ODOT to rethink their own priorities. 

The Plan for 82nd Avenue

The current state of 82nd Avenue. (Portland Bureau of Transportation)

Because the "critical fixes" stage of the 82nd Avenue plan is funded through ARPA, PBOT is on a tight timeframe for completing the near-term changes: if they're not complete by 2026, the city will lose its funding. Changes made to 82nd so far have included speed reader boards and traffic signal controllers near McDaniel High School as well as three new crossings at Northeast Alberta, Northeast Pacific, and Southeast Mitchell Streets. By 2026, PBOT says 82nd Avenue will have an additional 18 crossings, increased street lighting, new pavement, curb ramps, and more. 

At that point, PBOT can begin work on the "civic corridor" element of the plan: the more glamorous stage of renovating 82nd Avenue. Planning for the Civic Corridor Investment Strategy has already begun, with PBOT, TriMet, and Metro conducting workshops along different segments of 82nd Avenue to gather public input about what community members want to see in their plans. Initial surveys show a high demand for more trees, wider sidewalks, and bike infrastructure. 

Then there are the major transit changes planned for the corridor, which will be handled by Metro's 82nd Avenue Transit Project. Currently, project leaders want to replace the existing Line 72 bus—which is the busiest line in the entire TriMet system, and also experiences frequent delays—with a Frequent Express (FX) system like the one that opened on Division Street last year. An FX system would include dedicated bus lanes on 82nd Avenue to ensure transit riders don't get stuck in car traffic, along with enhanced stations and vehicles, and Metro says it could begin service as soon as 2027. 

But in order to achieve everything they want to on 82nd, Portland agencies will need the funding to pay for it—and they're hoping to capitalize on federal partnerships in order to make that happen. 

Federal funding: opportunities and tradeoffs 

Buttigieg speaks at PCC. (Taylor Griggs)

On July 7, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer led Oregon politicians including Kotek, Sen. Jeff Merkley, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici in welcoming Buttigieg to Portland. The event kicked off at Portland Community College's Southeast Campus near 82nd Avenue and SE Division St, where Oregon's elected officials thanked Buttigieg for his help securing U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) funds that will enable the 82nd Avenue plan. 

Blumenauer said he's been introducing legislation in the U.S. House pertaining to traffic crashes and managing so-called orphan highways for years, but until President Biden's administration took over, his calls for change went unanswered by federal leaders. 

"For the first time in my career in Congress, we have an administration that is...spending money on it," Blumenauer said.

Buttigieg commended the officials and specifically called out Kotek's administration, who he said "gets how much [transportation] matters," making his job as a federal partner easier.

"To all the community leaders and representatives who are here, you can really feel the energy and the commitment and the passion that has gone into [the 82nd Avenue plan]," Buttigieg said. 

Following the speeches at PCC, Buttigieg and Blumenauer joined other elected officials and community leaders on a bus tour of 82nd Avenue.

Oregon Rep. Khanh Pham (D-Portland), who was a community organizer on 82nd Avenue before she entered political office, spoke about the diverse immigrant populations who live and work along the corridor and their need for a safer, more people-oriented street. 

"The immigrant communities who have settled here, opening up restaurants and grocery stores and other small businesses, have been key... in revitalizing 82nd Avenue. It's no longer just an orphan highway with used car lots that people just want to rush through. It's now a destination where people want to gather and enjoy some of the best Mexican and Vietnamese food [in Portland]," Pham said. "But even amidst this revitalization, every year in my community we have had to mourn at least one person who died on 82nd Avenue." 

Pham said the people touched by traffic violence in East Portland are tired of hearing condolences from elected officials and want to see action to keep "our kids safe and help our immigrant elders cross the street safely."

"I really hope this could be a model for other orphan highways across the state and across the country," Pham said. "At the end of this, we'll have cleaner air, more shade, and more affordable housing to make sure that the immigrants and diverse communities that made this city so vibrant get to stay." 

Community advocates and local officials with Buttigieg after the bus tour. (Taylor Griggs)

Zachary Lauritzen, the interim director of transportation safety nonprofit Oregon Walks, also pointed out the importance of making sure people who currently reside along 82nd Avenue aren't displaced by the changes coming to their neighborhoods. 

"When we invest hundreds of millions of dollars of public infrastructure dollars, it has downstream effects. Housing prices go up, land prices go up," Lauritzen said. He said his organization wants to make sure "the people who live here now... can stay and enjoy the infrastructure changes and not get pushed out," an effort that will require money for tangible anti-displacement work. 

Lauritzen also asked elected officials to show the same energy they're putting in on 82nd Avenue in other places across the city, even if doing so requires making some trade-offs. 

"I have no doubt [this project] is going to be incredible for 82nd Avenue. But at the same time... there are orphan highways all over the place, and we're investing billions of dollars in major freeway expansions," Lauritzen said, referring to plans to expand I-5 at the Rose Quarter and Interstate Bridge, among other freeway expansion projects ODOT is working on in the Portland metro area. "I'm concerned that communities all across the state of Oregon [do not] have the same resources, because we've allocated them to freeway expansions." 

Some officials appeared concerned Lauritzen's observations and critiques would leave Buttigieg with the impression that there is discord among Oregon transportation advocates and elected leaders. 

"We see the opportunities around active transportation and recognize the complex trade-offs that are involved," Buttigieg said in his closing remarks at the end of the bus tour. He added that while he can't make any promises about future federal funding opportunities, it was helpful for him to be able to see 82nd Avenue as an example of what communities are able to do when they have USDOT resources on their side. 

"I'm very impressed with what I've seen here in Portland," Buttigieg said. He said the visit has allowed him to "really see how federal dollars and policies can aide with community visions."

"We will be constructing and developing infrastructure that our kids and their kids will be relying on for the rest of their lives—[that's] exactly why we're so focused on these things," Buttigieg said. "This is why transportation matters."