Portland City Council will discuss a proposal Wednesday to lower the speed limit on SE Powell Blvd. near Cleveland High School in response to overwhelming calls for improved safety conditions in the area. The proposal was introduced by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), as an emergency agenda item Tuesday.

Earlier this month, bicyclist Sarah Pliner was fatally hit by a semi-truck at SE Powell Blvd. and SE 26th Ave.—the intersection adjacent to Cleveland High School—while commuting to work. The fatal crash immediately renewed calls for safety improvements to the area from cyclists, transportation safety advocates, and several local politicians. Last week, hundreds of protesters formed a human barricade for the bike lane on SE 26th Ave., demanding an immediate return of the protected green bike boxes that were removed from the intersection in 2018.

“The reason so many of us turned out is because we know it could have been any of us and it could have been one of the students,” protester Aaron Kuehn told the Mercury.

SE Powell Blvd. is a “high crash corridor”—one of 30 Portland streets where a significant number of crashes occur—and four cyclists have been seriously injured at the SE 26th Ave. intersection from 2010 to 2019, according to city data. The intersection is controlled by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) because SE Powell Blvd. is a state-owned highway. 

The resolution coming to City Council would direct ODOT and PBOT to install a “School Speed Zone” around all schools that are on state-owned highways, including Cleveland High School—which would lower the speed to 20 mph on SE Powell Blvd. during school hours. The speed limit is currently 30 mph on SE Powell Blvd. It’s not immediately clear how many other schools would be impacted by the resolution.

Speed limit changes throughout the state require approval from ODOT regardless of who owns the street where the speed change is being made. Historically, speed limit change requests from PBOT have taken up to a year for ODOT to approve, leading the city to rely on emergency orders to act quickly. However, the state appears to share the city’s urgency in addressing safety conditions on SE Powell Blvd.

Last week, ODOT Director Kris Strickler said that “no change is off the table” when it comes to addressing safety issues on SE Powell Blvd., announcing in a press statement that he was directing ODOT to “evaluate possible options to quickly transform Powell into a safer roadway.”

The council resolution also calls for PBOT and ODOT to study what other safety improvements can be made to the SE Powell Blvd. and SE 26th Ave. intersection, as well as determine how much it would cost to transfer ownership of SE Powell Blvd. to Portland. In 2021, PBOT and ODOT developed a plan to transfer ownership of 82nd Ave.—another state-owned highway in Portland—to the city after back-to-back pedestrian deaths on the corridor. The plan combines $70 million from ODOT, $35 million from PBOT, and $80 million from the Oregon Legislature to pay for the street’s infrastructure improvements.

It’s not clear how quickly the School Speed Zone would be established around Cleveland High School if city commissioners approve the resolution Wednesday. 

Representatives from PBOT, ODOT, Portland Public Schools, and TriMet will be at a community forum Thursday, October 20, about safety of SE Powell Blvd. hosted by State Senator Kathleen Taylor, and state representatives Karin Power and Rob Nosse.