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Give two-way streets a red light

A sharply divided Hillsboro City Council appears to be on the verge of approving a major reconfiguration of the city’s downtown business district — switching the streets from one-way to two-way.

On May 6, the city council members split 3-3 on the two-way streets core conversion project, resulting in Mayor Jerry Willey being called on to break the tie — the first time he has needed to do so since he was elected mayor in 2008. Willey voted in favor of bringing back two-way streets, and expressed strong support for doing so. A final vote will take place May 20.

With the council so divided on this issue, however, we believe the city needs to rethink the idea of going down this road, which would be lengthy and complicated.

The idea is to revitalize the downtown core and inject new life into the central business district. The thinking is, two-way streets would give businesses more exposure, and hopefully help increase the number of visitors. But turning the existing street system on its head is a massive and disruptive undertaking. Planners have estimated it will cost at least $2.5 million to switch the downtown streets from the current one-way orientation to two-way. Many citizens, along with half of Hillsboro’s city council members, have questioned the wisdom of spending that much money on a gamble — and clearly that’s what this proposal is.

Converting the downtown’s street network to two-way might provide a boost for downtown. But it might not. It might make congestion worse. It might exacerbate parking problems. It might frustrate citizens who are used to the existing system, causing them to take their business elsewhere.

In casting his tie-breaking vote in favor of converting the downtown core to two-way traffic, Mayor Willey said the “status quo” of one-way streets is not working. We see it differently. The downtown business district is generally a lively place, and when there are events such as Farmers’ Market or the Latino Festival or the Cancer Awareness and Treatment Fun Run, the downtown is flooded with people. So we disagree with the argument that people don’t like coming downtown because of one-way traffic.

Our support of the “status quo” is not because of any hesitancy to see change, but rather because changing the status quo, in this case, could backfire and create problems that did not previously exist.

Currently, for example, delivery trucks sometimes pause in one of the lanes of the one-way streets to make deliveries. Cars can easily go around them, and delays are avoided. Cars would not so easily be able to go around them if there is oncoming traffic in a two-way system. How will those deliveries get made? Some business owners have said the trucks can pull around behind their stores to do so, but most businesses downtown do not have the space to allow that.

Further, if loading zones need to be created to accommodate freight loading and unloading, that will reduce the number of parking spaces for those wishing to shop downtown.

Perhaps the most compelling argument is the reality that prior to 1968, the downtown streets were two-way, and city planners and business owners determined that system wasn’t working. They went to the one-way approach to address traffic issues. Now, 46 years later, we are being told a switch back to two-way streets will do the trick.

Hillsboro City Council member Fred Nachtigal, who has lived in Hillsboro for several decades and recalls when the switch from two-way to one-way was made in the late 1960s, has a unique and interesting perspective.

“The conversion to one-way streets at that time was because it was too congested and delivery trucks couldn’t make deliveries — and I wonder what’s changed in the last 45 years,” he said.

We agree with Fred on this issue, and we agree with the many citizens who have spoken out about how much they enjoy the downtown as it is. We share their concerns that this expensive project could lessen their enthusiasm for going downtown to shop, to see a play, for lunch or just to get a cup of coffee.

In an April 28 presentation, Hillsboro Economic Development Director Mark Clemons conceded the conversion would be difficult for the city’s residents to get used to. There would need to be a “burn-in” period — which he said could last several years — before residents would get used to the new traffic flow. Can the downtown business district afford to have this level of traffic confusion for such a lengthy period?

With the council and the citizenry so divided on this issue, we believe it’s unwise to push through an expensive project that is as likely to create problems as it is to solve them — regardless of what the consultants have to say.

When it comes before the council for a final vote on May 20, we urge members of the city council to shelve this dubious proposal.



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