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Sellwood cut-through traffic problems persist

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Beset with commuters -- many of them from Clackamas County, trying to cut ahead of the line on Tacoma Street to cross the Sellwood Bridge -- Sellwood seeks solutions

DAVID F. ASHTON - This Florida-plated Mercedes Benz was one of six vehicles turning illegally from northbound 6th Avenue to westbound Tacoma Street in less than ten minutes - after the traffic signal cycle had been changed. Although the new Sellwood Bridge project has been completed, figuring out how to tame vehicle traffic near the east end of the bridge is still an open question C and, with some neighbors, a sore subject.

At what the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) called a "Scoping Meeting" held at the SMILE Station the evening of March 22, neighbors gathered to discuss the problem.

Before the meeting began, neighbor Brad Nostrand, who lives at the corner of S.E. Umatilla Street and 6th Avenue shared his concerns with THE BEE.

"Even though we're two blocks south of Tacoma Street, we probably see more of this cut-through traffic than anybody," Nostrand reflected. "The increased traffic going off Tacoma Street and through the neighborhood is been 'off the charts', both east and westbound, depending on the time of day."

Suggestions that Nostrand was bringing to the meeting included putting in a stop sign at 6th Avenue and Umatilla street, putting in a couple of speed bumps to slow traffic, and perhaps an "illegal left-turn" ticketing camera at the Tacoma and 6th intersection.

Neighbor Steve Decker said that although he lives near S.E. Marion Street and 15th Avenue, his family is concerned about vehicle drivers who continue to make the illegal left hand turn from northbound S.E, 6th Avenue to westbound Tacoma Street, heading across the bridge.

"We've had multiple occurrences where, for those riding bikes [on northbound 6th at Tacoma], cars are already in, or start inching into, the 'green zone' Bike Box, forcing bike riders out of their way," Decker said.

One solution Decker proposed was putting in cones, pylons, or some kind of traffic diverters, to prevent vehicles from entering the Bike Box, and keeping cars from darting from side streets onto Tacoma Street, filling up the left-turn lanes waiting to cut into traffic.

The day before the Sellwood meeting, PBOT changed the signal timing at S.E. 6th and Tacoma, said the Bureau's Senior Engineering Associate Andrew Sullivan.

Instead of being a "split-phase signal" that gave a green light to northbound traffic, then to southbound traffic on S.E. 6th and Tacoma, explained Sullivan, "We removed the split-phase, so both the north and south phases operate simultaneously.

"In theory, the northbound traffic making the illegal left hand turn would have to yield to oncoming traffic, and as you know there's a considerable amount of traffic that comes out of the north lane of 6th Avenue as well," Sullivan continued. "We're hoping that the extra 'friction' from the yielding process makes it inefficient enough that people decide not to make that illegal left hand turn onto Tacoma anymore."

However, when we revisited the intersection, retiming of the traffic signal clearly didn't help the situation. One vehicle after another made that illegal left hand turn, after driving through the Bike Box.

SMILE Transportation Committee Chair Scott Kelly said he'd called the Sellwood meeting because of neighbors' passionate concerns about cut-through traffic and the new signal at 6th Street.

"Helping PBOT prioritize our concerns is our first step," Kelly said.

Some of the concepts to be considered include:

· Reducing traffic backups on Tacoma Street

· Providing safer and more comfortable bike and pedestrian mobility

· Engineering neighborhood streets to discourage cut-through traffic

· Reducing the number of motor vehicle trips through the area, overall

"These aren't always mutually exclusive goals, but they can be," Kelly observed. "Tonight we're not here to propose solutions, but instead, help PBOT map out areas of the most concern."

On hand at the meeting was PBOT Capital Improvements Project Manager Rich Newlands – no stranger to addressing Tacoma Street problems – to help focus the discussion. "We are primarily here to make sure that we understand the problem of cut-through traffic, so as we move forward into doing traffic data collection, we can be sure we are getting the data that we need."

Capturing cut-through traffic data can be complicated, Newlands explained, because the traffic manifested in the impact area comes from many different sources over a wide area, and a variety of different sources of traffic. The study should include looking at local traffic versus nonlocal traffic.

For example, on most weekday mornings, westbound traffic is backed up from the foot of the Sellwood Bridge east over the S.E. McLoughlin Boulevard overpass. And many of the "cut-through drivers" are actually neighborhood residents taking their most direct route to Tacoma Street.

"So, we need to better understand the neighborhood's perception of 'cut-through' routes, how they might relate to the [6th Avenue and Tacoma Street] signal operation," said Newlands.

Those coming to the meeting hoping for a "quick fix" may have been disappointed to find that no solution can be developed until all the details of the problem have been documented. But a start has been made, and THE BEE will continue to monitor the city's progress in resolving this issue.