Commuting and community collide in Linnton
Despite $440,000 in U.S. 30 improvements, safety issues remain
When the city of Linnton was annexed to Portland in 1915, it brought with it a vast undeveloped area that later became Forest Park Ñ and a tiny community with only one main street.
To the 591 residents of Linnton, the street is Northwest St. Helens Road, the divider between homes on its west side and the bus stops and community center on the east. To everyone else, it's a truck route: U.S. Highway 30.
The tension between the thoroughfare's two roles came to a head in November 2001, when 14-year-old Ryan Calvert was struck and killed by a van after he got off his school bus and started to cross from east to west.
It's a tension that also exists, for less tragic reasons, in other parts of Portland where city streets double as state highways. These include: Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard (Oregon Highway 99E) between Powell and Holgate boulevards; Southwest Barbur Boulevard (Oregon Highway 99W) between Terwilliger Boulevard and Hamilton Street; and Northeast Lombard Street (U.S. Highway 30) between 11th and 60th avenues.
'Ryan's death was the greatest tragedy that could happen here,' says Pat Wagner, president of the Linnton Neighborhood Association. Wagner is one of four residents, dubbed 'the Four Moms,' who obtained grants to pay for most of Linnton's nearly completed, $440,000 project to improve the highway after the accident.
Vivica Elliott, the neighborhood association's treasurer and one of the Four Moms, says she has received mostly positive feedback from neighbors about the project, which was administered by the Oregon Department of Transportation.
But Wagner Ñ whose son saw the van hit Ryan Ñ is not satisfied. Among other things, she wants ODOT to install two more crosswalks and three regularly timed stoplights on the 1-mile stretch of U.S. 30 that passes through Linnton. Currently there is one crosswalk, where Ryan was trying to cross, which has a stoplight that changes to red only when activated by a pedestrian.
'It would take three, four more minutes to get through Linnton with regularly timed lights,' says Wagner, pointing out that people who get off the TriMet bus at Linn-ton's southeast corner can't walk to the existing crosswalk because there is no walkway of any kind. 'Is a life worth three minutes?'
But ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson says that installing multiple stoplights in Linnton is an idea that has been considered over the years and rejected.
'We've taken quite a few actions in Linnton at the neighbors' request,' says Thompson, whose agency is responsible for U.S. 30 and the other state and federal highways that pass through Portland. 'We're very cognizant of the neighbors' desire to slow things down. But they're not the only ones that use that road.'
A community-commuter balance
Thompson says that Linnton is not the only Portland neighborhood in which ODOT has been required to do 'a delicate balancing act' between drivers who don't want to be slowed down and residents who fear for their safety.
'Sometimes we go one way, sometimes another,' Thompson says. For example, after Ryan's death, ODOT and the Portland Office of Transportation joined Linnton residents in asking the state Speed Control Board to lower the speed limit on U.S. 30 through Linnton from 45 to 35 mph. But the speed limit on troublesome stretches of the city's other such thoroughfares remains 45 mph, according to city Traffic Investigations Program Manager Mark Lear.
Thompson says that which way the balance tips can depend on which way the street-highway is evolving. Unfortunately, he says, U.S. 30 is going in both directions at the same time. 'Linnton residents have done a great job of making that part of Highway 30 more streetlike,' he says. But other sections of the highway, he says, including those near St. Johns and north of Linnton near Sauvie Island, have more of a 'commuter feel.'
On U.S. 30, Thompson says, ODOT is making decisions on a community-by-community basis. 'We're working with each community to make the changes it wants to make,' he says. 'But on the parts that aren't in a particular community, commuters are going to treat it like a highway.'
Lee Tracer, the Linnton Neighborhood Association's secretary and another of the Four Moms, says she feels very positive about the completed improvements. But she still wants to see the speed on U.S. 30 reduced to 35 miles an hour from Linnton to just past the St. Johns Bridge.
Such an overall reduction, she says, is necessary to make it safe for children to cross the highway to Linnton's newly reopened community center and the now-closed city park, which the women are working to get reopened.
'This was just the first phase of this,' she says, referring to the grant money that she and the other moms applied for to pay for the highway project. 'We're not done.'
Bridge brought traffic
Transportation has been an issue in Linnton ever since it was settled in 1843. Originally envisioned as a port for farmers bringing wheat to the Willamette River for shipping, their trails Ñ which later became the roads through Forest Park Ñ plunged sharply down to the river, while the Port of Portland was on a gentler, more accessible slope.
By the first quarter of the 20th century, when Linnton was annexed to Portland, more than 1,000 vehicles a day were taking the ferry across the river to St. Johns. But Linnton never had more than 2,000 residents Ñ less than one-quarter of St. Johns Ñ and when a proposal to replace the ferry with a bridge was broached in the early 1920s, both the idea and Linnton were treated with derision.
'St. Johns and Linnton were the forgotten stepchildren of Portland,' historian E. Kimbark MacColl wrote in his 'The Growth of a City.' And the bridge, according to a local wit quoted by MacColl, would 'start from nowhere and lead to limbo.'
But the bridge was a great success. Meanwhile, Northwest St. Helens Road remained a quiet two-lane road until 1961, when it became its present four lanes, wiping out half of Linnton's business district in the process.
Today, Linnton's west side, clinging to Forest Park's steeply pitched backside, is a rabbit's warren of dead ends, with a charming mix of remodeled and aging bungalows and little creeks that drain runoff from the park into the river. But everything else Ñ Linnton's few remaining businesses, its community center and the stops where TriMet and school buses bring commuters and students home at the end of the day Ñ are on the east side. In the words of musician Tom Petty, 'There's a freeway runnin' through the yard.'
'You live over there,' says Wagner, pointing to the west-side hills where Calvert lived. She's standing on the narrow, sidewalkless spot on the east side where TriMet lets out passengers, often in the dark. 'Nobody lives over here,' she says. 'You've got to cross.'