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Road worrier

BACK STORY • Construction traffic may be maddening but Ellen Vanderslice's office keeps it from being worse
by: JIM CLARK, Among the myriad construction projects occurring downtown, a repaving project at West Burnside Street and Eighth Avenue (top) recently closed two lanes of traffic. The city is coordinating the street closures and traffic disruptions, and Ellen Vanderslice (above) is in charge as leader of the Keep Portland Moving department within the city’s Office of Transportation.

Ellen Vanderslice, exasperated, sounds like the disappointed mother of a temporarily wayward 14-year-old.

'Those guys were really good yesterday,' she says, as she sits in her eighth-floor cubicle in the Portland Building downtown and peers at her computer screen. On the screen is a live webcam view of West Burnside Street - a view that includes 'those guys,' the contract construction crew working on sewer lines on Burnside.

On the yesterday Vanderslice is referring to - a normal weekday last week in seemingly always-under-construction downtown Portland - 'those guys' were 'really good' because they followed the rules.

They made sure that, in spite of their work, they had two lanes of Burnside Street open in both directions by 3 p.m., just before rush hour.

Today? Well, today, let's just say that Vanderslice - whose full-time city job it is to care about such things - is exasperated.

'That was OK earlier in the day,' she says as she looks at her screen at almost 4 p.m. and sees one lane open on Burnside, the traffic snaking by. 'But right this minute … '

A pause. She understands things don't always go as planned, she says. 'But if your No. 1 thing is you're going to have two lanes of traffic open at 3 … ' And her words trail off, maybe a bit like that mother of the 14-year-old again.

'I think we're going to have a heart-to-heart with the Burnside contractor,' she says.

Vanderslice is not always exasperated, of course. Often, things go well - or relatively well.

But the very presence of Ellen Vanderslice in that eighth-floor cubicle - along with the two or three other city employees who work with her - serves as a sort of refutation of what probably 90 percent of Portlanders have been thinking the past couple of years.

Yes, there actually is someone who's trying to coordinate all of this - the varied work on streets, light rail, the bridge and utilities, combined with private building construction, that at times has seemed to completely clog Portland's downtown arteries, that at times has seemed to turn downtown into a corn maze for cars.

And no, they're not going to let every street in downtown Portland shut down at the same time.

And yes, someone is monitoring - and trying to fix - situations like, for example, much of Burnside being closed at 4:01 p.m. on a weekday.

Keep Portland Moving is the name of the department that Vanderslice heads - a department within Portland's Office of Transportation that has existed for almost a decade but that has been bolstered considerably in the past 15 months or so.

Vanderslice says she's heard all the jokes.

She hears them every time she tells someone at a party what she does for a living, when she talks about 'keeping Portland moving.'

The frequent response, she says: ' 'You do what?' And they laugh and they say, 'Good luck with that!' '

Or they derisively laugh at Portland's slogan: 'The city that works.' Or they tell her about the time it took them 30 minutes to drive through downtown.

It's a wonderful problem

The reality, Vanderslice says, is that there has been an unusual amount of construction work downtown during the past couple of years - with TriMet's light-rail construction on the former bus mall of Fifth and Sixth avenues along with Burnside Bridge and utility work and new private high-rises being built.

All that can, and has, caused problems, she acknowledges. 'Challenges,' she likes to call them.

But Vanderslice repeats a quote from her boss - city Commissioner Sam Adams, who oversees the transportation office: ''We have a problem in downtown Portland that other cities would kill to have.'

'The bare fact is history tells us these things are episodic,' she says. 'Building in downtown goes up and down. But the fact that people are willing to build things in downtown Portland speaks to the fact that there is a future for downtown.'

Some of the clogs in downtown have been caused by contractors needing to close lanes for private construction work - from the renovation on the Macy's building to the construction of Ladd Tower, going in on the block bordered by Southwest Broadway and Park Avenue and Columbia and Jefferson streets.

Other closed-down streets and street lanes have been caused by the light-rail construction - or other work influenced by it, says Vanderslice and Lewis Wardrip, a city traffic engineer who works with her department.

Replacement of water mains downtown - some more than a century old - that had been contemplated for years had to be finished before the light-rail lines were finished. That was because regulations would not have allowed the water main work to be done after the electrified rail lines were operational, Vanderslice says.

Knowing how many of these projects would need to happen almost at the same time, city officials in 2006 added staffing and funding to the existing Keep Portland Moving department to try to coordinate things.

Vanderslice, a project manager with the transportation office, was hired to lead Keep Portland Moving in November 2006.

Businesses don't mind boom

For the most part, downtown business leaders say, the coordination has worked pretty well.

'We think they've managed the construction process very well, considering the large scope of work that's being done,' said Megan Doern, a spokeswoman for the Portland Business Alliance, which advocates for downtown.

Stephen Pirkl, chairman of the Downtown Retail Council, has been the owner of Stephen Vincent Jewelers at Southwest First Avenue and Jefferson Street for two years and has worked downtown for the past four.

'I think everybody has stepped up every single step of the way,' he says. 'It's been getting better all the time.'

'Sticky' streets

Right now, however - on this weekday afternoon - downtown Portland is covered with yellow sticky notes.

It's the downtown Portland shown on an oversize map that rests on the other side of Vanderslice's cubicle wall.

On top of the map - with the location of major construction projects outlined in red marker - are dozens of sticky notes, with handwritten descriptions and dates of shorter-term utility, road or construction projects.

'We did have them computerized,' Jeri Jenkins, who works in Vanderslice's office, says of the project notes. 'But quite frankly, the sticky notes work better.'

Contractors are required to obtain permits from the transportation office to close down streets, or close lanes of traffic. That means Vanderslice's office can delay certain contractors, or limit them or require them to work at night, depending on the other projects happening at the time.

Full closures of the Burnside Bridge have been delayed because of other work downtown. A city sewer project on Burnside was delayed to ensure it was done at the same time as the bridge work.

Streetscape work on Third and Fourth avenues in Chinatown was coordinated to begin after city sewer work at Couch Street and Eighth Avenue was finished.

'There's always this balancing going on,' Vanderslice says.

'No' is not a possible answer

While her office can delay projects, Vanderslice says, the city does not turn down building projects simply because of other construction in downtown Portland.

'If you think about it, it seems highly unlikely we would ever do that,' she says. 'We're already battling the perception that the city is difficult to do business in, that it's not friendly to business and it's hard to get a building permit compared to other jurisdictions.

'The idea that we would ever say to a developer, you can't develop right now because things are just too busy here - it doesn't make sense,' she says.

Which can lead - and has led, during the last two years - to a downtown traffic system that often is near its breaking point, Vanderslice and Wardrip say.

And it's a system that then can break with the slightest additional problem.

Wardrip, for instance, talks about the time that traffic was backed up onto the Hawthorne Bridge because of a group of picketers at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Jefferson Street.

Vanderslice remembers the humongous traffic jam that happened because of a two-car crash at Southwest First Avenue and Madison Street, when responders had difficulty prying the two cars apart from each other.

'The system is so full, any little incident can cause a jam,' Wardrip says.

They both talk, wincing, about the Week That Was, which began July 23. The Burnside Bridge had been scheduled to be closed for three weeks beginning then, but that changed because of problems with a jacking system that bridge contractors were planning to use.

When some lanes on the bridge remained open, a contractor on an east-west street downtown believed he no longer needed to keep all lanes on that street open. Meanwhile, Wardrip actually walked from Burnside to Market Street, and saw that the city had allowed too many streets or street lanes eastbound to be closed.

All of it meant gridlock as bad as the city saw last year.

'That was sort of our low point,' Vanderslice says.

Fine idea nixed

Cooperation from construction contractors is key, Vanderslice says. And, once in a while, it's a problem, she says, because of the administrative difficulties of levying punishment on contractors for not cooperating.

On its own projects, the city can recover from its contractor damages if they don't adhere to the traffic control plan - 'but we just don't really invoke that very often,' Vanderslice says.

While her office investigated whether the city should have a schedule of fines for contractors on private jobs, she and others determined it would be difficult to police, and probably not bring about results that can be accomplished through a more collaborative relationship with the contractors.

So Vanderslice and Wardrip and others in their office watch the cameras, and make phone calls, and sometimes walk out to the sites themselves, to cajole.

Most of the time, Vanderslice says, it works.

Meanwhile, Vanderslice and others in her office help to staff the Keep Portland Moving hot line - 503-865-6683 (MOVE) - where people can learn about partial street closures and lodge complaints about downtown traffic.

That traffic continually will get better as major construction projects finish, Vanderslice says.

The light rail project is 'actually over the hump, on the worst impacts to downtown.' The water main project is finished. The Burnside Bridge work is finishing.

'The light is there at the end of the tunnel,' she says.

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