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  • 18 Dec 2014

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City road plan still stuck in the muck

Residents balk at price of new streets despite cost cuts


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tim Cowan, who has owned a home on North Oberlin Avenue near the University of Portland since 2003, tried but failed to enlist a majority of his neighbors to agree to put up money to pave the street and add a sidewalk. The city of Portland’s plan to foster more paving of gravel and dirt roads in residential neighborhoods is stuck in a rut.

Since the City Council approved then-Mayor Sam Adams’ Out of the Mud plan in November 2012, not a single road has been paved under the program.

Portland has an embarrassing 45 miles of gravel and dirt streets in residential areas and the city spends little to address the problem. The city has long expected neighbors to cover the costs — about $72,000 for a home on a 50-foot-wide lot for a regular road.

Out of the Mud, since renamed Street by Street, shaved up to 80 percent off those costs by allowing bare-bones construction: a narrow asphalt strip for vehicles in the middle of the road and no requirements for sidewalks, curbs, storm drainage and paved parking areas.

Since the program was created, there’ve been 54 citizen inquiries about it, says Christine Leon, who heads up the program for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. But so far, no neighbors have stepped up to approve a local improvement district to pay for the slimmed-down roads, she says.

The most recent project to hit the skids was on Oberlin Avenue in North Portland, where neighbors have spent thousands of dollars in recent years to fill potholes with gravel and hire a company to grade the street, says Tim Cowan, who used to live there and now rents out his old house.

About eight years ago, Cowan tried to rally neighbors on Oberlin to approve a local improvement district or LID to pay for the road paving, but it would have cost about $45,000 per homeowner. Still, neighbors wouldn’t go for it, Cowan says.

After the Street by Street program made it possible to scale back road specifications, Cowan tried again several months ago. Oberlin property owners between Huron and Newman streets agreed on a simple asphalt road with a sidewalk on one side, which cut the costs down to a typical $27,000, Cowan says. An LID enables residents to pay the costs over 30 years, using low-interest city financing, so it would cost roughly $100 to $200 a month.

Nevertheless, the residents dropped the idea a few months ago when they realized they couldn’t get a majority of neighbors to approve the LID, Cowan says.

Leon isn’t pessimistic, though. She says the Street by Street ideas are being used as a model in transportation studies of the Division Midway area in East Portland and in Southwest Portland. And some developers are using the slimmed-down standards when building roads as they put up houses, Leon says.

“There’s got to be somewhere out there that’s wanting to do this,” she says. “We’ve got to get some things built out there so people can see it.”

The city is hoping a project being drawn-up in the Errol Heights area of the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood can become that demonstration project.

Willie Sprague, who lives on Tenino Drive, sure hopes it will be. As water rushes down Tenino, it creates a rut Sprague recently measured at 16 inches deep.

“The wheel literally came off the truck right here,” Sprague says, pointing up the hill to a big potholed stretch of Tenino. He had to replace two oil pans on his vehicles, which cost about $1,000 a pop.

Seven years ago, there was talk of paving the road with an LID, but Sprague would have had to pay $75,000. “That’s like half my house (value) at the time,” he says.

But now the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Bureau of Environmental Services are working hard to get 1.2 miles of dirt and gravel roads in Errol Heights paved under a demonstration project. The Portland City Council turned down city funds for the project, Leon says. But the environmental services bureau is keen on preventing runoff from the unpaved roads getting into nearby Errol Creek, part of a natural area containing wetlands that the city hopes to protect. “There’s a lot of water carrying a ton of sediment down these hills,” say neighbor Kathleen Guillozet, who’s hoping the LID gets approved.

Some of the land is pegged for a future active-use park.

City ownership of the land could make it easier to get a majority of property owners to approve an LID. Under LID rules, a project must get majority support from neighbors, and the city is the biggest neighbor in the area.

City mum on costs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - Willie Sprague measures a 16-inch rut in the dirt road in front of his house. Hes seen three motorists get stuck and require a tow truck to get out; he once lost the wheel of his truck and ruptured two oil pans.  So far, the city isn’t saying what the project would cost, other than to say monthly costs should be in the range of someone’s cell phone bill. “They are holding their cards really close to their vest,” Guillozet says.

Sprague says the neighbors’ needs are simple, just a basic road that will enable folks to drive their cars in and out, and make it easier for ambulances and fire trucks to get into the neighborhood.

“We just want to be able to drive on our road,” Sprague says. “I’d like my son to be able to ride a bike in front of his own home.”

Louella Hall, who has lived in Errol Heights since 1969, clearly sees the need for a paved road. “I can’t even drive any more,” she says. “Every winter it’s gotten worse; it’s like a river.”

Her own grandson won’t drive his car over to see her because of the poor roads

But Hall would be hard-pressed to pay a new monthly fee for an LID, she says. The 79-year-old relies on Social Security plus a reverse mortgage, a scheme that pulls equity out of her home each month to pay her a check.

It’s people like Hall who often cause LIDs to fail, either because they vote against them or their neighbors are unwilling to cause them more financial distress.

The Street by Street program is technically unrelated to a pending proposal by Mayor Charlie Hales and city Commissioner Steve Novick to levy a monthly fee on residents and businesses to pay for transportation maintenance and safety improvements. But citizens’ reluctance to pay the costs of LIDs are a signal that the Hales/Novick proposal could face an angry public if their idea ever makes it on the ballot.

Residents of the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood, which has about five miles of unpaved residential streets, aren’t confident they have the political clout to get their roads paved if that plan is approved, says Jacob Sherman, Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association chairman. And with that plan, he says, “We’re being asked to pay more for infrastructure we don’t even have.”