Portland wants ODOT to hand over control of some state highways

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Portland Mayor Charlie Hales wants the Oregon Department of Transportation to hand over control of some state highways within city limits. He believes Portland can do a better job of keeping those roads safe.

"They own them and if we want to make fixes on them, they're not ours to fix," said Dana Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Hales.

Hales refers to such roads as 'orphan highways.' They are roads that were built with more of a rural mindset, but are now smack dab in the middle of an urban area. Safety on those roads is highlighted whenever there's a major accident.

Just this month, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing Southeast Powell Boulevard. The death brought renewed calls for safety improvements along Powell.

"Our friends at ODOT would agree that they haven't taken care of Powell," Haynes said. "They haven't necessarily taken care of Barbur, they're not the easiest streets to walk on or drive on or bike on. I'm sure they would agree."

Haynes is quick to point out that all local agencies, including Portland, could do a better job of maintaining roads. ODOT representatives didn't directly respond to that criticism. They agree more improvements could be made, but they say resources are thin.

"Funding has not kept pace for the needs to get these urban arterials up to what I think the public would like or what their expectation is," said Shelli Romero, an ODOT public policy and community affairs manager.

ODOT has invested money in some of these roads. There are several flashing beacon crosswalks up and down Southeast Powell. There are also rumble strips to warn drivers that they may be veering into a bike lane. The agency is also planning more improvements in the near future.

Although Powell Boulevard is at the top of the list for possible ownership change, it isn't clear if other orphan highways would be included. Some of the other roads in Portland that are maintained by ODOT include 82nd Avenue, McLoughlin Boulevard, Macadam Avenue, Lombard Street and Barbur Boulevard.

An ODOT spokeswoman says the agency isn't necessarily opposed to a handover and admits there are no real disadvantages to the idea. Haynes sees it that way, as well.

"Their mandate is to take care of highways and freeways from one end of the border to the other end of the border," he said. "From the coast all the way to Idaho. We understand that's their mission. If we can take over some of these urban streets for them, if they can get them fixed up into a passable manner and hand them off to us, it's good news for them."

That might be the one catch in this idea: Portland city leaders essentially want ODOT to foot the bill for major upgrades before any kind of handover. Mayor Hales plans to finalize a proposal over the next year.

He says there will be plenty of discussion with ODOT leaders before the city puts their idea before the 2015 legislature.