SPRINGFIELD — In June of last year, a transportation project in Springfield came to a screeching halt. After four years and $1.4 million spent on planning, the Main Street Safety Project received such vocal condemnation from some members of the community that the City Council voted to put it on hold.
As planners contemplate the next steps, a look back on how the project came to be, and why it has become so divisive.
Addressing safety concerns
The project kicked off in 2018, after the City of Springfield was awarded a $3.87 million grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation to address chronic safety issues on Main Street.
According to a presentation by the city, the corridor averaged 104 crashes a year from 2017–2019. Sixty-five percent of those involved injuries and one was fatal. Crash numbers were even worse for the years prior, with injury rates remaining high throughout.
Although the total number of crashes has decreased in recent years, injury rates have stayed stubbornly high. (Source: City of Springfield “City Council Work Session” presentation, June 6, 2022.)
Since Main Street is a highway, it is owned by ODOT. Rather than imposing prescribed solutions, ODOT and the city set out to create an improvement plan with input from the community under the banner of the Main Street Safety Project.
Reducing conflict points
One of the primary issues with Main Street is that it has too many driveways, according to Bill Johnston, a traffic planner at ODOT. “Any turning movement creates conflict points, so the more accesses there are along the roadway, the greater likelihood there will be a crash statistically,” he said.
From a traffic safety perspective there is a simple way to reduce crashes: restrict turns. An efficient way to do that is by installing a raised median down the middle of the street to give drivers fewer opportunities to cross lanes of traffic.
A median has its downsides, of course, as it cuts off direct access to business and residential addresses. One method for reducing inconvenience is to install roundabouts at regular intervals to help drivers turn around safely and without too much of a detour.
After much study, analysis, and outreach, the city settled on a combination of a center median and nine roundabouts for a five-mile stretch between 20th and 72nd on Main Street. Altogether, the improvements are anticipated to cost $135 million. Due to the price, the planners suggest a phased implementation based on the availability of grants and other funding. Details were outlined in a draft facility plan released in January.
Brian Wells said he first heard of the project when he caught a blurb about the release of the draft facility plan on KEZI. As a vice president for Rosboro — a lumber company that has been located at the intersection of 28th and Main Street since 1939 — his interest was piqued.
“I thought, with my responsibilities, I better look into what this means for us or doesn’t mean for us to make sure there’s not a deal breaker in here from our perspective,” he said.
Rosboro is heavily dependent on truck traffic. According to Wells, anywhere from 100–200 trucks come in and out every day. When he looked at the plans, he saw roundabouts spec’d at the two intersections that provide access to the site. Both he and his vendors were skeptical that their trucks could maneuver the roundabouts, and there is no other way in.
The plans as presented were “not workable for Rosboro’s mill operation,” said Wells, so he reached out to the city for explanation. He said the city was initially receptive, but wanted to defer changes until after the plan was approved by the City Council. That answer didn’t sit right, so Wells started reaching out to other businesses for their reactions.
Working with an imperfect toolbox
Molly Markarian, a senior planner at the city and project manager for the effort, said transportation projects are inherently difficult because the answers people want are not available up front.
“At the planning stage, details aren’t really tangible for folks,” she said. Most public works projects start with a conceptual plan because doing detailed design is too costly, especially before decision-makers have agreed on the general direction. This creates tension when business owners see impacts without concrete details.
In the past, she said, there was a level of trust between government and residents and an assumption that officials would work out details in a way that was acceptable to all involved. That latitude is no longer granted, which makes planning increasingly untenable.
“We deal in these complex worlds, with funding streams and processes, and it has to go through all these steps,” said Markarian. The general public is not privy to those requirements, which can lead to misunderstandings.
Fixing the wrong problem
Understanding the nuances of transportation planning would not have helped Donna Howe, another local who didn’t hear of the project until the full draft plan was released. From her perspective, the city is focused on the wrong problem entirely.
“It’s people,” she said. “Medians aren’t gonna do it. Roundabouts aren’t going to make anyone slow down. It’s only going to make things more dangerous.”
Howe grew up in Springfield. She moved to Junction City to raise her kids, then moved back to a house on Main Street where she has been for the last 22 years.
“I can’t explain it anymore,” she said. “There are aggressive, angry drivers.”
To Howe, the reckless driving is a symptom of a larger erosion of community that has happened over the years. The old movie theater on Main Street shut down long ago. More recently, it was the bowling alley and Skate World, along with other amenities that made Springfield a nice place to live. Instead of rebuilding community-focused facilities, she sees the city approving new multi-family developments that just add more people to a place that to her feels like it’s in decline.
All these factors combined are “overwhelming” said Howe. And it makes her skeptical of solutions that don’t address the tensions that she thinks are manifesting in dangerous driving on the road. Plus, it makes the hefty investment all the more insulting when to her it looks like other things are going downhill.
It’s not that she doesn’t want the street to be safer. She suggested to the city that a better route would be improving the existing streetscape with enhanced lighting and cameras to enforce speed limits which she said are routinely broken.
The team has tried interim solutions, according to project documents. In 2016, they lowered the posted speed limit. Between 2013 and 2019 they made improvements to intersections and installed new pedestrian crossings. But, according to recent safety data, it’s not enough.
When accidents happen, people point their fingers at ODOT, said Johnston. ODOT is ultimately accountable and even have to face grieving families in court. He said they have a responsibility to show they have followed best practices when it comes to the solutions that are implemented.
“There is a whole regulatory regime for engineers, just like doctors and lawyers and pharmacists,” he said. “We have a lot at stake.”
Howe and her neighbors also feel the stakes, she said, because they’re the ones who will have to live with the changes. So too will Wells and other businesses who see the current plan as detrimental or even fatal to their operations. Whether flaws could have been worked out during design as the city promised is unknown.
Meanwhile, safety issues persist. One silver lining in looking toward the future is that everyone is now paying attention. Wells banded together with other businesses to form a coalition called Common Sense for Springfield.
“We are established and will be part of whatever the planning process is going forward,” he said. “When the new plan is developed, we want to make sure that these concerns are built in from the very beginning. We want it to be a positive, productive process this time.”
Project records show the city was in direct contact with a different high-level executive from Rosboro between Aug. and Oct. of 2019. Hardcopy mailers were also sent to every address on the corridor on Nov. 6, 2018, Aug. 16, 2019, Jan. 19, 2021, Sept. 16, 2021, and Jan. 24, 2022, but the planners were unable to gain traction on conversations until now.
Claire Shanley is a Journalism Master’s student at the University of Oregon. She submitted this piece to The Chronicle. Read more of her work here: medium.com/@claire_shanley.