Those whom get alerts from Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams received a strange email last week, with the following text: “Live on a gravel or dirt street? Portland’s new Out of the Mud (and Dust) initiative aims to help. Your feedback is wanted.” There are over 65 miles of gravel or unimproved roads in Portland, and as highlighted in the Willamette Week last year, the Mayor promised to fix them. I guess the time has come, and the solution is intriguing.
Instead of following the rhetoric that immediately says pavement = civilization and equates gravel roads with third world conditions, the response from City of Portland is a bit more nuanced to provide for a bit of both. The proposal provides hybrid improvement strategies that don’t restore a full curb to gutter impervious surface, but do provide the basic transportation needs and reduce maintenance. The aim is not to require residents to spend less while making the streets require less maintenance, and include walkways and other options like amenities – for approximately $60/month – much less than a full street build costs in a Local Improvement District (LID) – estimated at $300/month.
As mentioned: “Building full, top-of-the-line streets in place of gravel or dirt streets costs property owners a lot of money. In looking at ways to reduce the miles of unpaved streets, I and the Transportation Bureau explored city standards and came up with new ideas so residents can get affordable streets done quickly. “ The base street option include paving the center street area with gravel shoulders, as shown below, along with some options.
This seems like an interesting compromise for an issue that is as much about equity as it is about paving, as many feel the burden of improvement in these areas lying with the homeowners is somewhat onerous. I for one think paving these streets in a traditional way misses an opportunity for creative solutions that integrate many options beyond just more infrastructure and impervious surfacing. New methods of pedestrian safety, stormwater management, narrow roadways, and use of the public ROW are opportunities for Portland to lead with innovative urban strategies. We experiment, and maybe come up with a solution that others eventually emulate. Maybe depaving some streets becomes an option?
Sidebar: Annexation & Paved Streets in Portland
An interesting sidebar noted is the connection to annexation and unpaved streets in Portland., as pointed out in the email:
“Many of the City of Portland’s gravel streets are in neighborhoods that once belonged to Multnomah County. Those neighborhoods were annexed to the City after the houses were built. Unlike the City of Portland, Multnomah County did not require street improvements of homebuilders. Similar houses on similar streets but in different parts of town either paid a fee to help fund the cost of their streets or waived their rights to object to any future streets fees due to Portland’s requirements.”
There are links to two maps as well, included below, showing the visual connection between annexation and unpaved streets with those last to be included in the annexation having the majority of unimproved roads.
The other part of that, back to issues of equity. Residents of outlying areas see inner neighborhood streets built with green street swales, while they live with gravel streets and potholes. Others like the ‘natural’ character and semi-private nature of their unimproved streets to reduce pass-through traffic. It isn’t an easy solution – but it might be a unique Portland problem, in need of an equally creative solution.