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By Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 18 November 2010

In about 30 days, after the city finishes planting vegetation in the sewer swales and cleaning up construction debris, a project that has been over 20 years in the making will be finished. Well, nearly finished, that is.

The Eastside Burnside-Couch Couplet project, which created one-way streets out of Couch and Burnside for traffic traveling in and out of Downtown via the Burnside Bridge, finished a few hundred thousand dollars under its projected budget of $18 million.

While car, bike and pedestrian traffic have been rolling through the Couplet for months now, the official grand opening was announced in early October, with only a handful of minor tweaks to go.

According to Portland Bureau of Transportation Spokesman Dan Anderson, the city is waiting until the project is officially finished to measure its effectiveness.

"We're still looking to get optimal timing (on traffic lights)," he said. "The bureau will be going into the field and getting specific feedback in the spring."

City workers will be laying down pneumatic traffic tubes to count flow, as well as observing the Couplet by camera. Anderson said the bureau wants to get drivers and riders used to the new configuration before measuring how well the Couplet works. When the streetcar lines begin in 2012, a new round of adjustments will have to be made.

"In certain areas, with the bioswales, we've narrowed the distance pedestrians have to cross, this has the added benefit of slowing down traffic," Mayor Same Adams said during a press event. "This makes it a much more friendly pedestrian area of town."

The changes in traffic flow haven't pleased everyone. While it's hard to get feedback on whether early morning back-ups on Sandy Boulevard are normal – without light optimization and other changes that could come to the stretch of road – there is a group that has been highly skeptical about the outcome of the project. Bicyclists have been largely disappointed with the configuration.

"The fact that our city lists as a goal 'enhanced vehicle and transit access and traffic flow' on a major, urban street is a big red flag," said Jonathan Maus, publisher of BikePortland.org. "It's simply not possible to create a welcoming and safe environment for human beings when enhanced motorized vehicle traffic flow is a goal. The goal of reduction of conflicts on NE Couch and Burnside is definitely not achieved."

One of the city's goals was to reduce traffic and bicycle conflicts for bikes entering and exiting the Burnside Bridge. After reconfiguring a miscalculated bike lane on the S-curve leading up to the bridge in April, and installing a green bike box at the intersection of Couch and Grand following at least two right-hook crashes, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance's Rob Sadowsky said the configuration "still doesn't provide full protection."

High on Sadowsky's wish list is the creation of a "cycle track" or bike path – a construction option that would physically separate bicycle and car traffic. The city has installed at least one such track on Broadway as it goes through Portland State University, causing cars to park on the left of the bike lane.

Sadowsky admits that installing a cycle track would take "significant will" and would require creative engineering on the skinny stretch of road.

Not all is doom for bicyclists who use the Burnside Bridge. A new bike lane extends east onto the new three-lane, one-way Burnside, creating a safer turn onto Ankeny, a heavily traveled bike boulevard.

Although even along Ankeny, one of the greatest challenges remains – what to do about the five-way intersection when that street hits Sandy Boulevard. Bikes heading east on Ankeny must now be wary of traffic going northeast and southeast on Sandy, as well as traffic heading south on 11th Avenue.

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