Interacting with PBOT Work Crews: A Neighbor shares their account of confrontation as the tree in the traffic circle at 7th and Tillamook was about to be cut down

By Mark Bennett

Every story has a backstory and the struggle between the 7th and Tillamook neighborhood and PBOT is no different, but I’m not going to dive too deeply into that rathole – instead I want mostly to relate my experience as PBOT contractors showed up to cut down the tree and start removing the traffic circle on Monday Sept. 27th.

Our neighborhood knew they might be coming, not because PBOT explicitly notified us, but because we have long since stopped trusting them because they don’t respond to our letters, emails or phonecalls and instead we try to anticipate their every move. Myself and a few others (who didn’t have Monday morning office responsibilities) assembled at the traffic circle at 6:45am. Shortly thereafter, a PBOT truck and a contractor parked some distance away on 7th and began to observe us.  They talked on their phones while observing us – a good indication that they were calling PBOT for instructions.

Shortly thereafter a tree cutting service pulled up next to the traffic circle and a squad of five or six guys with chainsaws and chippers approached us at the circle.  

I informed them, “We need to see your permit to cut down the tree.”  

After some back and forth, the contractor’s supervisor walked up and said, “We’re cutting down this tree, you need to move now.”

I replied, “ We need to see your permit or you aren’t cutting down the tree.”

The contractor snarled back, “I don’t need a damn permit, we’re cutting this tree down.”

Again I said, “Without a permit, you aren’t cutting this tree. We can’t just have people walk into our neighborhood and cut down trees without a valid permit.”

The PBOT inspector joined the discussion, “We have an approved project and the start date is today.”

I repeated, “Show me the permit.”

He pulled out his phone and showed me a long document which I visually scanned.  I pointed out, “This is a project description, not a permit.”

The contractor said to the PBOT inspector, “We can start cutting down the other tree while you make a call to clear the intersection.”

The PBOT inspector was on an animated call for a few minutes and returned, “We have full authorization and we’re cutting down this tree.  You need to move your protest off the circle.”

I said, “You have no compunction acting completely against the obvious will of this neighborhood”.

Inspector, “I’m just doing my job.”

I replied, “How often has that argument been used to justify bad things?”

And then.. the community response team of PBOT showed up in the guise of a Portland Police sergeant all dressed in black with a bullet proof vest and a 9mm pistol on his belt.

The sergeant said, “You have the right to protest, but not on this circle.  If you do not move from the circle, I will arrest you for misdemeanor trespass.  It may not be a serious charge, but I will take you in for booking and it may not look good to your employers or any future employment you might seek.”

I responded, “You show up and the first thing you do is try to intimidate us”.

The sergeant said, “I’m not intimidating, I’m just doing my job.” 

I thought, There it is again, just doing his job.

I replied, “Is it your job to suggest we might lose our jobs and not be able to find employment?  Isn’t it a little intimidating that the person PBOT sends to talk to us has a 9mm?

The sergeant said, ‘This is just my uniform and I am just trying to make you aware of the consequences.”

I said, “Well you are intimidating me whether you intend to or not.  You have turned this peaceful protest into a dangerous confrontation.”

I noticed that I was shaking, I couldn’t tell if I was cold or if it was the fear of the officer.

The Sergeant said, “You’ve been warned.”

I left for a bit as I had to get ready for an appointment and when I got back, the PBOT project manager had showed up and was addressing our group (now that she had Police protection). She may have said many things before I had arrived back on the scene, but the first thing I heard her say was, “We are already over budget and behind schedule, you should allow us to move forward and trust that you will have an opportunity for changes when the project is completed”.

This was too much, I blurted out, “Trust you? You have misled and lied to us every step of the way.  Three years ago the community approved a plan with a straw vote of over 150 voters and then mysteriously PBOT changed the plan because unidentified powers brokered a behind-the-scenes deal.  Now you come back, without notifying the neighborhood, to remove the traffic circle — the only speed abatement in this intersection, and we are supposed to trust you?  We wouldn’t even be here if you didn’t refuse to add two stop signs to the plan with the only reason provided being that it doesn’t meet Federal guidelines.  You may steamroll us, but it will result in a lot of bad will. This isn’t going away. You are liars” 

The sergeant announced, “This isn’t productive”.

I said, “Oh, so the guy with the gun gets to say what’s productive and appropriate.”

At this point, one of my neighbors pulled me aside and said, “I’m nervous about too much confrontation with a police officer with a gun.”

I agreed with my neighbor, mostly because I had no idea how I would react if the officer tried to arrest me.

Our story ends with the tree cut down and the traffic circle ready for bulldozing.  Car speeds which already average 29 miles an hour with a standard deviation of 4 mph will undoubtedly increase (incredibly 1 out of every 20 cars is already going over 37mph).  The traffic volume which is currently 6000 cars a day (five times PBOTs planned volume for 7th) will almost assuredly increase as well.  We must not forget that the circle was originally built because a child was killed 50 feet from the existing circle by a speeding car.

I cannot help but ask myself, “Why does PBOT ram this project down our throats in the face of nearly universal neighborhood opposition?”  I believe the answer lies in the words of the PBOT project manager and the PBOT traffic engineer.  The project manager said, “We can’t have another meeting, we are already over budget and behind schedule and the engineer said, “We can’t add the two stop signs because of Federal guidelines”.  It’s clear as day, since PBOT thrives on Federal money, they march to Federal schedules and budgets and once a project is approved they don’t want any changes – it jeopardizes the money that pays their salaries.  PBOT’s interest is to keep the federal dollars flowing.  Community involvement and input is all just for show. 

Mark Bennett

7th and Tillamook