Standing chest-deep in a rut at the corner of his property, Wade Hockett, owner of Mighty Hawk Concessions, demonstrated one of several places where a large truck can run into trouble on Decatur Street.

The muddy dirt road, which runs between Baltimore Woods and the string of warehouses near the St. Johns Bridge, is pitted with shin-deep potholes, as well as a couple of really tight turns onto perpendicular streets—too tight for freights trucks, as Hockett can testify.

Twice now, truckers have underestimated the turn—or overestimated their skill—and tipped trucks into the deep ditch that runs parallel to the road, damaging his fence and necessitating a call to the towing company in the process.

While the designated route directs trucks south of the warehouses to N Crawford Street, it’s not uncommon for trucks to take Decatur instead. There are several reasons for this: During off-hours, there’s an access gate leading to one of the busiest warehouses, Bushwhacker, that’s locked, making it necessary to take the hazardous shortcut.

Other times, it’s just plain machismo.

“There’s a certain amount of four-wheel drive-y people who just like to go through there,” explained Hockett. “We used to get guys who come through and spin their wheels to get mud on their trucks!”

A production manger at one of the plants described an error in GPS systems that reports Decatur as being the most direct route, neglecting to mention that it’s barely larger than a trail, with few outlets.

“We get these guys who come in from out of state, and they’ve never been down here before, and they don’t know what they’re getting into. I tell them, ‘Don’t go that way!’ I come back a couple of hours later, and they’re calling a tow-truck.”

Many trucks have using N Decatur St., an unimproved road.
Wade Hockett, owner of Mighty hawk Concessions on N Decatur St., an unimproved road many trucks are mistakenly using.

But even if truckers avoid the temptations of an off-road adventure, there’s another problem to confront: A series of train tracks run through the street, and truckers, pedestrians, cyclists alike must share the poorly-marked road with the unmanned UPR trains that pass through.

As one truck driver put it, “You have to make a call: Take Crawford, deal with the trains. Take Decatur, risk knocking all your cargo loose and damaging it.”

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Decatur Street is designated to become one section of the future npGreenway trail. Before bird-watchers and bike commuters can enjoy Baltimore Woods, the semis will have to go elsewhere.

One potential solution lies in the approval of funding for the whistle-free zone, a project ten years in the making, which would make significant changes to Crawford Street that would both facilitate trucking and improve safety by separating trucks, cars, and pedestrians from the train’s right-of-way.

But in St. Johns, where the freight industry is king, the whistle-free zone is just one of of three proposals that are pitted against each other in a bid to win a federal grant to address freight transportation issues, known locally as the Regional Flexible Funds, or RFF.

A few blocks away, on N. Fessenden Street near George Park, children rode bikes on the sidewalk, and a small dog wandered down the shoulder as rush-hour trucks roared past, blaring horns, passing passenger cars in the oncoming lane, and spraying a fine layer of grit over everything in their wake.

The trucks aren’t actually supposed to take Fessenden. The official truck route states that trucks should take an alternate route along N Portland and Columbia Boulevard to reach the industrial area known as “Around the Horn.”

For truckers, however, time is money, so the temptation to take Fessenden—an uncharacteristically wide commuter street that is five minutes shorter—is overwhelming.

According to Corky Collier, a representative of the Portland Freight Committee, “If you’re an owner/operator of a truck, it means you can get home for dinner with your family, and it means less fuel. Less fuel means less greenhouse gasses.”

As an additional advantage for truckers, the route is unhindered by traffic lights. In the 1.5-mile section of Fessenden-St. Louis between Lombard and N Columbia Way, there are 24 intersecting streets, and only one dedicated crosswalk, which operates only on-demand.

A group of teens waiting to catch a bus at this intersection were eager to share their experiences with the trucks.

“I can’t even sit outside and talk on my phone,” declared Melissa Chhoum. “The other person can’t hear me because of the trucks!”

Her friend, Justine Moore, claimed that she was nearly hit by a truck while crossing the street. “When they come over here, they don’t stop for this light right here, [they] just keep on going—they don’t really care about what we’re trying to do.”

In 2001, when the St Johns Truck Strategy was put into action, residents conceded parts of the Around the Horn route, including Ivanhoe Street and N Lombard Street, to the trucks in an effort to get them off of residential streets like N Fessenden. The trucking strategy outlines two categories of improvements that must be made:

The first category “provides for truck impacts, neighborhood livability and safety for pedestrians and bicyclists”, while the second category “provides for improvements on the recommended truck streets to increase the efficiency of truck movement and to encourage non-local trucks to stay on the designated route.”

The strategy further defined specific types of traffic-calming and pedestrian safety measures that would be implemented, including the development of a “signed truck route system which … protects residential neighborhoods from through traffic,” as well as recommendations for an education program for members of the trucking industry, re-striping roads, extending curbs, adding medians, reducing speed limits, and installing speed bumps.

The plan further stated any recommended change set forth in the plan should be a “short-term (2-5 year) solution.”

Ten years later, the residents of St. Johns are still waiting for those changes.

There has been some progress; later this month, an 18-month study intended to assess the situation and create a plan for improvements will get under way, but no actual changes will be implemented.

In order to begin phase two of the effort to calm Fessenden, more funding will be needed. For this reason, the proponents of the N Portland/Columbia Boulevard proposal also hope to win the bid for RFF funds.

Proponents of both the Fessenden and whistle-free zone proposals were dismayed to learn that they would be competing against a third candidate for the funds; a proposal to fund phase three of an effort improve visibility and traffic flow for freight trucks in the primarily industrial “Around the Horn” section of the official trucking route, which would cost an estimated $14.5-17 million, well over the $10 million upper limit laid out in the St. Johns Trucking Strategy.

Corky Collier believes that prioritizing freight transport is necessary to ultimately improve pedestrian safety.

“The freight committee is completely committed to moving trucks [to the designated route]. But when you do the Around the Horn route, you have to take care of the safety issues—you have to make sure it’s really viable… You don’t want a quick fix that ends up creating a problem.”

And while advocates for the whistle-free zone and Fessenden improvements would each like to see their own project chosen to receive the RFF money, they both dread the prospect of losing funding to a project that primarily addresses the freight industry’s needs.

After ten years of waiting for traffic signs and road stripes, it’s hard for them to see any improvement as a “quick fix.”

“I love the fact that St Johns is well represented in these proposals,” said Barbara Quinn, an advocate for the whistle-free zone. “I didn’t love the fact that we’ve been pitted against each other. Ten years is a long time to wait for safety issues to be addressed.”

For more information on the Regional Flexible Funds, see our June 7 article, "Metro Weighs Options for Spending Federal Transportation Funds."

Correction 6/11/11: The article originally stated that St. Johns "residents conceded N. Fessenden to the trucks in an effort to get them off of smaller residential streets." It has been corrected to read: "Residents conceded parts of the Around the Horn route, including Ivanhoe Street and N Lombard Street, to the trucks in an effort to get them off of residential streets like N Fessenden."