Blog Post

The Burnside Couch Couplet Controversy

Posted By johntarantino1 on July 8, 2010

Article From Portland Mecury:

HELP FOR BURNSIDE has been a long time coming. Our city’s downtown artery squeezes up to six lanes of traffic between skinny sidewalks, infuriating both tourists and drivers. But downtown business owners are strongly divided over a $17-20 million plan that aims to fix Burnside.

Backers of the proposed West Burnside/Couch Couplet are gathering support for the controversial plan that has taken a decade to design. But critics are also gaining steam with their concerns that the project will tear the heart out of Portland’s downtown.

“We’re talking about the Portland Plan and 20-minute neighborhoods and this project is contrary to all those,” says Stan Penkin, a member of the Better Burnside Alliance, a business group that formed in June to protest the couplet. “There are many things that can be done to tame Burnside, but this is a bad idea.”

The basic plan to cut traffic on Burnside is simple: turn Burnside and Couch into a “couplet,” parallel streets that run one-way in opposite directions. The original plan would also have doubled the width of Burnside’s sidewalks, built new intersections that would allow drivers to turn more freely off Burnside, and built a streetcar line down Couch. The trade off for a better Burnside is thousands of more cars daily on Couch, a walkable street whose upper section is lined with cute boutiques, bars, and Whole Foods.

The Westside couplet proved so controversial that city planners dropped it in 2007, opting to focus first on developing the less-testy Eastside Burnside/Couch Couplet. Since the Eastside couplet opened this spring, eyes are now focused again on the plan for Portland’s commercial core.

The original couplet plan aimed to reshape Burnside and Couch all the way from 1st Avenue to NW 25th to the tune of $54 million. With recession-era budgets, the city drew up a scaled-back $20 million version last winter, scrapping the streetcar from the first phase, limiting the couplet to only 2nd through 16th Avenues, and not widening Burnside’s sidewalks at all.

Three million dollars of the budget will need to come from a special Local Improvement District tax on businesses along the corridor, but couplet fans have to get 51 percent of the businesses in the zone to sign on to the plan before it can move forward.

Powell’s Books owner Michael Powell has spearheaded the effort to collect business signatures over recent months and says they have nearly 50 percent of neighborhood businesses on board.

“I think it would be unfortunate if we lose this opportunity. It’s a street that’s not working to anyone’s satisfaction,” says Powell. He thinks the increased traffic on Couch will bring essential “eyes on the street” to Old Town. “It’s been a sad area for a long time, there’s been a lot of drug dealing,” says Powell.

But the anti-couplet business group Better Burnside Alliance has picked up strong support, too, in only a month of organizing.

“I think it’s a really bad idea without a streetcar. It would put a tremendous amount of cars in one of the greatest places to walk and shop in the city,” says Candace Parmer, Alliance member and owner of Fine Art Massage on NW 12th. Burnside would become a one-way east and gain 170 parking spaces, yet none of the sidewalks would be widened for pedestrians and there are no accommodations for bikes on Couch or Burnside (except for a short bike lane from 4th to the Burnside Bridge).

Transportation expert and current planning commissioner Chris Smith was a big fan of the original couplet, but thinks the project could damage the area since it axed the sidewalks and pedestrian plaza promised in the $54 million plan.

“We got parking instead of a plaza,” Smith says.

No city council hearing is currently set for the Westside couplet, and the mayor’s office seems to be weighing its options before pushing the high-stakes plan further.

“It’s not on the backburner,” says mayoral spokesperson Roy Kaufmann. “It’s just still in progress.”

Author: johntarantino1

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  1. Stan Penkin

    How can a project that was at one time estimated to be upwards of $120 million and now reduced to just under $19 million not be “overall different?” While Phase Two of the current reduced scope plan claims that it will add a streetcar component in ten years, the financial and political reality of that truly happening is quite questionable and offered up to help sell the current car centric plan to the public. By necessity and political reality, future street car development, when and if funds become available, will primarily take place on the east side of Portland where it’s truly needed to improve accessibility. We already have more than adequate accessibility in this part of town and it’s time for some equity in other areas of Portland.

    It’s unfortunate that many proponents of the couplet still believe it’s the grand scope version proposed three years ago. It’s further unfortunate that the proponents do not talk about alternate, non couplet plans to improve Burnside that the Bureau of Transportation has itself worked on, not to mention other ideas that are out there for discussion. The current version does not widen sidewalks, does not add significant street scape, provides virtually no bike lanes, includes painted rather than genuine raised curb extensions and does not even address Upper Burnside past 15th Ave.

    This couplet proposal is a project on the cheap that will only serve to encourage vehicular traffic which is a concept that’s alien to Portland’s environmental and sustainable values and contradictory to the admirable efforts now taking place in developing the Central City Plan and the Portland Plan.

    While it is true that there has been a good deal of public process over the past years, this is not the same project it once was, the city has changed, the affected neighborhoods have changed and the times have drastically changed. It would be tragic to move forward with an ill conceived and costly project because some thought it was the right thing to do in a different era.

    I invite readers to visit the website of the Better Burnside Alliance at for more information and discussion about this issue.

  2. Candace Parmer

    John, we are in the process of speaking with all city council members. Surprisingly those we’ve spoken with so far were unaware of the reduced scope, two-phase changes, as are most citizens we encounter.

  3. johntarantino1

    @Ian /@Candace : I hear what your saying. It is my understanding that this matter is in the hands of the city council and the mayor at this point. I encourage you to go to the council with your concerns as well as perhaps the Dept of Transportation.

    Again, I will bring your comments to the planning meeting tonight and talk with Patricia about this. All our meetings are open to the public, and allow time for public comment. I encourage you to use those avenues to voice your comments.

  4. Candace Parmer

    Johntarantino1, thank you for your response.

    I am particularly concerned about Ms. Gardner’s statement, “the project is phased and isn’t overall different from original plans”.

    It’s drastically different – 75% less money is being put into the project. Things being omitted are widened sidewalks, curb extensions, bike lanes, pedestrian plaza, bioswales etc…

    Saying the project is “phased” is a stretch of the meaning of the word. Phase II (streetcar) would happen 8-12 years later, IF FEDERAL FUNDS ARE AVAILABLE, and IF NEED IS PROVEN.

    In 2007, City Council, by resolution stated that the couplet should not occur without a streetcar, acknowledging its ability to mitigate the freeway effects of one-way streets. This new REDUCED SCOPE, “PHASED” PLAN is a total contradiction to the intention and directive of the resolution.

    The PDNA has been stellar in its representation of community, pedestrians and bikes with the exception of this couplet. As a resident and business owner, I am shocked that the neighborhood association is willing to endorse the special interests of a few property owners at the expense of the most successful mixed use, pedestrian friendly street in the Pearl. As I requested at the June general meeting, the new reduced scope is hugely different and deserves an open forum to educate the public about this project.

    John, thank you for your invitation to voice comments at PDNA meetings. At the June PDNA general meeting, Ms. Gardner announced the upcoming Public Open House for Pearl transportation issues held by PBOT June 23rd, and specifically stated that it would not be a forum for discussing the couplet. Nor has anti-couplet sentiment been welcomed at the PDNA Transportation Committee meetings led by Ms. Gardner, according to my neighbors who’ve attended. It is so much appreciated that we are now welcome at all PDNA meetings.

    Here is a statement about one-way streets, made by Ian Lockwood, P.E. (professional engineer), currently under contract with Metro:

    I’m sorry to hear that Portland is seriously considering this change. Portland continually exports papers and messages to the rest of the continent about how forward thinking they are about transportation and planning. To read about their proposal sends the opposite message. Having lead several one-way to two-way conversions myself, I am surprised that the business community is not freaking out at the one-way proposal. The proponents must have quite a spokesperson. Unless you run a road building company, I cannot imagine a scenario in which this would be good for your business. Typically, one-waying streets damages business and restoring the two-way operation revives businesses. It is an access and exchange issue. However, if the businesses are already not doing well due to the two-way street being too fast, wide, ugly, or whatever, there are usually remedies that do not involve mercy-killing the street with a one-way system.

    The pro one-way folks often exalt a variety of virtues of one-way streets but, in my experience, the bottom line is that it harms the place, no matter how well-intended it was ahead of time. Furthermore, it costs so much to do the one-way system that it gets economically very challenging to undo it if it is allowed to happen. Chances are, the money that would be spent on ruining the streets with the one-way system could be used to help the streets and the place become better.

    A clever strategy, to watch out for, involves the so-called benefits that the one-way streets proponents will offer to the busier of the two streets involved. The one-way proponents might try to make the following deal. They will agree to remove turn lanes and a through lane or two and provide wide sidewalks, if the community will accept the one-way street pair. In my opinion, this is not a equitable trade due to the damage to the other street, way-finding issues, speeding and danger issues, cycling issues, lowering access, etc. The proponents may find clever ways to sugar coat the deal with bike lanes street trees, pedestrian-scale lighting, etc. However, at the end of the day, there is the biggest reason of all to not accept the change in the city; one-way streets reward the long trip and disadvantage the short trip. This trumps every other issue because it is, more often than not, so anti-city. One-way streets are part of a transportation paradigm that is generally pro-automobile and anti-place. The related measures of effectiveness are cleverly disguised as reducing delays, reducing congestion, increasing levels of service, etc. They may even try to manufacture a safety argument but the idea that speeding up motorists in greater numbers in cities doesn’t pass the straight face test with respect to less severe crashes, fewer deaths, fewer injuries, and more walking, cycling, and transit use. Rewarding motor vehicle use tends to encourage more motor vehicle use, period ( not to mention the myriad of other planning and health issues).

    Ian Lockwood, P.E.
    Design + Planning

  5. johntarantino1

    Just so that you know, I’ll print out all these comments and bring them to the next PDNA meeting so the PDNA board knows about all your comments.

    I can’t speak for the entire board…so I’m reluctant to give my personal opinion on the matter.

    I have asked Patricia Gardner about this, and she says that the project is phased and isn’t overall different from original plans.

    There have been 4 very large public processes over the past 8 years on this topic and seems to be up to the city council and the mayor at this point.

    All the PDNA meetings are open to the public, check our calendar page and attend if you want to voice your comments as well.

  6. Sean

    I read through the 15+ comments posted above. Almost all of the comments express concern about the Burnside-Couch couplet project.

    Is the couplet going to be discussed at any upcoming PDNA meetings?

  7. Susan Davidson

    I see from the PDNA minutes of June 10 that a request was made for an open forum to review the Burnside/Couch couplet plans, but I do not see any follow-up on this. As a neighborhood resident, I want to hear about how the plan has evolved, how it will improve our neighborhood, and at what cost. Do PDNA’s future circulation plans assume a Couplet? That’s a big leap given the controversy. I also want to understand the alternatives to the Couplet that are being proposed. An inclusive discussion is extremely important; all neighborhood residents are stakeholders and deserve to be heard.

  8. Alan & Natalie Beckerman

    Last night, driving through downtown on our way to Southeast Portland, as we sat endlessly in traffic on a one-way street intersecting with other one-way streets, each intersection with a traffic light and walk/don’t walk signs, we thought why would anyone choose to impose this mess on the Pearl. When we moved to Portland three years ago, we selected the Pearl, and Couch Street in particular, for the ambiance walkability of the neighborhood. If we had preferred noise and traffic dodging, we would have moved to New York, our other option. We do not know the reasoning in 2007 that motivated the PNDA to endorse the Couplet. By choosing to remain committed to the Couplet without any further discussion or input from the Pearl community, the PDNA will diminish it’s stature as a neighborhood force and acquire the reputation of mouthpiece for the political and big business interests of Portland.

  9. Richard Wong

    Much has changed in the Pearl since the Couplet was first conceived several years ago. The impacts from this project need to be reconsidered given the dramatic changes which have occurred in recent times. Burnside’s main function is moving traffic across the city and this aspect will NOT be improved by the couplet as it already works well as a city connector. Much can be done to improve the ambience to Burnside without making it a one way street. Placing traffic signals at more cross streets would help, as would making improvements to the sidewalks. Putting another 30K cars daily on Couch is not the answer no matter how the problem is defined. The PDNA needs to reconsider its position on this issue.

  10. Keith B

    I’ve been a resident in NW Portland for the past 5 years and I enjoy the very walking (and biking) friendly atmosphere. That is what builds communities, not major thoroughfares. While busy streets are necessary for commerce and to some degree transit they detract from neighborhoods both by limiting foot traffic and by producing lots of ambient noise.

    As a long time bike commuter I have see the effect that of the east side Burnside/Couch couplet and I do not want that in a neighborhood where I live, work, and play.

  11. Marla Gardner

    Three years have passed and significant changes to the plan have been made. Add to that the very controversial nature of the plan and it seems appropriate that the entire thing should be revisted formally, allowing all effected parties to be formally heard. More importantly it will allow for alternative plans to be considered, ones that do not destroy the pedestrian and bicycle friendly nature of the area that really is the essence of its attraction to tax paying residents and small businesses and income generating tourists and shoppers. Nothing will drive those groups away more than routing heavy traffic through this area. It is shockingly regressive public “planning” that destroys such a vital area in the hopes of improving long neglected areas with complicated social issues. We tax payers and voters are watching.

  12. Devorah

    Don’t forget that this couplet would mean having to install walk/don’t walk signs at some, if not all the crosswalks going down Couch through the Pearl. Especially with an estimated 19,000 cars added to the current traffic. Even as it is now we have drivers blowing through stop signs at Couch’s intersections. And then think about the concerns of businesses along Lovejoy with the construction/expansion of the Streetcar- There are traffic lights along Burnside that are not present on Couch, would installation of these things hurt the area economically, or potentially make it unsafe during renovation? It’s exactly what Larry Norton said, Couch and Burnside are completely different roads, so therefore something drastic would have to be enacted to make Couch able to function more like Burnside, never mind widening sidewalks and adding a rail, etc. Therefore I ask, “has this been talked about at all?” How much would the prerequisite “re-tooling” of Couch cost? And regardless of any of this… Indeed, Couch in the Pearl is what it is BECAUSE it is one of the most genuinely pedestrian and bike-friendly areas in downtown Portland.

  13. Heidi Hansen

    As a property owner affected by the couplet, I will be notified when anyone in the vicinity wants a liquor license or even a awning, but the couplet, nothing. The Brewery Blocks were blithely going along until a few months ago, thinking the couplet stopped at Fourth. The Brewery Blocks, by the way, have four blocks, four levels deep of parking and I am to be wowed by 170 parking spaces?

    Patricia Gardner’s “off with their heads” approach to further discussion is biased and unreasonable. For one, what right does an “authorized lobbyist for Singer Properties” have in dictating our future? Every change affects business. What with the Armory, Streetcar, paving, etc. we had three tenants go out of business. Two by way of bankruptcy.

    Why don’t we put the PDC and PBOT on the shelve for a few years and breathe a collective sigh of fiscal sanity. One of my all time favorites of theirs was to raze Lincoln High, rebuild it with high rise condos and retirement living above. The retirees could then mentor the students below.

  14. Jan

    PDNA has done a lot for the Pearl, but they are now lacking a true vision for the future of the Pearl District by supporting the couplet. Couch St. is an active neighborhood with pedestrians, families, tourists, locals, bikers & joggers & street fairs. Portland has a long way to go if they think this is an enlighten decision.

  15. Luke Gilmer

    Repairing and improving Burnside would be wonderful, but there are other ways to do this than through the couplet. The couplet is an idea that would do more harm than good … destroying a wonderful, vibrant neighborhood along Couch, and costing a tremendous amount. Portland is about neighborhoods, and helping them thrive. The couplet doesn’t fit.

  16. elizabeth scott

    i will not re-iterate the great points made by others with grave concerns about the couplet. i urge you to support an alternate plan, one that is forward-thinking and is congruent with the values of our distinctive city. please encourage the city to think of people first, no cars. please.

  17. Candace Parmer

    The concept of curing Burnside’s ills with a couplet is analogous to addressing an obesity problem by buying bigger clothes.

    A recent editorial in the Northwest Examiner regarding building a wider bridge across the Columbia River entitled “A Bridge Too Fat” summed it up well: “There is no way to provide greater speed and convenience for motorists without precipitating more driving. Portland was one of the first cities to see the folly in this approach, and we have a better city for it.”

    Ian Lockwood, Principal and Senior Transportation Engineer at Glatting Jackson says “we should reward the short trip, not the long trip – reward bikers, pedestrians and transit for sustainability.”

    Statistics show the majority of Burnside’s traffic consists of commuters that find traveling Burnside is faster than the freeway. They would be the main benefactors of a couplet, yet a substantial portion of the funding (an LID tax) would be put on the shoulders of the businesses (via triple net leases) along Burnside, Couch, Davis, Flanders, Stark, etc.. rather than those living in the West Hills who get home faster.

    In regard to Powell’s hope that increased traffic on Couch in Old Town would bring “eyes to the street” and decrease drug dealing, if that theory were true, there would be no drug dealing presently on lower Burnside where traffic is twice what it would be on Couch if the west side couplet sees light of day.

    Old Town has its challenges with its many social services. Cappuccino sippers are not going to feel comfortable sitting on sidewalks in view of the disadvantaged. Imagine what a difference could be made if the millions designated for the couplet were spent on managing the sidewalks in Old Town so pedestrians could flock without fear all hours of the day and night. Businesses would flourish all along Couch, from the river to NW 23rd.

    Portland has a reputation for taking the high road in urban planning. Let’s not let private interests in favor of a couplet circumvent the values and goals that make this town great.

    Smart urban planning is proven to pay dividends to all. Banks and landowners need to get on the bandwagon and get their share instead of hanging on to old thinking that says one must have lots of cars and parking to make money.

    Healthy people hang out and spend money where cars aren’t king. And they welcome the opportunity to walk when possible so they don’t have to buy bigger clothes.

  18. devon balwit

    As the mother of a child attending Emerson Charter School at the corner of Couch and 9th, I view the proposed couplet project with alarm. It can only have a negative impact on the lives of all the 144 children at Emerson school who cross Couch daily to get to school and to play at recess time in the park blocks that Couch bisects. Increasing the car traffic right alongside their school will make their environment much more dangerous.

    As a bike commuter as well, I view the project with dismay. Burnside is busy and risky enough for bikers. We do not need to double the unpleasantness of Burnside, which the couplet project promises to do.

    I hope the city will let this plan die.

  19. Deni Richardson

    I cannot imagine how the couplet is a good idea to anyone – it rips right down a walkable developing district, splits the park, and tears through the center of the Brewery Blocks, one of the most neighborly, attractive, well recognized and photographed areas of the Pearl and all Downtown.

    I was sitting at Peet’s this morning, and imagined what it’s going to look like when cars are lining up on Couch waiting for signals to change – and how unpleasant the increased exhaust and noise will be for pedestrians and customers at sidewalk tables. And at what cost? We will not even be gaining better pedestrian, bike or streetcar amenities. I am so disappointed at how small-minded this plan is; perhaps Portland has passed the days of its renowned creative vision.

  20. Jackie Gordon

    I’m happy to see the PDNA posting this article about the couplet on their website. It’s an opportunity for residents of the Pearl to re-start the conversation and have their voices heard on this topic. The PDNA supported the couplet in 2007, but the plan has changed substantially since then. It deserves a new look with fresh eyes.

    The new ‘reduced scope’ plan for the couplet is all about creating a transportation corridor for cars. In the current couplet plan, not one sidewalk is widened for pedestrians on either Burnside or Couch. There is no bike track on Couch and only a very short bike track on Burnside from 4th to the Burnside bridge. No improvements are made to Burnside west of 15th. In the afternoon, approximately 1000 cars an hour will be passing by Emerson school located on Couch, which is the only school in the Pearl. The new plan adds 172 new parking spaces on Burnside for cars. It creates left turn lanes on Burnside , but it will destroy the retail and pedestrian friendly nature of Couch especially in the Brewery Blocks in the Pearl by adding at least 5x more cars, truck and buses on Couch .

    How does this all fit with Portland’s ethic that stresses sustainable growth, green building, bicycles and 20 minute neighborhoods? Supporting the couplet doesn’t jive with the PDNA’s efforts to create ‘green streets’ or their desire to bring more families and another school into the Pearl. Your support of the couplet essentially throws the only existing school (Emerson) under the bus, endangering the air quality and the safety of those children. It’s also not very family friendly to support a project that will have such negative effects on the playground across from Emerson. Currently it’s the only playground in the Pearl with a play structure. Emerson school students use it regularly during the school year as do many families who live nearby.

    I would like to ask the PDNA to reconsider their support of the couplet and support a Burnside only alternative instead. The problems of Burnside can be fixed without a couplet. Traffic can be calmed, left turns and safer pedestrian crossings can be created on Burnside without forever destroying Couch street.

    The couplet is NOT a done deal. It’s not too late to ask PBOT to take off the couplet glasses they’ve been wearing since 1966 and take a serious look at enhancing Burnside without a couplet. Couplets are outdated. Cities all over the country are turning their one-way streets back to two-way streets to re-vitalize the retail and bring back the pedestrians. A good example would be our neighbors in Vancouver. They de-coupled their downtown (during the recession) and the success of the project exceeded their expectations. A downtown that was dying has come to life again.

    I live in the Pearl and I am a member of the Better Burnside Alliance. We are in favor of enhancing and improving W. Burnside without a couplet. for more information check out our website:

  21. Jelly Helm

    Heard enough thoughtful friends + colleagues express doubt that I am uncomfortable with the concept. I hope the couplet doesn’t get railroaded through at the expense of thoughtful discussion about whether this is Portland’s best idea for the moment – in neighborhood in sore need of attention…

  22. Barnes Ellis

    The couplet as now proposed does not reflect Portland values. Instead of encouraging urban neighborhoods, it would drill a busy boulevard through one of the most successful ones we have. Taking out the streetcar and the pedestrian plaza — the selling points for the original plan — expose the couplet for what it is. I hope the City Council will consider the other alternatives to improving Burnside.

  23. Steve Goebel

    Many who support the PBOT project are under the false impression that this is what was originally scaled to accomplish: the current version is not – it is under funded and ill advised.

    I am in favor of improving Burnside, but there are better alternatives. The couplet is designed to do two things: move cars as quickly as possible and provide parking. We can do better for our neighborhoods.

    I expect more from Portland than outdated couplets. The rest of the country is de-coupling to improve neighborhoods.

  24. Larry Norton

    The “cut down” version of the Westside Burnside-Couch Couplet, an idea that has been challenged from the gitgo, still remains the guts of the original plan. Anybody remember the Sam Adams town hall meeting? Does anyone remember planning’s (Gil Kelley) reasonable alternatives?

    This Couplet concept is not comparable to the Eastside (Burnside Bridgehead) couplet. There is no discernible value of the Couplet to the Pearl or Old Town, but only to a few property owners, especially it seems Powell Books.

    NW Couch is nearly the heart of Pearl businesses. Diverting ½ of the bus, truck and car traffic from Burnside to Couch raises the Couch traffic level to something in the order of 5 times its present level. Couch was never designed for that traffic load nor was that area developed with that traffic load as a design factor.

    Take a walk on Burnside and then on Couch. Imagine the Burnside traffic on Couch. Ironically the Couplet results in two streets with undesirable traffic. The Couplet is not a traffic reduction plan, in fact, it is a plan likely to increase undesirable traffic into the Pearl business center.

    What has been lost over the years is the why. Why is this Couplet needed? Rather than assume that it is needed – we need to discuss the why. And, please don’t forget the costs. PDOT has consistently waffled on the estimated cost. Remember the Tram and Ankey Burnside Development.

    A Perspective

  25. Kevin

    It is difficult for me to see the value to the public or businesses in the PBOT couplet plan. It is widely agreed that Old Town and Chinatown are in need of rejuvenation, however, I am quite sure that turning Couch St. into a single mode (cars and trucks) one way street to funnel cars through downtown will do little to help. Old Town and Chinatown deserve better.

    The PBOT plan that is currently on the table appears, even to a layman, to have fundamental flaws. I am far from convinced that Couch will not experience serious congestion, especially in the Pearl. The traffic engineering itself seems less than rigorous, especially where the couplet begins and ends.

    I sympathize with the hurdles PBOT has tried to overcome with this project and know that they are just trying to do their job and move cars. However, I am still left to wonder why a transportation bureau is the sole actor in such a significant (and potentially disastrous) urban design scheme?

  26. Nancy Hogarth

    Pearl District Business Assn board member Adam Berger, owner of Ten 01 Restaurant, comments in the current edition of “Explore the Pearl” that ours is “the best neighborhood for walking in Portland, affording pedestrians a myriad of sights and sounds as they meander through the streets.” Adding 19,000 vehicles PER DAY to Couch Street is NOT going to have a positive impact on Old Town or the Pearl District. Let’s look for an economically sound option (left turn lanes into these areas) and save the sidewalks for walkers. Portland should NOT be a car city — let’s encourage our 20-minute neighborhoods and help small businesses — not subject them to a mini-freeway.

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