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Mayor Adams names Tom Miller as new Director of PBOT

Posted by on January 7th, 2011 at 11:14 am

Tom Miller is the new Director of the Bureau of Transportation.
(Photos © J. Maus)


Big news from City Hall today…. Portland Mayor Sam Adams has named his Chief of Staff Tom Miller to be the new Director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). Miller — whose new position will start January 25th — takes over leadership of PBOT from Sue Keil, who had held the post since 2005 and who announced her retirement today. Adams’ current Deputy Chief of Staff Warren Jimenez will replace Miller.

In a statement issued just minutes ago, Mayor Adams said, “Tom is the right choice to lead the bureau to its next goals. His talent, professionalism, and commitment complement the five-plus years of oversight he’s had with PBOT in our portfolio.”

Tom Miller riding his bakfiets with his
daughter in the 2010 Gay Pride Parade
(Photo: Ryan Hashagen).

Miller’s rise in local politics came through his dogged activism for skateparks. As a young lawyer in 2001, Miller started a non-profit called Skaters for Portland Skateparks with a vision to expand the number of skateparks in Portland. His activism was amazingly successful, as documented by this 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal that refers to Portland as “Skateboarding Capitol of the World.”

With a high profile in City Hall from his skatepark successes, Miller, 38, landed a job on Adams’ campaign for City Commissioner in 2004 and has worked for him ever since. For the past six years, Adams has been in charge of PBOT and Miller has served in an advisory role on transportation policy matters.

Keil was named Director of PBOT in 2005 and has over 20 years of experience at the city. She never built much of a public profile around transportation, but she was known as a very capable manager. Back in November, The Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin described Keil as, “…a skirt and business-suit type with a no-nonsense approach that’s kept her in city management for 20 years.”

Eye to Eye Campaign Launch-8.jpg
Outgoing PBOT Director Sue Keil.

Unlike Miller, who’s attended the National Bike Summit and can be regularly seen pedaling around town, Keil had a somewhat awkward relationship to bicycling.

When it came to Keil’s vision for bicycling in Portland, she was notable for not having one. Instead of finding innovative ways to balance our transportation system more equitably, she felt there simply wasn’t enough funding for bikeway system development because people were driving and parking less — both of which meant decreased revenue for PBOT. Keil also made it clear during her tenure that re-paving of major arterials was the number one priority, even if it meant not funding Safe Routes to School projects.

In early 2009, Keil and the Mayor’s Office had a bit of a showdown about funding of biking and walking projects in the PBOT budget. In May 2010, while speaking at the Transportation Safety Summit, Keil referred to the crowd as “transportation groupies” and offered a rather gloomy outlook on reaching a 25 percent bike mode split while lamenting the loss of revenue from a decrease of 100,000 motor vehicle registrations in Multnomah County.

Today, Mayor Adams gave Keil credit for keeping PBOT moving forward despite years of budget cuts. “With Sue at the helm, PBOT has accomplished great things despite significant financial constraints,” remarked Adams, “She’s substantially improved day-to-day management and will retire having left the bureau in excellent shape.”

Bridge Pedal 2006
Tom Miller at Bridge Pedal 2006

Miller’s perspective on bicycling and transportation is much, much different. The big news here for BikePortland readers is that he’s an unabashed supporter and advocate for bicycling.

Prior to working for Adams, Miller served on the Board of Directors for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). As I detailed in 2008 when Miller was formally introduced as Adams’ Chief of Staff, he has a long public record of pro-bicycling comments.

During his tenure at City Hall, Miller has taken several trips to Europe and is well-versed in how bicycling can be integrated in the urban environment. He has spoken on behalf of bicycling and has even pointed out that Portland isn’t investing enough in them. In 2007, he told a select group of local business people that Portland needs to invest more in bicycling and that it’s, “not just the right thing to do, it’s the thing to do.”

Also in 2007, in response to an increase in bicycling despite a lack of new bike infrastructure, Miller told The Oregonian that, “Our infrastructure investments have not kept pace with the growth in ridership. We’re actually behind.”

One unanswered question is whether or not Mayor Adams will use this opportunity to give the transportation bureau to one of his colleagues on City Council. Adams has taken on the police bureau in the past year and he has not been as engaged with transportation issues of late, choosing instead to focus on police matters, economic development, and other projects. Now, with his former right hand man at the helm a bureau he oversees — and what are sure to be criticisms of cronyism from the local media — perhaps now is the time for another commissioner (Nick Fish or Dan Saltzman come to mind) to take over PBOT.

Also, Miller could face a hurdle in 2012 if Mayor Adams loses his re-election bid. A new Mayor (or whoever else becomes in charge of the transportation bureau), might want someone else in the Director position.

Even with his obvious support and understanding of urban bicycling, I wouldn’t expect much to change at PBOT in the short-term. The Director position will be a major change for Miller, who goes from overseeing the Mayor’s office and advising Adams on strategy, to managing a large bureau with 700 employees and a budget of $275 million. It will likely take quite a bit of time for Miller to get comfortable in the new role and he’d be wise to earn the respect of his new colleagues before pushing a new and bold agenda.

But once he feels comfortable in the Portland Building, things could get very interesting…

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Comments
  • Amos Hunter January 7, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Awesome news! Congrats on the new gig, Tom.

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  • mark ginsberg January 7, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Tom is not a bikes only guy, he is a community minded guy who, in my perception, sees the whole picture. That whole picture includes cycling, and a lot more than simply focusing on cars and roads for cars. I hope this works out well, and hope PBOT staff are excited by the transition.

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  • Andrew Plambeck January 7, 2011 at 11:52 am

    A great pick! Tom’s a dedicated transportation wonk and longtime bike advocate who will do great things to move Portland forward.

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  • matt picio January 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Congratulations, Tom! I haven’t had the opportunity to work with Tom Miller nearly as much as I’d like, but the interactions I have had left me very impressed. He’s perceptive, intelligent, has a clear grasp of transportation issues, and is good at sending a positive message to the public. This is great news.

    I didn’t get to meet Susan, but I wish her luck and an enjoyable retirement. Regardless of her thoughts on biking, she had a strong commitment to maintaining the existing infrastructure, fiscal responsibility, and improving the Bureau. Perhaps that isn’t directly beneficial to bikes, but those are also important qualities for a director, and a responsible attitude towards public funds. Both the conservative and visionary approaches have value, and overall, I think PBOT has done exceptionally well given the funding environment they’ve been handed. The “perfect” director is a myth – the position always involves juggling conflicting priorities, personalities, and policies. Thanks, Susan, for all your hard work!

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    • Nick January 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      Well put. Thanks Susan, and welcome, Tom!

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  • Robert Ping January 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Congratulations, Tom!

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  • Sean G January 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Congratulations Tom. Sounds like a great choice for alternate transportation in Portland.

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  • Lenny Anderson January 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    I’m sure glad Sam read my comment on that other string! Ha, ha. Great choice…too bad it took 6 years to make it happen. Nothing against Ms Keil, but giving PBOT to a inside bureau manager type was a big mistake. Now we can see what is really possible in this town. Create a Wave, and they will ride!

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  • Steve B January 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I am completely floored by this news! New leadership at PBOT is a crucial step forward, and as much as I’d wish it happened 2 years ago, it is very welcome news today!

    I can’t wait to lose my characterization as a “transportation groupie” for wanting to get somewhere safely without a car. Welcome, Tom!

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  • david...no the other one! January 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Congratulations and Thanks, Susan for all that you did. Welcome Tom!, look forward to what you will do!

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  • David Haines January 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Excellent news! Years back, when he was an aide to then-Commissioner Adams, I heard Miller speak at PSU. It was heartening to know there was someone in city government applying common sense and forward thinking to transportation issues.

    With Miller in charge at PBOT, I’m much more optimistic about Portland’s transportation future.

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  • Ted Buehler January 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Excellent choice, Mr. Adams! I hope to see progress towards balancing the funding so that bikes, which carry 8% of commuters, get more than 1% of the funding.

    Thanks for the article, Jonathan.

    Ted Buehler

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  • Todd Boulanger January 7, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Wow!!! Congrats Tom.

    Perhaps PBoT will now take on NYCDoT for national urbane transportation leadership. :-)

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  • Joe Rowe January 7, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I heard that Tom has a bakfeit. Does he have kids? I’m guessing he frequently takes the train and bus. It’s also safe to guess he uses his feet for long walks, and uses crosswalks. Finally we have someone who is not just the Director of Transportion, but actually makes Direct use of all modes of transportation. He sounds like someone who has a car, but does not use it as the center of his plan or center of his life. Thanks you Sam. Car drivers will thank you for getting more cars off the roads.

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  • adam January 8, 2011 at 3:19 am

    I am shocked to hear that the mayor’s solution is more cronyism.

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  • Portland Pedals January 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    This is great news! I have always enjoyed seeing Tom pedal around town with his Bakfiet. I look forward to seeing his multi-modal leadership in action. I think that his multiple transport perspectives of biking, skating, auto driving, transit, and walking will be great for looking at the big picture for utilizing ROW and empathizing with different ROW users.

    Here is a favorite pic of Tom pedaling his Bakfiet and daughter in Pride parade 2010:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/portlandpedalworks/4723393851/in/set-72157624208555145/

    Watch out JSK & NYC!

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  • J January 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    This is huge news. All the amazing bike and walking stuff that are happening in NYC basically didn’t start until AFTER Janette Sadik-Khan was appointed. Before, we had the same mayor but our commissioner was a technocrat who basically paved streets (and recently denounced a popular new cycle track in her neighborhood). This new appointment could be the beginning of a new era for Portland biking. Congratulations!

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  • Jj January 9, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    I am stunned. It shows the small mindedness of the bike community when this appointment is celebrated mainly because Miller is a pro-bikes guy, without anyone noticing that a very inexperienced political crony has jus been put in charge of 700 employees and one of Portlands most important bureaus. Dont qualifications matter to you folks at all, or is this just about your personal issues?

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    • Steve B January 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm

      Tom isn’t just a bikes guy, he represents a new wave of thinking that places alternative modes of transportation at a higher–dare I say equal–level of support. Many of us have been waiting for such an appointment at PBOT that reflects the city’s own goals for bike,walk, and transit mode split. Tom’s record shows he carries the qualifications and the know-how to get it done.

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