Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on September 17th, 2012 at 3:45 pm
— despite what you might have read in The Oregonian
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)
Remember back in February when The Oregonian splashed their big, "Portland's Road to Ruin" story on the front page? The story aimed to create the perception among readers that the Bureau of Transportation was spending so much on "bike routes" they had nothing left for paving. Zero. Zilch. Nada. No paving until 2017.
Today, PBOT released a list of paving projects completed this summer that shows, contrary to The Oregonian's article, the agency has been very busy paving streets. Since February, they've poured millions of dollars into over a dozen projects to smooth out roads.
Compare the facts (more details below) with what The Oregonian's Beth Slovic wrote back in February; "... [PBOT] has shelved plans... to overhaul any other badly deteriorating road in its 5,000-mile system -- until at least 2017." "The bureau has other priorities," she continued, "such as $900,000 to build 13.5 miles of bike routes.*"
That headline was designed to get people fired up. And it worked. Hundreds of angry comments poured onto OregonLive.com, a few months later The Columbian newspaper parroted the "no paving until 2017" line in an editorial blasting Portland's priorities, mayoral candidate Charlie Hales trumpeted the article on his website as a reason Portland needs a "roads first, back to basics" focus (thankfully, he later removed reference to the article), and Sheila Hamilton, co-host of popular radio morning Dave & Sheila on KINK-FM, was irate.
The day the article came out, Hamilton went onto her show and spread the misleading story she just read in The Oregonian to her many listeners. Here's a transcript taken from her show on February 29th:
"The transportation bureau has now decided to shuffle $900,00 to building 13.5 new miles of bike lanes; but all of your street maintenance will be delayed until 2017. No new paving. No pothole filling until 2017! Put it this way, if you think it's bad now, it's going to get a lot worse."
Then, a few minutes later, Hamilton drove home her point:
"They [PBOT] have a 5,000 mile system and they've decided not to fill another pothole or repave anything until 2017. They're not doing anything until 2017! And you know why? Because they're building 13.5 miles of bike routes.... I will tell you, until cyclists start paying taxes to pay for the roads, people are going to be ticked off about this."
Like The Oregonian, Hamilton painted a dire picture...
"Hey I'm a cyclist too and I love being on our bike routes. It's amazing. It's so great. Except for when Portland turns into a third-world country and the only way you'll be able to get to work on your bike, we'll be in trouble."
It's easy to see how a rant like this could spring from The Oregonian's coverage. It's also easy to see how it fans the flames of the "bicyclists don't pay for the roads" meme. "They should pay their fair share," said Hamilton's co-host, to which she replied, "Especially given how much money we're shoveling over to those bike lanes. We've been doing it for 10 years while everything else falls into disrepair."
It was a seductive narrative for a news organization with a long history of dishonest and harmful anti-bike reporting directed at a public all too eager to lap it up. It was also very misleading.
According to a list released by PBOT today (at the request of BikePortland), since April of this year, the agency has completed 15 paving projects encompassing 40 lane-miles of roads throughout the city to the tune of nearly $8.2 million. UPDATE: In addition, PBOT is set to begin a major paving project on SE Division next month (from SE 11th to Cesar Chavez Blvd) that will cost them $3.3 million. Here's the updated list (PDF):
(- PDF version- )
The truth about PBOT's budget (which Slovic knew and reported on in that story, but buried in order to promote the no paving narrative) is that only one category of paving projects were eliminated in the 2012-13 budget. Given their huge expense, PBOT zero'ed out "contract paving" where they hire a construction firm to completely tear up and replace a street. The rest of the budget included $9 million in paving expenses. Too bad Hamilton — and thousands of other Portland residents are not aware of those facts.
Unfortunately for us, the damage is already done. The Oregonian clearly manipulated the facts in order to drive home their anti-Sam Adams, anti-bicycling agenda. They won't have to deal with Adams much longer (he leaves office in January); but bicycling isn't going anywhere.
This also underscores a larger point. PBOT desperately needs to regain the narrative around their work. The fact that I had to request this list of paving projects, and couldn't easily find them on a public website, shows they need to be more proactive in touting all their projects — not just the ones that make them look bike-friendly. Every month or so there seems to be a bike-related press release or press event; but when's the last time PBOT called a press conference for a paving project? Perhaps it's time. We need all the help we can get to bust this myth.
*Another very misleading part of The Oregonian's article is that PBOT is spending $900,000 on 13.5 miles of "bike routes". That budget line-item is referring to is for work on neighborhood greenways. These are low-traffic, residential streets where the City installs speed bumps, sharrows, lowers the speed limit to 20 mph, improves crossings, and so on. To call these projects "bike routes" is quite a stretch. They are more neighborhood safety projects than simply "bike routes" — but of course that wouldn't fit the narrative as well.
UPDATE #1, 9/17 at 6:19 pm: Beth Slovic has demanded a correction of my first paragraph where I said she claimed PBOT would spend "zero" on paving until 2017. Her editor Michelle Brence also says via Twitter that this story is "wrong." I disagree with them that my story is inaccurate or wrong. It is clear to me that the way the story was written, it was meant to be misleading (as evidenced by the radio show host's comments and The Columbian editorial board's interpretation of it). I have edited that first paragraph to show that Slovic and her editors meant to create a false perception. In my opinion,
they included the right facts in the story, but did so with a purpose to mislead and perpetuate a false narrative they have participated in greatly. (See update #3 below)
UPDATE 2, 9/18 at 9:01 am: In case you are wondering, this story was initially published with a sentence in the first paragraph that read, "The hook for the story was a claim that the Bureau of Transportation was spending so much on "bike routes" they had nothing left for paving. Zero. Zilch. Nada. No paving until 2017." After Slovic contacted me demanding a correction, I re-considered that line and made some edits. Here's more in my comment about this to a reader below.
UPDATE 3 9/18 at 11:35am: After further research, I now know that The Oregonian article is factually incorrect (in addition to being misleading). I am still gathering information and will post an update tomorrow.