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PBOT's effort to cut budget could hit street lights, streetcar

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on January 17th, 2013 at 11:01 am

Outgoing PBOT Director Tom Miller led a meeting
of his budget advisory committee on Tuesday.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

When members of the Portland Bureau of Transportation's Budget Advisory Committee settled into their fourth and final meeting on Tuesday, they got some grim news. On top of the $4.5 million in ongoing cuts the bureau was initially told they needed to make, PBOT Director Tom Miller announced they needed to identify an another 10% — or $784,000 — in cuts. The way I understand it, Mayor Charlie Hales has asked for each bureau to come up with this 10% cut so that he can ultimately decide what stays and what goes.

The tricky thing for PBOT is that after years budget shrinkage, they have very little fat left to cut. Committee member and east Portland advocate Dave Hampsten put it this way: "We've gotten to the point where every cut is a core function."

"If it's being sold to us as an economic development tool [not a transportation mode], they why should PBOT maintain it?"
— Paul Cone, a union rep on streetcar funding

Thankfully, the cuts being considered by the committee don't include active transportation-related expenditures. There was a discussion at City Council last year that Sunday Parkways isn't a core function of PBOT and the program has teetered closely to being de-funded. Last year, the City only invested $120,000 into Sunday Parkways (the rest of its $490,000 budget came from private sponsorships and donations). That City investment came in the form of "one time" funds which are paid out of the general fund. This year, bureaus have been directed by City Hall that there can be no new one-time funding requests; but anything funded last year is automatically grandfathered in. "So," Tom Miller explained to the committee, "The only thing PBOT can request one-time funding for is Sunday Parkways. Either you ask for it or you don't get anything, so you might as well ask for it."

Keep in mind that even if the PBOT budget advisory committee forwards the Sunday Parkways funding request (which they plan to do), Mayor Hales could choose to axe it. The decision will be up to him (and his Council colleagues once the horse-trading begins in February).

Once the committee's attention turned to figuring out what exactly to cut to arrive at the $784,000, the conversation was wide-ranging and included some surprises.

The largest line-item in PBOT's budget that comes from the general fund is the $5 million or so for street lighting. I always thought that expensive service was off-limits in terms of cutbacks, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Veteran PBOT staffer Paul Smith shared at the meeting that years ago PBOT proposed "roving blackouts" of neighborhood street lights as a way to save money. In the end, the Police Chief volunteered to pay to keep the lights on out of the Police Bureau budget.

The PBOT budget advisory committee discussed several scenarios of how a street light service reduction might work. Corky Collier, a committee member who represents freight interests, pushed for the street lighting cutbacks. "Is it a core function of PBOT or of the City? I don't think it's a core function of PBOT as much as these other things on the table."

The committee also proposed moving the leaf removal program out of PBOT's budget and making the Bureau of Environmental Services pick up the bill. That move would mean a $200,000 cut to the PBOT budget. "There's an argument to be made that leaf removal is a City priority, but not a transportation priority," said Miller. He explained that leaf removal must be done as part of the City's Clean Water Act compliance permit. "But does it have to come out of PBOT's books?" he wondered.

In addition to street light cutbacks and moving the leaf removal program out of PBOT, the committee seems likely to propose cutbacks in streetcar operation and maintenance. The budget advisory committee discussed cuts to streetcar operations of $200-600,000 (it's not finalized yet). The ongoing maintenance bill for the ever-expanding streetcar line has been a thorn in the side of PBOT for years. The big shiny streetcar projects get hundreds of millions in grants and other regional funding; but no one ever talks about the ballooning cost to maintain the system. And with PBOT's dire budget situation, the expenditure is now (finally) being questioned.

Currently, PBOT spends about $2.7 million per year on streetcar operations and maintenance (the total bill for the city is $8 million). When the central city streetcar loop is completed in 2015, annual costs to maintain streetcar are estimated to be $11.4 million. Union rep Paul Cone questioned whether PBOT should foot the bill. "If it's being sold to us as an economic development tool [not a transportation mode], they why should PBOT maintain it?" Cone asked, "If you want streetcar to run and make a fancy new neighborhood, than show us the money." The union rep suggested perhaps the Portland Development Commission or the City's general fund should pick up the tab (unfortunately the PDC can only invest in capital projects, not maintenance).

"The long-term benefit [of streetcar] to the City is by future tax revenues that streetcar encourages and those funds go to the general fund," he added, "so that's where payment for it should come from."

The other argument against PBOT paying for streetcar operations and maintenance is that it's not an equitable service. The lines only run in certain neighborhoods, yet they are subsidized by the entire city.

PBOT planner Paul Smith explained that currently, parking revenue is what pays for streetcar maintenance. With those revenues falling flat and even decreasing, Smith shared an ominous prediction. "Expansion of streetcar over time is going to compete with all the core functions of PBOT. This is a precursor to future discussions."

But cutting streetcar funds will be a difficult political lift. As Miller pointed out in the meeting, "It's a streetcar-friendly City Council" with Mayor "Choo Choo" Charlie Hales at the helm. Also, if streetcar gets less funding for operations, that means greater headways and less service through the entire system. If that happened, PBOT would face angry business owners who agreed to helping pay for the streetcar project with the expectation of a certain level of service.

The budget advisory committee is currently drafting their official budget recommendations (with help from PBOT), so we'll know more once their letter is done. Their letter will be sent to Mayor Hales and he'll have ultimate say over what gets cut and what gets funded.

A lot can still change, but these conversations show how serious the PBOT budget situation is. Stay tuned.

— Read more about the PBOT Budget in our story archives.

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  • 9watts January 17, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Fascinating.

    "they have very little fat left to cut"
    I think your article showed that to not be the whole story.

    I'd also be curious where the hundreds of millions for the Rose Quarter widening come from, not to mention other freeway expansion projects in the Metro area on the calendar. I'm sure not all of the funds come through PBOT, but do some? Why are those not considered fat?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 17, 2013 at 11:13 am

      9watts.. Remember, the Rose Quarter widening plan is unfunded as of yet. It was a planning exercise and now they're looking for money but none has been allocated yet (kind of like the 2030 bike plan).

      And I get your point about "fat"... guess I was saying that stuff like streetcar, street lights, and so on have never been considered fat... that is, until now?

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      • 9watts January 17, 2013 at 11:17 am

        Thanks - I hadn't realized the Rose Quarter was unfunded as yet. Interesting.
        And I still think the (car-only) pie is much higher than we realize. Where can we go to see a pie chart of PBOT's budget - (or of Metro transportation expenditures more generally to the extent that these are funded through other sources like ODOT)?

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  • Andrew Seger January 17, 2013 at 11:12 am

    For an article on budget cuts this was heartening to read. Finally people are publicly questioning why the streetcar is seen as a transportation option when it's clearly a development tool. Think how much bus service we could have gotten for $8million a year, or bike share, or whatever.

    Kudos to PBOT staff for finding the most unpalatable things to cut and offering them up for Charlie Hales to cut. Budget politics at its finest. The transportation equivalent of school boards always cutting music and sports first as a way to scare up money.

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  • Kiel Johnson January 17, 2013 at 11:17 am

    i wonder what 100% cuts would look like?

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  • Anne Hawley January 17, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I work for the City, I get how byzantine and siloed the budget process is, and I understand how hard it is to make any meaningful change under the City's positively bizarre political structure. Sure, pass leaf removal to Environmental. Try to find a General Fund home for the streetcar maintenance budget and those crime-fighting streetlights. But it seems to me that the underlying problem here is the broken funding mechanism for transportation. I hope the ball gets rolling on a new fuel-tax structure.

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    • 9watts January 17, 2013 at 11:33 am

      "I hope the ball gets rolling on a new fuel-tax structure."

      Then perhaps you can explain to those of us who have been asking here the last few days what a new structure could accomplish that simply raising the existing gas tax *a lot* wouldn't?

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      • peejay January 17, 2013 at 12:06 pm

        Exactly! When did changing the rate of an EXISTING tax get to be more complicated than creating a WHOLE NEW tax with huge administrative and infrastructure costs?

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  • Art Fuldodger January 17, 2013 at 11:30 am

    "The committee also proposed moving the leaf removal program out of PBOT's budget and making the Bureau of Environmental Services pick up the bill. That move would mean a $200,000 cut to the PBOT budget. "There's an argument to be made that leaf removal is a City priority, but not a transportation priority," said Miller. "

    Well, however you choose to slice n' dice it, I'd say it is very much a safety priority for bicyclists on key streets (Terwilliger, I'm thinking of you).

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) January 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

      I agree Art Fuldodger. Just keep in mind that when Miller said "transportation priority" he was saying a PBOT priority, not transportation in general.

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  • Daniel January 17, 2013 at 11:35 am

    "Currently, PBOT spends over $8 million per year on streetcar operations and maintenance. "
    That's a little misleading. The total streetcar operations budget is 8.2 million, but PBOT/City of Portland only contributes 2.7 million of that from their budget.

    It does make sense to try to get at least some of that funding from the general fund though.

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  • Allan January 17, 2013 at 11:36 am

    How much extra money would PBOT get if state gas tax revenues were based on the miles travelled in a district instead of # of registered vehicles. Lobby for this simple change and *poof* our budget problems are solved.

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    • 9watts January 17, 2013 at 11:55 am

      Do you know something we don't about a skewed ratio of VMT within the county/metro area to vehicle ownership relative to other jurisdictions? Do tell. I could actually imagine the opposite but am eager to learn.

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      • peejay January 17, 2013 at 12:12 pm

        I think Allan's arguing for a more equitable distribution of the current gas tax revenue, not a switch to VMT. And, if the suggested change directs more of the revenue to urban areas, I'm for it. But I also am unconvinced, since people in rural areas tend to drive more.

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        • 9watts January 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

          I wonder if he is hoping to get WA state residents who fill up and then commute here to contribute the gas tax to PBOT? If so that seems pretty unlikely. Better to just raise the tax.

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        • Todd Boulanger January 17, 2013 at 5:30 pm

          As for the VMT as an optional way to collect road funding, there could be a lot of horse trading done to how such funds are calculated. As an example, there could be a rural rate and an urban rate: rural rates could be lower to reflect the greater miles travelled and the lower cost per lane mile these facilities have while keeping in mind the smaller population funding them. Or the rural rates could be similar but some of the funding directed at important mobility related issues in rural areas that cities do not have: school or medical facility closure effect on VMT.

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    • RWL1776 January 17, 2013 at 3:58 pm

      How would they track your mileage? GPS unit? Do YOU want Big Brother tracking your every move? I'm sure they would NEVER use that information for anything else, right? "Trust me, I am from the government!"

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  • NW Biker January 17, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Did I understand correctly that money from parking fees goes toward the streetcar? If so, then it would seem to me that those using the streetcar wouldn't be parking, so streetcar usage would decrease parking revenues.... What am I missing?

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  • Spiffy January 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    streetlights are a core service... I think it's transportation since few people would venture out into the dark...

    we don't want to turn this place into Gotham City and I think the police chief recognizes that...

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  • hroðberacht January 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    And yet cheap and free automobile parking throughout most of the city allows for private, individual use of public space (at the exclusion of almost all else). We're seriously thinking about cutting core services while virtually subsidizing long-term storage for certain individuals. There is something very wrong with that.

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  • Indy January 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    "When the central city streetcar loop is completed in 2015, annual costs to maintain streetcar are estimated to be $11.4 million."

    Or about 22 modern sleek hybrid buses a year that are far faster, more versitile, safer for bikers, can route around obstacles.

    Just wow. What an expensive mistake that was.

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  • q`Tzal January 17, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Far too often these debates come down to two options only:
    () cut services
    () raise taxes.
    As was shown here by the PPD with the ridiculously unsafe rolling blackout (???!) suggestion they were willing to pay for at least part of the cost of not having traffic lights suddenly got out whenever is least convenient.

    This suggests other options than the first two diametrically opposed strategies:
    () have another department pay for it
    ... As we saw in the traffic light example. Or allowing a general public health fund to cooperate and coordinate with an active transportation fund for projects that benefit both's mission goals.

    () cut service but coordinate directly with private individuals, businesses and non-profits that still want said services and see if they are willing to commit to sustained funding, essentially elective taxation, to support said services.
    ... I imagine that Sunday Parkway could drum up enough public support to garner enough funding to stay alive.

    () allow private entities to either pay for private companies or to be third party payees for canceled public services.
    ... This one is messy to visualize as anything other than a Libertarian's dream. I want government services paid for by taxes and I'm willing to pay more for more. But sometimes things get axed and you still need what was axed: sidewalks for the disabled, lights on dark MUPs.
    Let's say I have an disabled but physically active family member in town, I'm worried about the hazard of a missing or mostly degraded sidewalk. I've lobbied and begged, still nothing happens. At some point I am willing to pay for this out of pocket just to avoid pain, suffering and likely more expensive medical bills later.
    If I'm skilled I can lay the sidewalk myself after consulting with the building inspector and agreeing to an inspection after completion. I can pay a private firm to do all of the prior sentence. OR I can pay the local government what it costs them to send out the official crew that already knows what they are doing.

    Perhaps this "new normal" is getting back to not asking what the government can do for you but deciding what you are willing to do for your community.

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    • J_R January 17, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      Sidewalks are the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, NOT the city. In fact, the city has a zero tollerance policy on sidewalks in disrepair, but only on a complaint basis. If you call the city, they'll send out an inspector and the homeowner has 90 days to fix it. If you complain that the sidewalk caused a fall, the owner has only 30 days to fix it.

      The city is much less responsive if one complains about vegetation blocking the sidewalk, but their really on top of something to cause the homeowner to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars.

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  • Rol January 17, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    The "offloading services to other bureaus" tactic isn't exactly visionary, now is it? All those bureaus have been tasked with their own 10% budget cut target.

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  • Jim Lee January 17, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I have this fabulous idea for finally getting our money's worth out of Portland Streetcar, Inc.

    The new "public art" installations--intricate rusted steel frameworks--along Grand at Hawthorne and Madison should be used as mounts for very large portraits of those worthy individuals who have visited streetcars upon us:

    On the south face at Hawthorne--Michael Powell

    On the east face at Hawthorne--Chris Smith

    On the east face at Madison--Charlie Hales

    On the North face at Madison--Rick Gufstason

    Then, on the greensward within the ramp up from MLK, we should erect a VERY LARGE INFLATABLE STATUE of--Earl Blumenauer!

    Finally, we should park the hopeless locally built new streetcar right in front of the Multnomah County building along Grand, weld its wheels to the rails, and open its doors to all those unfortunates who need shelter for the night.

    I can only apologize for misunderstanding the intent and purpose of Portland Streetcar, Inc., all these years: it has little to do with civic transport or even property development. It is PERFORMANCE ART!

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  • Todd Boulanger January 17, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    As for the street lighting issue: it can be very tough to turn off the lights you want while keeping others on in order to save operating funds. Keep the intersection lights on but not the mid blocks, etc. Remember the '99 or '00 summer electricity crisis in the NW? The City of Vancouver tried to turn off its street lights selectively but found that there were few switches and thus it was not easy to do unless it was by district or by arterial phase (my memory).

    And I wonder what a City's risk assessment office would say about such a plan: rolling street light blackouts given there are City and State requirements for minimum lighting levels on transportation facilities. Most Cities are typically self insured over a set threshold, so some of the power savings should then be shifted over into a reserve to cover any legal claims from crashes or other injuries - I would expect.

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  • Todd Boulanger January 17, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    If new sources of funding are to be placed on the table to protect existing services and level of service...then does OR law allow the ability to "tax" or collect a nominal fee for each off-street commercial parking space given away "free" to customers, employees, etc.? I would suggest that such a fee could be set based on the effect that these parking spaces create in lowering the efficiency of public transit service (congestion or fare box recovery), environmental effect (heat island, CO2, runoff, etc.), or transportation equity between businesses in different districts (city center with parking meters vs. suburban areas without). The easiest trigger might be a runoff fee from parking lots without biofiltration ponds, assuming it is not already done.

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  • Opus the Poet January 17, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    The problem with cutting streetlights (and I know this from previous experience with the situation during the Energy Crisis of the 70s) is that reduced lighting leads to increased crime, which leads to fewer people on the streets, which leads to more crime, etc etc. Lighting just intersections leads to people congregating at intersections, with a mixed bag of results. Sometimes the people congregating reduces crime because people are watching out for each other. Sometimes it increases crime as criminals use the crowds as a target-rich environment while using nearby darkness as cover. The thing about it is either way reduced street lighting leads to reduced commercial receipts as fewer people come out after dark, which leads to lower tax receipts as businesses have less income and pay lower wages or lay off employees. It took many years for areas that had been subject to reduced street lighting to come back after street lighting was restored in the late 80s and early 90s. Some neighborhoods never recovered either in terms of crime or economics.

    Now this is looking to be a permanent reduction as the recession deepens and the 98% have less to spend on everything. Around here we have had de facto cuts in income as pay has been flat but insurance has gone up steadily as coverage has gone down steadily. This means the bottom line is shrinking every month, a little at a time. Obamacare can't get here quick enough to save the paycheck and we are already dipping into retirement savings to cover day-to-day expenses.

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    • q`Tzal January 18, 2013 at 5:51 pm

      Do you have a link to a study that corroborates this?
      It helps in dealing with political simpletons who want to simply believe that everything will be alright and nothing ever changes.

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  • J_R January 17, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    I still think a local option gas tax would be a great idea. However, a local option gas tax would have to wait until next year because of the state legislation that got us a 6 cent per gallon state gas tax in 2011. I'd prefer it be done simultaneously for Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas Counties, but Clackastanies are unlikely to go for that. So, if Portland has to go it alone, so be it. I'll support whatever increase in gas tax is proposed 5 cents, ten cents, 50 cents, $5.00.

    In the mean time, I have some other ideas. First, get the legislation changed that allows those with handicapped parking permits to park for free with no time limit. Give them two hours. Period.

    Charge residents who dump leaves in the streets with the crime of littering and prosecute them. They are creating unsafe conditions. Why is dumping leaves in the street any different than any other trash?

    Implement a city-wide on-street parking permit fee. Require a modest fee of, say $30 per year, for parking in any non-metered space in the city. The city streets are a resource that should not be given away for free.

    Increase the fines for traffic violations and the enforcement.

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  • Dan January 17, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Sure, shift the leaf collection to the bureau that already charges the some of the highest rates in the nation. Besides, the budget is City-wide, (e.g. Find the Lady, Find the Lady, Who Feels Lucky?). And remember the next time PDC sells us a shiny new toy: they'll build it, WE'LL pay to maintain it, the Developers get the long-term profits (usually with tax-abatements that negate the income to maintain it).

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  • Jacko January 18, 2013 at 1:00 am

    The streetcar romance comes to a crashing end. Where were you all a few years ago when Mayor Adams, Tom Miller, and the alternative transportation acolytes were tossing 100's of millions at the streetcar? And now you suddenly decide it's not worthy of funding?

    How times change.

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