Posted by Michael Andersen (News Editor) on May 1st, 2014 at 1:53 pm
(Photos: City of Portland)
As ballots arrive today in Portland mailboxes for a hard-fought ballot initiative (Measure 26-156) that would remove water, sewer and stormwater overflow operations from city oversight, one issue has attracted little notice in the billion-dollar battle over managing the city’s pipes.
That’s the comparative trickle of stormwater management fees that have been used not for pipes and gutters but for in-street bioswales — the basins lined with native plants that clean local rivers by reducing storm runoff. These bioswales also double as traffic-calming islands and intersection diverters that improve bike safety. It’s that transportation safety element that led former Portland Mayor Sam Adams to call the bioswales a “double win” and set aside $20 million for their construction as part of the Bike Plan for 2030 when it was adopted in 2010.
Now, backers of the water initiative want to create a separate, directly elected board that would control water and sewer rates and spending. Among other things, the board would control money for projects that, like bioswales, reduce the amount of rainwater that flows into the city’s sewer system.
But unlike the City of Portland, the new water-sewer authority might not have as strong a financial incentive to look for “twofer” projects that both absorb stormwater and create barriers that can make streets safer for driving, biking, walking, playing basketball and so on.
For example, some components of the Klickitat/Morris Neighborhood Greenway, like the traffic diverter outside Madeleine School pictured above, double as storm drainage — and were primarily funded by a small portion of the “stormwater” line item on Portland sewer bills.
Similarly, the SE Clay Green Street project, which improved bike and pedestrian access to the Willamette River through the central eastside this winter, was paid for by $2 million from the city’s stormwater management fund. In-street stormwater facilities are also a possibility for Northeast Holladay Street through the Lloyd District (PDF), though that work would be paid for by stormwater fees the city collects from new developments rather than ratepayer bills.
$2 million is about 0.1 percent of the combined $1.5 billion annual budgets of the Portland Water and Environmental Services bureaus, so it’s understandable that the issue hasn’t attracted much attention during the campaign. But in a city where the standing budget for all biking and walking safety projects is $1 million a year, these projects have the ability to make a big difference to local transportation.