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If elected mayor, Ted Wheeler says he’d overhaul transportation bureau

Posted by on November 9th, 2015 at 10:00 am

Safe Sound and Green press event-3.jpg
Then Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler at a
2008 event calling for new local transportation funding.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Portland’s current mayoral frontrunner says that if he wins next year, he’ll take over the transportation bureau and rewrite its budget from scratch.

In an interview with Oregonian columnist David Sarasohn, mayoral hopeful Ted Wheeler said the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s current budget is “byzantine” and that its street system is “a patient on the table bleeding to death.”

“As mayor, Wheeler would assign himself the transportation bureau (along with the mayorally expected police bureau), and start redesigning its budget from zero,” Sarasohn reported in a column published Friday afternoon.

Portland’s mayor doesn’t have many actual powers beyond those of the other four commissioners on the city council. The main difference is that it’s up to the mayor to decide which commissioner gets administrative authority over each of the city’s 19 bureaus and offices.

In 2013, Hales assigned the relatively high-profile transportation bureau to his fellow incoming Commissioner Steve Novick, and the pair have voted in near unison on transportation issues since. At least for people outside City Hall looking in, the two usually seemed to speak with one voice during their bruising, zigzagging attempt last year to create a new local fee or tax for transportation.

That campaign frequently put Novick and Hales at odds with the Portland Business Alliance, the regional chamber of commerce. The PBA argued for much less money to be spent on improving walking and biking so that more could go toward pavement maintenance, and opposed paying for any of it with a progressive income tax.


Though Novick hasn’t personally pedaled since childhood and doesn’t seem passionate about improving biking, he’s made some important decisions in its favor. Most importantly, perhaps, he hired Leah Treat, a proudly bike-friendly top aide to D.C.-Chicago change agent Gabe Klein, to run PBOT. There, he’s given her the reins to lead Portland to a formal Vision Zero policy, to finally launch a bike share system, to create and test a new set of neighborhood greenway standards and, recently, to make physical protection the city’s default option for new bike lane projects.

Street fee press conference-4
Novick and Treat in 2014.

In addition to his unfinished search for a new transportation tax or fee, Novick has fought and won $8 million in city general funds to improve sidewalks and crossings near 122nd Avenue, part of an agreement with TriMet that’ll create East Portland’s first north-south frequent service bus line. Last summer, he gingerly embraced the Better Naito demo that may yet lead to better walking and biking on that street. On density issues, he’s been a reliable voice against NIMBYism dressed up as parking policy and for the only measure that’ll actually solve Portland commercial nodes’ auto parking shortages: paid overnight parking permit systems.

In short, Novick hasn’t been fantastic for biking so far, but he’s been pretty good.

If Wheeler is elected and takes over PBOT from Novick in 2017, it could be a useful fresh start. Wheeler’s not wrong about PBOT’s budget; I’ve been covering it for five years and couldn’t summarize it in a paragraph.

One thing that’s definitely true: PBOT currently sets aside almost zero money for new biking and walking infrastructure. On that front, things could hardly get worse.

On the other hand, PBOT has been run by solidly bike-friendly commissioners for almost all of 30 years: Earl Blumenauer, Hales, Vera Katz, Sam Adams and now Novick. If Wheeler means what he says about rebuilding the bureau from “zero,” it’s currently anybody’s guess what he’d put in its place.

Portlanders who see our city’s potential to escape the trap of auto dependence can take comfort in the fact that, as local biking advocate Michelle Poyourow put it last week, any politician can “do the math” and, as Novick has, “come to the conclusion that bikes are a good investment.”

But politicians have to pick battles, and it’s just as easy to imagine Wheeler deciding that making streets better (rather than merely making them smoother) isn’t worth fighting for.

When he jumped in the race, Wheeler and his team deserved some time to get up to speed on local transportation. Now that he’s decided he wants to run PBOT, it’s presumably time to start expecting him to spell out what he wants to do with it.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

NOTE: At BikePortland, we love your comments. We love them so much that we devote many hours every week to read them and make sure they are productive, inclusive, and supportive. That doesn't mean you can't disagree with someone. It means you must do it with tact and respect. If you see an inconsiderate or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan and Michael

28 Comments
  • Endo November 9, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Don’t get too excited about this guy, Wheeler will do the same thing they all do: a little bit of bikewashing and he’ll make a few promises that he won’t keep because…. cars.

    1) Ask him if he plans to bike-friendly streets to cars. He’ll say no.

    2) Ask him what he’s going to do to limit car use. He’ll say nothing.

    3) Ask him how he’s going to reduce car-created murder when he’s unwilling do address 1 or 2. He’ll say “?????”

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    • wsbob November 9, 2015 at 10:51 am

      Recklessly throwing out inflammatory phrased claims such as “…car-created murder…” isn’t much of a way to start a discussion it should be hoped would have a constructive outcome.

      If elected, I wonder what Wheeler will really be able to do to improve the city’s streets, having them be safer, more comfortable and functional to use for people traveling on them in increasing numbers by bike and foot…as well as sustaining the streets continued usability for people that must drive.

      The new mayor will ‘X’ amount of dollars to get done at least some of all the street related needs so many people feel have gone lacking by way of the city’s transportation dept operations. And the people aren’t going to want to give him any more money unless he can prove that what’s currently being provided by taxpayers, is being used efficiently and to at least reasonable effect.

      The first best choice item on his agenda then, might be to look for and cut out any ‘fat’ that’s in the bureau’s budget. If this turns out to be the route he decides to take, watch what happens. For just one example, would Wheeler find some transportation bureau staff positions to be expendable?

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      • Endo November 9, 2015 at 5:06 pm

        It may or may not be inflammatory, but it’s true. Every day cars kill someone, either directly (by hitting another car, a pedestrian, or a cyclist) or indirectly (through their terrible pollution.

        We need to use words like murder because they’re true. If we water down our language it’s easier to ignore the problem.

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        • wsbob November 9, 2015 at 10:24 pm

          Endo…I realize the word gets used casually, a lot, in popular culture, tv, movies, etc, but the word ‘murder’ is not just some word whose true meaning includes people’s death somehow having occurred by way of involvement in an event in which use of a motor vehicle was a major contributing factor.

          It’s a word specifically referring to situations in which somebody deliberately sets out to, and succeeds in ending another persons’ life. This means the word can’t truthfully apply to the vast majority of people that were driving a motor vehicle and came to be involved in a collision that caused someone’s death…except for those people that deliberately intended to use the motor vehicle to end someone’s life.

          If he’s elected, Wheeler’s chances of accomplishing anything much to have the streets become safer for everyone, including people biking, aren’t going to be helped by people that may mean well, but that put their efforts into throwing out a lot of flak that doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

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        • BeavertonRider November 10, 2015 at 11:46 pm

          Uh, using the word “murder” improperly is what waters down the language. It’s like righties calling Hillarly “Hitlery” or the lefties calling Bush “Bushitler” or global warming proponents calling those who disagree with them “deniers”.

          A death does not inherently mean that murder was committed.

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    • BeavertonRider November 10, 2015 at 11:38 pm

      Oh boy…right, cuz only answering these questions with your preferred responses will reveal that someone “cares” about cycling.

      Look, I don’t care what a candidate feels about cycling. I care about how he is going to approach cycling more generally, how he thinks he can improve the cycling environment.

      I care deeply about cycling in Portland and, frankly, couldn’t give two whiffs about bike-friendling streets to cars (whatever that means) nor mischaracterizing bike-auto deaths as murder (did anyone accuse the Tillikum cyclist who hit the old lad of assault???) when they’re not nor demand that he take cars away from people.

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  • Adam Herstein November 9, 2015 at 10:59 am

    “Starting from zero” doesn’t sound promising. That makes it too easy to cut things he doesn’t deem important. Amd who knows what his platform is, since he’s been pretty silent on basically every issue.

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    • 9watts November 9, 2015 at 11:04 am

      doesn’t sound promising….? I don’t know. We’re obviously going to want to know what Wheeler has in mind, but if it were up to me (don’t worry it isn’t ha ha) I might be inclined to start from zero too, but focused on the looming threat of climate change. It isn’t as if this doesn’t concern us.

      The prospect of cheap oil and the automobile both drying up and blowing away for good within the next mayor’s first term is a real possibility. You’d think it might be good to at least parameterize some of these titanic changes, keep them in full view as we go forward.

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      • Adam Herstein November 9, 2015 at 3:01 pm

        You’re absolutely correct, but without knowing what Ted Wheeler’s priorities are, there’s no way to know if this is a good thing or not. We need specifics, not just vague campaign promises.

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    • BeavertonRider November 11, 2015 at 12:01 am

      Starting from zero sounds real promising after seeing this year’s PBOT budget. It’s about time to identify actual transpo priorities, allocate dollars against those priorities and then cut what is not a priority. PBOT wastes tons of money, as I showed in the recent gas tax thread, that could be put toward not only street maintenance and safety, but also cycling infrastructure.

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  • maccoinnich November 9, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Will someone wake me up when Ted Wheeler announces a specific policy, on anything? Looking at his website his “Priorities for Portland” are so vague as to be meaningless. http://www.tedwheeler.com/priorities-for-portland/

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    • John Liu November 9, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      That is my reaction too. He has collected endorsements and contributions, and now seems to be saying as little as possible in order to cruise to victory without taking the risk of offending anyone.

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      • rainbike November 9, 2015 at 3:28 pm

        That seems a good strategy, in a race without a major competitor. I think I like him, but I wish others would throw their names in the hat, so we could have a real discussion about the future of Portland.

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      • David Hampsten November 10, 2015 at 3:59 pm

        As a community advocate, I will point out that what you have here is a ‘golden opportunity’ that doesn’t come very often, an expected-to-be-elected politician who lacks a formal active transportation policy. If I were you, I’d latch onto his policy lackeys (as Terry D-M has already started to) and help him develop a good set of such policies and projects.

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  • kittens November 9, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    I’m all for paying locally for the streets we use but creating a complex and novel funding mechanism like the proposed street fee was the height of stupidity. Especially in the wake of the Arts Tax debacle. God riddance Steve Novick. So if Wheeler gets in, where does Novick go?

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    • Chris I November 9, 2015 at 3:12 pm

      Hopefully into Fritz’s empty seat.

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  • Carl November 9, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    Great piece of reporting, Michael, as always. Much appreciated.

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  • Terry D-M November 9, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Having talked with him a few times, he seems to “get it” when it comes to active transport Now, whether he will put that into action, is another issue.

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  • SE November 9, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    kittens
    God riddance Steve Novick. So if Wheeler gets in, where does Novick go?Recommended 2

    If Ted can muzzle/leash SN* , then he has my vote …. I mean, could he possibly be worse than Charlie ?

    As a cyclist, it’s funny to pine for the old days of Sam :(

    the other 4 on the council need to go too … what a bunch of ________ ‘s

    * assign him to wherever he can do least harm.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson November 9, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Got to give Wheeler credit for going by the numbers on the CRC. He was just about the only politician from either side who said “this project simply does not pencil out.”
    I’d start cleaning house at PBOT with the so-called Freight Committee, which is simply a publicly staffed lobbying group for the road folks who are well heeled enough to pay their own freight, so to speak.
    And if the challenge is capacity in a growing city, Michelle P. is spot on.
    There is simply neither physical nor fiscal capacity for expanding the roads in Portland. The only way to move freight and provide capacity for those who need to drive, or think they need to, is to invest in alternatives…transit (yes, including Streetcar!), bike facilities…I mean a real network of MUPs like the Willamette Greenway Trail and so on.
    And reducing the loss of life and limb by lowering speeds and making public rights of way work safely for all is a huge opportunity to save a ton of money (cops, emergency responders, ER docs, etc.), not to mention the value of the lives lost due to poorly operated motor vehicles.
    As for potholes? God’s own speed bumps! Bless ’em!

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  • David Hampsten November 9, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    I have served on the PBOT Budget Advisory Committee since Dec 2009, representing EPNO/East Portland; I’m stepping down this year to move to Greensboro NC for economic reasons (high rent + continued unemployment.) I wish Ted much good will and the best of luck. Maneuvering PBOT is a bit like conning a supertanker – it’s big, cumbersome, and slow, but it gets you there in the end.

    As Ted will discover, and as Sam Adams, who had twice the vision and brains of Ted, found, about 95% of the PBOT budget is designed and allocated five or more years in advance. If you are doing long-term capitol projects, and don’t want to lay-off your trained engineers, you have to plan this far ahead. The portion of the budget that is capitol projects, funded from Federal and state grants, like bridges, streetcar construction, bike facilities, sidewalks, etc, varies year-to-year, everything from 20% to 70% of overall spending. Street maintenance varies from 20% to 30% of the budget. Because of this huge variation, and the need to provide “matching funding”, long-term budget planning is needed. Any success of Ted will be built upon the foundation of Steve Novick & Leah Treat’s work (or lack thereof) several years previous.

    Also, as Ted will discover, gas tax money can only be used for new capitol projects by Oregon law; repairs and maintenance funding comes from other sources, such as parking fees, the ULF, general fund revenue. Transportation System Development Charge (SDC) funding is even more restrictive – it can only be used upon a specific list of capitol projects. There is a $32 million SDC surplus at PBOT because there is not enough local match is available to do the listed projects. On top of everything, about 25% of the budget comes from BES for sewer maintenance.

    Another reality is that PBOT still operates like it has 4 bureaus (as it did 10 years ago) – Maintenance; Capitol projects (including civil design and engineering); Systems engineering (signals, street lights, traffic control, Active Transportation, etc.); and Operations/Office of the Director (business services, GIS, planning, payroll, etc.) I’m not sure the parking wardens fit in. Each “bureau” operates fairly independently of the others, even to the point of not speaking to one another except through the community or the folks at the top.

    Basically, Ted has his work cut out for him.

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    • 9watts November 9, 2015 at 9:05 pm

      Thanks for that insider’s perspective. Fascinating.
      BTW, the term you’re using is spelled capital with an ‘a’.

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    • wsbob November 9, 2015 at 10:51 pm

      Funny. Not really, but your detailing of PBOT’a idiosyncrasies had me recalling the old Terry Gilliam flick, Brazil… . Any wild, hypothetical ideas you feel you might be able to safely throw out to this discussion, as to what a future mayor might possibly be able to do to cut through the fog and get the transportation bureau rolling a little more efficiently and effectively for the city of Portland?

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    • Steve B. November 10, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      Nice to have a real political lay of the land. Sorry to see you go, thanks for your service to Portland.

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  • Dan A November 9, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    Sounds like we need to raise parking fees.

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    • B. Carfree November 9, 2015 at 9:01 pm

      No matter what sounds I was hearing, that would be my prescription. :)

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    • Eric Leifsdad November 10, 2015 at 12:23 am

      Yes. If we’ve had 30 years of “bike friendly” transportation department to get mostly paint, it sounds like they’re going to need to get “auto hostile” to reach our goals for reducing congestion and addressing climate change.

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  • TheRealisticOne November 15, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    I would agree with a complete restructuring of PBOT, I don’t believe that Treat has been effective, not necessarily all her fault but a shake up is necessary. Also, we need to identify the priorities of Friske and Saltzman and all their “faceless” supporters behind the scene. Good luck to the next Mayor, you’ve got a lot of crap to paddle through.

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