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Advocates fear loss of dedicated biking and walking funds from Metro

Posted by on December 11th, 2015 at 3:45 pm

JPACT meeting-2
A JPACT meeting at Metro.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Regional leaders are hinting that it might be time to stop dedicating a key funding source to biking and walking projects. And advocates are not taking it lightly.

The discussion is centered around what is known as the regional flexible funding allocation, a pot of money Metro gets from the federal government and then hands out to cities and counties. In the next round of allocations for 2019-2021, $38 million (out of a total of $125 million) is set-aside specifically for infrastructure. (The rest goes to transit bond payments ($48 million) and region-wide planning and program investments ($28 million). There’s another $11 million that might be available for infrastructure but that’s not decided yet).

Unlike the vast majority of transportation dollars (gas tax and other mode-specific loan and grant programs), local governments can spend flexible funds however they want — which means something other than highway widening, rail transit or bridge upgrades. That makes flexible funds extremely competitive. In the past, Metro has chosen to invest these funds into two categories: freight and biking/walking (a.k.a. active transportation).

Prior to 2010 the allocation was done on a project-by-project basis; but freight advocates began to cry foul when active transportation projects started gobbling up all the money. So in 2010 freight and business interests lobbied for a big change: They proposed that 75% of the funds should go to freight projects and just 25% should go to active transportation projects.

They lost.

“The policy takes us back to the era when it was unique to put a sidewalk or bike lane on a project. It’s not unique anymore.”
— Roy Rogers, Washington County Commissioner

When the votes were cast, Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) voted 7-6 to flip that proposal and instead give active transportation 75% of the funds and freight 25%. While it represented a decrease in bike funding from the previous year, The Bicycle Transportation Alliance hailed the vote as a major victory because it guaranteed bike funding and it quelled a major freight money-grab.

This allocation cycle happens every three years. In 2012, when JPACT voted against using the 75/25 split and instead threw freight, active transportation, and even traditional highway projects all into the same pot — biking and walking didn’t do well, receiving just $9 million of $39 million dollars in funding.

Now the drama around this funding source is heating up again.

JPACT, a 17-member committee made up of mayors, commissioners and agency directors from around the region, met yesterday to decide how the present this policy to the public. Metro staff asked them for input on how to present the policy to the public in advance of a comment period which starts in January. Here are the two options that Metro staff presented to JPACT for feedback (taken from meeting packet):

Do you think we should:
a) set aside some money for walking and biking improvements and some for freight improvements, letting the projects compete within these two categories? [maintain the 75/25 split]

b) put all of the funds toward an overall group of projects that could collectively demonstrate benefits to both walking or biking and freight movement? [do away with dedicated pots]

JPACT member Tim Knapp, the mayor of Wilsonville who represents the cities of Clackamas County, said they want to do away with the 75/25 split. “There’s a strong feeling among all of our cities that we need to not keep carving into smaller and smaller portions.” Small portions, he and others argue, make it, “increasingly difficult to fund anything significant.” A system that put all the funds together and then made each project meet certain evaluation criteria would be better, Knapp said.

Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel said she also wants to remove the 75/25 split because it presents “a lot of challenges for us in developing a complete project.”

Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, one of JPACT’s Washington County representatives, echoed Knapp’s comments and added that the current language is too difficult for the public to fully grasp. Like Knapp, he’d rather ask people about their values. “Make it more understandable… hit the 7th grade [reading] level,” he said.

Metro Council Vice-Chair Shirley Craddick went against the grain and said she wants to maintain the 75/25 split. “The public is smarter than we generally give them the benefit of when we sit around tables like this,” she said. Craddick added that the dedicated pots should be maintained because of the lack of funding options that exist for active transportation projects. “We have tendency to move them [dollars] all into highway projects,” she said. “The goal was to protect those funds.” If the policy was changed and it was just one large pot, Craddick wants to make sure walking and biking projects don’t get left out.

Many of the voices in favor of dropping the 75/25 policy say it’s not needed because biking and walking are already engrained into the policies of every jurisdiction. Even highway projects they say, now almost always include bike lanes, so there’s no need for dedicated funding.

“We believe that dedicating funds is truly the only way to ensure our priorities are funded regularly and consistently.”
— Gerik Kransky, Bicycle Transportation Alliance

On that note, Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers said option A is “counterproductive.” “We understand we’re a multimodal system. About 25% of all our project costs go to walking and biking.” Rogers said JPACT members could be trusted to not “deviate” from biking and walking projects. He said the dedicated funding approach, “The policy takes us back to the era when it was unique to put a sidewalk or bike lane on a project. It’s not unique anymore.”

Should bike advocates trust Rogers that he and other electeds would still fund active transportation if they weren’t forced to? Bicycle Transportation Alliance Advocacy Director Gerik Kranksy doesn’t think so. He issued a BTA action alert today urging people to email JPACT members and tell them to keep the 75/25 split. He thinks without dedicated pots, all the money will to go auto-centric road projects.

“We believe that dedicating funds is truly the only way to ensure our priorities are funded regularly and consistently,” Kransky wrote in the action alert.

“Whatever answer the public gave, I still think we should pursue a 75/25 split.”
— Steve Novick, Portland City Commissioner

He has reason to be suspicious. In 2010 Rogers was one of the six JPACT members who voted against the 75/25 active transportation/freight project split. At that time we were in a recession and freight projects were synonmous with economic development. “Frankly, if we want to keep this economy going,” Rogers said. “Anything that helps the business community we have to take a hard look at.”

Where does the City of Portland stand? City Commissioner Steve Novick said he wants to stick with the 75/25 split whether it’s specifically stated in policy or not. (He clarified his stance with me in a phone call after the meeting.) “The question we’re proposing to ask the public isn’t inconsistent with the idea of a 75-25 split,” he said. “Whatever answer the public gave, I still think we should pursue a 75/25 split. And although we go with option b, it might involve making some judgment calls about how much of a project is bike and ped and how much is freight.”

For what it’s worth, the City of Portland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees took an informal vote on the policy at their meeting earlier this week. A majority of their members said (not surprisingly) that they’d support a flexible fund allocation that asks for 100% to be invested in biking and walking.

The main argument from active transportation advocates is that there are many other large funding sources for freight projects, and only a precious few for biking and walking. That argument is even stronger now after passage of the federal FAST Act which includes two new freight funding programs, one of which will send $80 million (over five years) to Oregon.

At this point it seems likely that JPACT will vote to end the 75/25 split. If they do, Metro says it would be possible to set up an evaluation system to make sure projects “achieve certain outcomes.”

(While the BTA will fight to maintain the existing policy, they are also pushing to get more money from these flexible funds for Safe Routes to School. We’ll have more on that next week.)

Update, Saturday 8:06 am: We’ve clarified and changed Commissioner Novick’s stance on the issue after he contacted us to explain it further.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

18 Comments
  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley December 11, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    First of all, I like this Shirley Craddick person!

    “The public is smarter than we generally give them the benefit of when we sit around tables like this,” she said. Craddick added that the dedicated pots should be maintained because of the lack of funding options that exist for active transportation projects. “We have tendency to move them [dollars] all into highway projects,” she said. “The goal was to protect those funds.”

    And second of all, if active transportation projects are so baked into other road projects these days, how is it that PBOT continues to evade those new rules? I thought bike facilities were supposed to be included with most road surface improvements, and yet haven’t there been all sorts of restriping, resurfacing projects around Portland lately that have skirted that requirement somehow?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 11, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      Interestingly, Craddick was one of six JPACT members who voted against active transportation back in 2010. Of course back then she was a Gresham city councilor… so maybe Metro’s progressive planning is rubbing off on her.

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      • Anne Hawley
        Anne Hawley December 11, 2015 at 4:17 pm

        It’s nice to think that electeds can publicly change their minds – and, perhaps, do what the people they represent want them to do.

        I’ve been reading Twitter responses to this issue and I’m not at all clear on which stand I’d take. It seems to come down to the question of how much we trust our public officials with an undifferentiated pot of money. Freight wins out a whole hell of a lot of the time around here.

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        • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 11, 2015 at 4:35 pm

          Yes I think it comes down to trust.

          It’s also IMO about how much confidence you have in the ability for bike/walk projects to compete with freight and highway projects – or whether you believe we should have such fine lines between project types to begin with (which I don’t). What’s really crazy is that bike/walk and freight should not be in opposition at all. Both do much better when we focus efforts to curtail and discourage single-occupancy vehicle use.

          I’ve seen this same tension — about dedicated pots vs. competing for the big money — happen on the national level too. National advocates are just like the BTA in that they continue to be focused on the dedicated funding pots – no matter how embarrassingly small those pots are. I’ve advocated for national advocates to give up the set-aside programs and go for the big money… but that’s easy for me to say because I’m just a pundit.

          Practically speaking (and I should add this to the article!), in 2012 after JPACT voted to not use the 75/25 split for the RFF allocation, just $9 million of $39 million went to active transpo – http://bikeportland.org/2012/10/11/metro-votes-against-maintaining-7525-funding-split-for-active-transportation-78699

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          • Beeblebrox December 12, 2015 at 10:49 am

            At this point probably the best we can hope for and advocate for is to have clear criteria that are weighted 75/25 in favor of active transportation. So if people can come up with a project that actually has a 75% benefit to active transportation and 25% benefit to freight, that would be the highest-scoring type of project. But a purely active transportation project would still do well, and a freight project would not do well unless it had significant active transportation elements.

            How about this for criteria:

            25% Freight access/mobility benefit
            25% Ped/Bike connectivity benefit
            25% Safe Routes to School benefit
            25% Safety benefit (all modes, but focused on fatalities and serious injuries)

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    • nuovorecord December 11, 2015 at 5:55 pm

      I don’t think repaving or restriping triggers the requirement to add bike facilities. Those are considered maintenance activities. It’s when you widen, change intersections, add curbs/sidewalks, or otherwise make changes beyond simply repaving, that you have to add bike facilities. I could be wrong on the details, but that’s the jist of it.

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      • Beeblebrox December 12, 2015 at 10:44 am

        That is correct. Simple repaving projects do not trigger the bike bill. It needs to be something where you’re rebuilding the street or moving curbs to widen the street.

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  • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
    Michael Andersen (News Editor) December 11, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Seems like TriMet (and presumably Rogers, who represents southern Washington County?) is trying to line up money for the Southwest Corridor transit project and this funding stream would be pretty tempting if only it could be used for mass transit. Is there any chance that’s part of what’s going on here? Did TriMet’s rep on JPACT say anything?

    Also: The idea that we don’t need dedicated money to improve biking or walking because we install bike lanes and sidewalks next to every new road doesn’t make much sense unless you have minimal interest in actually improving biking or walking.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 11, 2015 at 4:44 pm

      If TriMet went after this money it would look really bad for them. They have access to vast federal funding resources and while I know there “never enough money” my hunch is that there’s a majority of votes on JPACT who would not appreciate an attempt by TriMet to muscle in on these funds.

      I can’t recall the story off top of my head but I’m almost certain TriMet already tried to access RFF funds and it didn’t end well for them.

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    • Beeblebrox December 12, 2015 at 10:51 am

      TriMet gets money off the top to pay off light rail bonds, so if they want more money for SW Corridor and Powell-Division it should work the same way. They would take out a new bond and pay it off by increasing that allocation. So it wouldn’t really affect the 75/25 split part of the process, but it would decrease the total funding available for other infrastructure.

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  • 9watts December 11, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    “Even highway projects they say, now almost always include bike lanes, so there’s no need for dedicated funding.”

    Haha.

    With the Paris Talks wrapping up, I wonder (for the umpteenth time) why the looming end of automobility is not on the radar of these JPACT folks? I know it is much easier to put one’s hands over one’s eyes and shout ‘You can’t see me!” than to grapple with uncomfortable issues like this, but we elected these people, or they were appointed by people we elected, to look past the ends of their noses, anticipate where we need to be in a year, a decade, a generation. Infrastructure planning has a long reach. Skipping over climate change and peak cheap oil in 2016 is not good enough, not by a long shot.

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  • wsbob December 12, 2015 at 12:05 am

    “…Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, one of JPACT’s Washington County representatives, echoed Knapp’s comments and added that the current language is too difficult for the public to fully grasp. Like Knapp, he’d rather ask people about their values. “Make it more understandable… hit the 7th grade [reading] level,” he said. …” denny doyle, Beaverton mayor

    I was kind of laughing when I read that, but it’s not really something to be laughing about. Suggesting the public, if people are going to understand it, needs to have explanation of the allocation of federal funds, presented at a 7th grade reading level, isn’t the smartest thing to have said.

    I can see this money going away from providing for increases in development of active transportation infrastructure with a greater emphasis on practical functionality, because, that type of infrastructure, I believe, continues to generally not be regarded by the public as essential for travel. Whereas, improving road infrastructure for freight transport by motor vehicle, and general road use by motor vehicle, continues to be regarded as essential. That dynamic gives the freight business a strong argument for funds.

    “…“There’s a strong feeling among all of our cities that we need to not keep carving into smaller and smaller portions.” Small portions, he and others argue, make it, “increasingly difficult to fund anything significant.” A system that put all the funds together and then made each project meet certain evaluation criteria would be better, Knapp said. Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel said she also wants to remove the 75/25 split because it presents “a lot of challenges for us in developing a complete project.”…”

    I have to wonder what types of road infrastructure projects these people are thinking of when they express that idea with words like “…anything significant…”, and “…a complete project…”. If asked about that, I wonder what answers they may provide. Out in Washington County, traffic gets worse, and the standard response seems to that seems to be more conversion of small roads into big monster roads, as was done with 185th. If this is what they’re thinking to do more of with the money…it’s time to slow down and thing things over.

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  • Eric Leifsdad December 12, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Can we please get some bikes for at least a few of these committee members? People who only drive don’t do so well at these sort of decisions.

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    • Beeblebrox December 12, 2015 at 10:45 am

      I don’t think bikes would make good committee members, since they don’t have brains. Better to get people who ride bikes instead. 😉

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      • Eric Leifsdad December 12, 2015 at 1:00 pm

        “for” ne “as”, though it could sometimes be an improvement to replace misguided people with inanimate objects.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson December 12, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    Whether its the PBOT “Freight Committee,” the Port of Portland, or Metro’s JPACT, “Freight” is just a surrogate for roadway capacity in an era when that notion should have long become passé. Don’t the so-called freight interests get their share from the hundreds of millions ODOT spends?
    If you care about freight, ALL Metro Flex Funds…few as they are…should go to projects that expand roadway capacity by improving Transportation Options!! The obstacle to moving freight in the peak hours is too many commuters alone in their cars… because they have no real choice.
    One would think that Metro’s committee’s would have embraced this simple truth long, long, ago. But alas the “Capacity Nuts” in the cloth of “Freight” can’t get enough. And in case you are interested, Joe Cortright over at City Observatory will put you right on the question of what drives our modern economy…it ain’t moving wood chips, its designing those other ones! Its not freight, its talent!

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  • peejay December 13, 2015 at 10:41 am

    Our system is broken with guaranteed allocation of funds, and it will be broken when that allocation is removed. Unless and until elected and appointed officials understand the danger imposed by continuing our outrageous car-dominated lifestyle, we will never get more than token scraps. we are stuck with a level of incrementalism on a rate that will get us fixed and safe roads long after all the oil runs out and the planet is a hot ruin.

    I’m glad people are engaged and arguing the nuances of these policies, though…

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  • MNBikeLuv December 14, 2015 at 9:04 am

    I’ll mention this and hopefully it will make sense.

    The money issue is side discussion on the real issue here, at least from an engineering standpoint. That issue that we design almost exclusively for cars and everything else in an afterthought. If our standard cross-sections (the part that actually determines the shape of a road) was something that automatically included walking and biking as equal uses of the right-of-way, you no longer need dedicated pots. Every road, no matter where, would just include those things as a course of roadway design. As current road cross-sections are setup (by any DOT) the walking and biking infrastructure is just “glued on”. So if you want to do that bike lane or sidewalks, then you need a pot of money to glue those items on. Build those items in and need for dedicated monies go away.

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