their transportation plan.
(Photo © J. Maus)
Metro’s update to the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) — which will guide $20 billion of investments in our regional transportation infrastructure over the next 25 years — is coming under fire from advocacy groups, Portland Mayor Sam Adams, and others.
Among Metro’s stated goals for the plan are to create an “efficient urban design”, “expand transportation choices”, “enhance safety”, and “reduce pollution”. But critics of the plan say it falls short in the key metric of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (34% of Oregon’s emissions come from transportation) and that it invests too much on highway widening and road projects. Metro Councilor and RTP point man Rex Burkholder stands behind the plan
In total, 659 projects totaling $19.4 billion dollars were submitted and have been included in the draft RTP.
The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) has come out against the plan, saying in official comments and on their blog that it is “not sufficient towards changing the overall reliance on automobiles and the associated consequences.”
The BTA also pointed out a finding from Metro’s own analysis showing that “the region would get closer to meeting greenhouse gas emission goals by not building out the RTP project list.”
The non-profit Coalition for a Livable Future (CLF) puts a sharper point on their criticisms of the plan. They issued a detailed critique (PDF here) headlined by the claim that the RTP would “increase global warming pollution by 50%”. CLF’s disappointment caught the attention of the Willamette Week newspaper, who gave Metro a “Rogue of the Week” award at the end of October.
“I can’t support the RTP in its current form.”
— Sam Adams, Mayor of Portland
Biking and environmental advocates aren’t the only ones questioning the RTP.
Portland Planning Commissioner, citizen activist, and all-around transportation thinker Chris Smith wonders if it’s “time to reboot the RTP.” And Portland Mayor Sam Adams, in a meeting last week of a Metro transportation policy advisory committee said, “I can’t support the RTP in its current form.”
So, what’s going on with Metro’s plan? Why is it attracting so much rancor from sustainable transportation advocates and others? I asked Rex Burkholder what he makes of these criticisms.
Is it time to scrap the plan and start over? Far from it says Burkholder:
“Scrapping all the work done, especially the adoption of new policies and performance targets, as is called for in the Portland Transport Article, is just silly rhetoric.”
Burkholder acknowledges that the plan isn’t perfect, but adds that the problem is with outdated modeling methods and the task of changing an entrenched transportation planning mindset — not on Metro itself.
“Do I wish we could have gone farther? Of course. But this is a dance with many partners, or to mix metaphors, a giant ship that we are turning.”
— Rex Burkholder, Metro Councilor
“We are limited by existing models that were developed to model pollutants like CO and Ozone, not CO2. They do the former well but we aren’t very happy with how the CO2 modeling performed.”
Burkholder also laments models used in the RTP don’t account for biking or walking. “We don’t actually model biking or walking yet… Without actually being able to predict future walking and cycling rates, the models show higher car use than is likely, ergo, more carbon emitted.. this is also why the numbers for future cycling and walking are disappointing. ”
As an example, Burkholder said that modeling of the traffic on SW Broadway would have showed more motor vehicle traffic with the installation of a cycle track. But, Burkholder says, “It had to be done on faith because the right models don’t exist.”
Metro is currently working with Portland State University on a new modeling tool that will be used in the next RTP update.
One of the key criticisms made by the CLF is that Washington County’s list of projects in the RTP shows they’re “trying to build their way out of congestion”. Burkholder responds by saying Metro’s plan must account for an influx of 600,000 new residents and that, “The reality is more people will require more transportation facilities.”
And those transportation facilities, according to Burkholder, must be well-connected, requiring new roads to be built.
“Because you’re building cities, you need infrastructure to provide access for all the new development that’s going on. They’re [the streets] are multi-modal and you can design them well. Think about Washington and Clackamas Counties, a big chunk of their roads are isolated. We have connectivity standards; in new areas you have to have a minimum of 16 connections per mile. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Burkholder maintains that the proposed road projects in the RTP “are community building projects” and that the idea is to create the type of dense grids present in East Portland — the same type of grids that facilitate walking and biking. And those roads, says Burkholder, come with policies and guidelines that require them to be complete streets.
“The street guidelines are in place. If you don’t believe they will have the desired result than… it takes vigilance [to make sure those guidelines are followed] but it doesn’t mean the plan is lacking.”
Burkholder also points out that the RTP only reflects projects and expenditures eligible for federal funding. One criticism from the BTA was that not enough was going into maintenance. But maintenance, says Burkholder, is locally funded.
Even while standing up for the RTP and rebuffing some criticisms, Burkholder acknowledges that it could be different. “Do I wish we could have gone farther? Of course. But this is a dance with many partners, or to mix metaphors, a giant ship that we are turning.”
When asked if people are warranted in saying the RTP should be more bold, Burkholder reponded,
“I think our policies are very bold. We’re one of the first to have an outcomes-based planning model using real performance measures, using real traffic counts, looking at environmental health. It’s not easy, that’s why it’s incremental. It is bold, but to translate into making change on the ground takes time. Things are moving in the right direction.”
Metro staff will complete this RTP update in early 2010 and open a 45-day public comment period on the document in April prior it going up for a vote by Metro Council in June.