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Updated — Council candidate Cornett opposes Green Streets funding plan

Posted by on April 14th, 2010 at 3:02 pm

“An avid cyclist, Jesse knows it’s wrong to take $20 million from sewer ratepayers already suffering from 95% increases this decade to pay for bike improvements.”
— From Cornett’s voter pamphlet statement

City Council candidate Jesse Cornett is in a race to unseat Commissioner Dan Saltzman. Not surprisingly, Mayor Sam Adams’ plan to divert $15 million in the Bureau of Environmental Services budget for construction of bike-friendly Green Streets is becoming a political football in that race.

It’s a challenging issue for Cornett. A regular bike rider himself, he’d like to be seen as the bike-friendly candidate. But, he is also is not immune from the tremendous amount of negative publicity Adams’ plan has gotten. Adams’ BES/PBOT/Green Streets plan has been widely criticized as a backroom deal that swapped “sewer money” for “bike lanes.” Portland Mercury news editor Matt Davis even called out the plan in a speech at City Club recently titled, “Blood in the Bike Lanes.”

Now, despite his support for biking, Cornett has decided to join critics of the idea and he’s gone public with his opposition. As pointed out in an article in this week’s Willamette Week newspaper, Cornett’s voter’s pamphlet statement, under the heading of, “Spend Taxpayer Money Wisely,” says:

“An avid cyclist, Jesse knows it’s wrong to take $20 million from sewer ratepayers already suffering from 95% increases this decade to pay for bike improvements.”

And Cornett told the Willamette Week that, “Transportation projects should be paid for with transportation money.”

City Council candidate Jesse Cornett -2

Jesse Cornett on a bike ride
back in January.
(Photo © J. Maus)

When I interviewed Cornett back in January, he said the City of Portland can reach its bike ridership goals, but that, “What I’d like to see is it funded.” He added, “… unless we’re actually putting our money where our mouth is and focusing on some basic infrastructure projects, we’re not going to get there.”

Cornett told me he favors tolls on bridges and higher parking fees as a way to raise that money. Ex-PBOT spokesperson Mary Volm has also criticized Adams’ idea. Incumbent Dan Saltzman voted in favor of the funding when it came before City Council.

BES has partnered with PBOT for years on green street projects. They’ve worked together to build curb extensions with bioswales because they feel the features have many benefits for our city — including affordability.

At the Bike Advisory Committee meeting last night, Adams’ transportation policy director Catherine Ciarlo explained how they feel the partnership is a “four-fer” of benefits: They treat stormwater runoff (so it doesn’t overflow our sewers, cause river pollution, flooding, and so on); they mean less spending on pipe projects down the road; they have a positive impact on traffic safety, and they encourage more people to walk and bike (which means fewer car trips).

Mayor Adams also contends that this money — which comes from an estimated $40 million in contract savings on BES projects — is specifically allotted for capital projects which means it cannot be used to pay for other city services. Adams and his staffers have admitted they lost the PR battle on this idea, but they remain resolute in their perception that putting more money into the Green Streets program and directing it specifically at neighborhood greenway projects, is a win-win-win-win for Portland.

Cornett disagrees. We’ll have to wait and see what Portland voters think.

Read more about how Adams’ bike funding plan is playing out in the race for City Council in the Willamette Week.

UPDATE: Cornett has just published a statement about this issue and bike funding in general. Read it here.

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

  • Matt Davis April 14, 2010 at 3:06 pm
  • Andrew April 14, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    This is a very important issue. The social, economic, and political implications cannot be understated for residents of PDX.

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  • Babygorilla April 14, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    “They’ve worked together to build curb extensions with bioswales because they feel the features have many benefits for our city — including affordability.” Affordability for what, and how? Is there any concrete evidence of this or is it just another feelgood assertion / projection?

    Also, that $40 million in “savings” is about to be reduced by $8.6 million. Wonder how much more of the remainder of the “savings” will similarly disappear? Are there a ton of small projects that are factored into the “savings” with the loss of this $8.6 million just an abberation for one gigantic project?


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  • Lance P. April 14, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    It seems like the Oregonian website must be down lately. Why so many negative comments?

    Bla bla bla. Hear me yell!!

    Anybody that actually looks into it will see that not $1 is spend on anything but water treatment bioswells. It just happens that the transportation department was also looking into creating paved curb extensions. The city is simply putting them on the same streets to save money and make smart decisions. The reason that there was savings in the first place is because contractors for city projects are coming in lower than expected due to the economy.

    With this in mind wouldn’t it make since to go ahead and use the savings to build more projects that also will come in lower due to the economy? If we wait until things get better the price of these projects is just going to go up as the economy gets better.

    How about we all step back and think before we copy and paste articles from Rush like articles.

    Ok, continue with the ranting..

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  • Aaronf April 14, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I was going to post something really cynical, but then I read the comment from Lance P.

    I confess, you’ve got me pegged!

    …and you’re right, it really deos make since. 🙂

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  • Babygorilla April 14, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Well, those $1s are being diverted from other projects and the head of the department in charge of sewers seems to have a problem with it, so I think its a legitimate inquiry that seemed absent from the article Jonathan wrote, especially since he quotes the $40 million figure which is on the verge of being reduced by 25%.

    What happens to the funding mechanism when other project “savings” are eliminated or reduced through change orders / cost overruns? Does it bother anyone that savings are not actual realized savings, but instead are being calculated on estimates and bids and are not actual savings until the project is complete? What are the chances that other project savings will similarly disappear? Shouldn’t this be part of the discussion?

    And for context, I like low traffic streets like Ankeny, but I also don’t mind mixing it up with traffic and don’t have a problem taking a lane when needed and think a lot of on road bike infrastructure is unnecessary or at least put in place where there aren’t really any problems from my observations (downtown Stark street bike lane, for example). So, when the city, state, country is in a horrible financial crisis (and I get to see the impacts on real people in my job in the legal / bankruptcy world), I tend to be cautious in how my city spends its money.

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  • Steve B. April 14, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    I’m really, really confused by all of this.

    The way I read this issue, it sounds like city council is saying they’ll spend $20 million of sewer money on more sewer treatments, but we’ll call it a victory for bike boulevards because they sort of go together.

    I don’t believe this is a bucket of cash you can just cut a blank check for mental health services with. I think it has to be related to storm-water treatment or other sewer stuff.

    I’m troubled by the misinformation about this. The only city money that’s newly allocated for bikeways is the Affordable Transportation fund, which went up to a whopping $1 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The investment in active transportation infrastructure remains inequitable to utilization.

    There is undoubtedly need for proper funding of many services that are woefully underfunded: schools, affordable housing, mental health services, drug treatment, animal control, neighborhood inspections.. pretty much everything is in need of improved funding.

    Instead of freaking out about affordable transportation projects stealing money away from mental health services, which they’re not, we should focus on budget streams that actually come close to that sort of funding, like policing and healthcare. Actually, active transportation infrastructure pays us back in the healthcare department, that will actually free up more money to divert to mental health services.

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  • Steve B. April 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Here’s the best analysis I’ve seen so far on the issue, from Amanda Fritz:

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  • Ted Buehler April 14, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    I just sent in another $124 sewer bill for Jan 1 – March 31. That’s $596/yr

    I think it’s a great investment for our sewer system to spend $2M/yr on bike infrastructure.

    * Fewer cars = less parking = less runoff
    * Fewer cars = less motor oil leaks = cleaner runoff
    * Fewer cars = less road dust (ground up tires, ground up road) = cleaner runoff
    * Fewer cars = less need for roadside parking = more places to put groundwater recharge swales

    I don’t know what the sewer budge it, but I’m thinking if it’s $600/yr/household, and there’s 250,000 households in Portland, that’s $150M/yr. Taking $2M of that might seem extravagant, but if you’re shifting the system away from acres and acres of car parking, your savings are multiplied across several aspects of stormwater management.

    Plus, government is and budgeting is always kind of approximate anyway. I mean, if you want fair, why isn’t the PBOT footing the bill for the Big Dig? If we didn’t have all the roads, we wouldn’t have the stormwater runoff problem.

    Ted Buehler

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  • drs April 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    anyone who thinks we can get to 25% mode split without being willing to take the political heat for non-traditional funding sources is blowing smoke

    portland annually pays for millions and millions of dollars of sewer improvement as part of transportation projects with transportation revenues

    it is about time the City got serious about really using green street investments to meet traffic safety objectives – thanks catherine

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  • Bjorn April 14, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Adams did misplay it by not stating that the money was for bioswales, most of the funding has nothing to do with bikes and is directed at complete streets. I am glad to see that PBOT, (stupid nonsense seriously PDOT for gods sake), is finally moving to referring to the livable streets as something besides bicycle boulevards…

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  • Greg April 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    @8 Wow. Thanks for the link. That is a really comprehensive look at the questions. It would be pretty funny that making tax payer money do double duty (decreasing runoff *and* increasing traffic safety) is so controversial if it weren’t so sad.

    Fritz’s analysis makes it pretty clear that the opposition is not legit – they’re either pandering or simply against anything that helps cycling. You can come to your own conclusions as to which category each of the opponents falls into 🙂

    If you don’t believe me take a look at the portlandonline link in #8 and read it yourself:


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  • cyclist April 14, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    As I said in the last article about Cornett, he is *not* a pro-bike candidate. The only mention of bikes in his voter’s pamphlet statement (linked above) is:

    An avid cyclist, Jesse knows it’s wrong to take $20 million from sewer ratepayers already suffering from 95% increases this decade to pay for bike improvements.

    Maybe he disagrees with the funding mechanism, but he doesn’t propose any bike improvements at all in his statement. He’s happy to talk to Jonathan about bike projects, but the key is to see what he has to say in other outlets. Until you see him propose bridge tolls and parking fee increases in a another public forum (Oregonian, WWeek, Mercury, his website) you can be sure that after his election he’ll suddenly lose interest in finding money for bike infrastructure.


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  • Robert April 14, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Cornett sux.

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  • rtkr April 15, 2010 at 12:05 am

    Campaign season hurts my head. The cat-and-mouse back n forth between the press and the candidates is dumb and dumber.

    The irony is that Saltzman started all this by trying to cozy up to the bike vote when he mysteriously dropped that ill-fated bike funding amendment on his council colleagues when the Bike Plan was coming through city council.

    To think that all of this lingering rotten air stems from that inept Saltzman brainfart is pretty amazing. Politics can be a REALLY stupid business sometimes.

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  • Jasun Wurster April 15, 2010 at 8:33 am

    This issue was discussed extensively by the candidates during a WWeek endorsement interview.

    Mary Volm makes very fact based argument about how the public is being mislead (or misinformed) about green streets. (For me I am very suspicious of the word “green” used for marketing).

    You can also learn more about the candidates from the League of Women Voters forum on Tuesday.

    Matt Davis provided excellent coverage in this Blogtown post

    Replays will show on CityNet30 on:

    April 16, Friday, noon
    April 19, Monday, 10:00 pm
    April 20, Tuesday, 2:00 pm

    I do caution those about choosing this election on a single issue ( i.e. cycling ) and focus more on experience and leadership. Most of all vote for City Council in this election.

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  • k. April 15, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I’m all for bike facilities and improvements to them but Adam’s funding mechanism for this is at best a shell game and/or gaming the system. There’s got to be a better, more direct and transparent way to fund bike facilities. The political cost of this plan is too high.

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  • dennis bley April 15, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Jonathn, please consider putting the Amanda Fritz link directly in the next article on the bioswales/storm runoff/bike lanes being built instead of educating my children or hiring enough police brouhaha.

    As always, great work.

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  • Bent Bloke April 15, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Steve B @9:

    Thanks for that link to Amanda Fritz’ blog. She makes it clear that all of the BES funds tagged by Mayor Adams for bike boulevards, er, Neighborhood Greenways, will be used for storm water runoff treatment. They’ll just be sited on streets flagged for traffic-calming. That’s what I thought the intention was, but the city has done a terrible job of explaining it.

    This double-bang for the buck is the type of innovative thinking we need more of. Cornett doesn’t get it. He won’t get my vote, either.

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  • matt picio April 15, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I haven’t looked at the issue lately. The questions that should be asked in my opinion are these:

    1. What is the current state of the cities storm/sewer pipes?
    2. Can this money only be used for infrastucture?
    3. If so, will Portland get more benefit from the bioswales or from replacing old pipes?
    4. What other infrastructure improvements will enhance the city’s combined storm/sewer system, and would spending on them be more effective than the two previously mentioned options?

    Once those questions are answered, allocate the money accordingly. If bikes can be helped by these projects without significant additional cost, then great – but bikes are a secondary concern. I’d rather ride on a less-safe road than have my toilet back up into my neighborhood street. The BES money has intended purposes, let’s start talking about PBOT funding allocation.

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  • Paul April 15, 2010 at 10:56 am

    The decision to move of green streets to complete streets or bike boulevards rests on these assumptions:

    1) The need and ability to manage stormwater in the right of way is on the same roadways as the ones cyclists want to use. (Soils, topography, etc.)

    2) Bioswales replacing parking spots in fact reduce auto speeds.

    These are not deal breakers – but they need to be explicitly agreed to.

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  • Lenny Anderson April 15, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    Jesse got my $5, but lost my vote with this. He can’t seem to get it that having City bureaus work together is a plus, not a minus. Storm water treatment that also calms traffic on neighborhood streets is about a close to a no-brainer as you can get if you care about a livable city. I suspect that a lot of this is just politics, anti-Sam stuff, and so on that shows that even little old “progressive” Portland has a few Tea-Bagger types.

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  • matt picio April 15, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Paul (#22) – I’m not sure how the decision to Complete Streets rests on any assumptions. First off, Complete Streets are different from Bike Boulevards / Green Streets. A “Complete Street” is one which accommodates all modes of travel – motor vehicle, pedestrian, and human powered vehicle (and where appropriate, transit). It can be as complex as a 4-lane road with separated cyclepaths and sidewalks, or simply a residential street with enough room for bikes and cars to share and sidewalks on both sides. “Complete Street” also implies that the road fits with the character of the neighborhood or adjoining properties, and that it contains some kind of art – it’s more a planning and design philosophy than a specific technique. A bike boulevard would be once potential example of a complete street.

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  • Opus the Poet April 15, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    As I understand it the sewer department will have to tear up the streets to do this, regardless, so they have to pay to put the streets back in. All that’s really happening is that instead of putting back things exactly as they were, they are putting things back the way we want them to be as cyclists. Same cost, but much better outcome.

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  • Steve B. April 15, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Now that I’ve read Jesse’s response, I’m concerned that the candidate doesn’t really have a grasp of this issue.

    The alternative here, since he touts the high sewer bills, could be to refund that money back to residents. Awesome, that would turn out to be a hardy 90 cents a year. That is not an effective management of city resources, sorry Jesse. Dang, I thought this was my guy. Dang.

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  • Red Five April 16, 2010 at 6:28 am

    Build all the bioswales you want…Portland will still have the highest sewer bills anywhere and crap flowing into the river every time it rains.

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  • another bicyclist April 16, 2010 at 7:20 am

    So, sewer rates have only gone up 90 cents in the past decade?

    No. They’ve almost doubled. And they’re being increased again this year. Folks, the financial issue is not a “90 cent refund”, it’s that sewer rates have skyrocketed and continue to do so.

    That seems to be an obvious point that even Amanda Fritz missed (perhaps intentionally). People aren’t concerned about “90 cents” on their bill–they’re fed up with the ongoing rates increases that this year will mean an over 100% increase in less than a decade. That’s projected to double again in the next decade.

    Why the focus on “90 cents”, for example, by you and City Council? Because it makes it easier to dismiss, that’s why.

    But I’m guessing that many readers here do not pay a property tax bill or a water bill every month.

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  • Paul April 16, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Matt- Agreed, but I think the city is trying to couch the argument for bike boulevards as complete streets is clear in the new nomenclature. The question then is how bioswales contribute functions that support either bike transportation or how they make a street more complete. Then there is the technical issue of whether bioswales are appropriate given hydrology, sources, etc.

    I would also add that while we have higher than average rates I would argue it is because we are closer to compliance than many of our peers. Their day will come too.

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  • Lenny Anderson April 16, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Sewer rates have gone up to pay for the Big Pipe. Today when it rains…except for a few really big storms…all combined sewer from the Westside and from the Columbia Slough drainage go to the sewer plant for treatment. In 2011, the Eastside Big Pipe will do the same for that run off.
    Portlanders should be proud to have funded this with no state or federal help, though it was court mandated. But $1.5 billion only gets you so much capacity, so diverting as much as possible into the ground, especially the heavily polluted run off from streets and parking lots, is essential. Many home owners have already disconnected their roof drains from the system. Putting storm water swales on streets that provide a thru street alternative for bicyclists gets you two things we need, maybe three…less storm water and calmer, safer streets, and for motorists in a hurry, maybe fewer bicyclists in the lane on arterials.
    The real scandal is that the operators of motor vehicles, the primary source of storm water pollution, contibute not one dime to this effort. And we are not even talking about the air pollution, with its various toxics, including benzene.

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