Mayor Adams names Tom Miller as new Director of PBOT

Tom Miller is the new Director of the Bureau of Transportation.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Big news from City Hall today…. Portland Mayor Sam Adams has named his Chief of Staff Tom Miller to be the new Director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). Miller — whose new position will start January 25th — takes over leadership of PBOT from Sue Keil, who had held the post since 2005 and who announced her retirement today. Adams’ current Deputy Chief of Staff Warren Jimenez will replace Miller.

In a statement issued just minutes ago, Mayor Adams said, “Tom is the right choice to lead the bureau to its next goals. His talent, professionalism, and commitment complement the five-plus years of oversight he’s had with PBOT in our portfolio.”

Tom Miller riding his bakfiets with his
daughter in the 2010 Gay Pride Parade
(Photo: Ryan Hashagen).

Miller’s rise in local politics came through his dogged activism for skateparks. As a young lawyer in 2001, Miller started a non-profit called Skaters for Portland Skateparks with a vision to expand the number of skateparks in Portland. His activism was amazingly successful, as documented by this 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal that refers to Portland as “Skateboarding Capitol of the World.”

With a high profile in City Hall from his skatepark successes, Miller, 38, landed a job on Adams’ campaign for City Commissioner in 2004 and has worked for him ever since. For the past six years, Adams has been in charge of PBOT and Miller has served in an advisory role on transportation policy matters.

Keil was named Director of PBOT in 2005 and has over 20 years of experience at the city. She never built much of a public profile around transportation, but she was known as a very capable manager. Back in November, The Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin described Keil as, “…a skirt and business-suit type with a no-nonsense approach that’s kept her in city management for 20 years.”

Outgoing PBOT Director Sue Keil.

Unlike Miller, who’s attended the National Bike Summit and can be regularly seen pedaling around town, Keil had a somewhat awkward relationship to bicycling.

When it came to Keil’s vision for bicycling in Portland, she was notable for not having one. Instead of finding innovative ways to balance our transportation system more equitably, she felt there simply wasn’t enough funding for bikeway system development because people were driving and parking less — both of which meant decreased revenue for PBOT. Keil also made it clear during her tenure that re-paving of major arterials was the number one priority, even if it meant not funding Safe Routes to School projects.

In early 2009, Keil and the Mayor’s Office had a bit of a showdown about funding of biking and walking projects in the PBOT budget. In May 2010, while speaking at the Transportation Safety Summit, Keil referred to the crowd as “transportation groupies” and offered a rather gloomy outlook on reaching a 25 percent bike mode split while lamenting the loss of revenue from a decrease of 100,000 motor vehicle registrations in Multnomah County.

Today, Mayor Adams gave Keil credit for keeping PBOT moving forward despite years of budget cuts. “With Sue at the helm, PBOT has accomplished great things despite significant financial constraints,” remarked Adams, “She’s substantially improved day-to-day management and will retire having left the bureau in excellent shape.”

Tom Miller at Bridge Pedal 2006

Miller’s perspective on bicycling and transportation is much, much different. The big news here for BikePortland readers is that he’s an unabashed supporter and advocate for bicycling.

Prior to working for Adams, Miller served on the Board of Directors for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). As I detailed in 2008 when Miller was formally introduced as Adams’ Chief of Staff, he has a long public record of pro-bicycling comments.

During his tenure at City Hall, Miller has taken several trips to Europe and is well-versed in how bicycling can be integrated in the urban environment. He has spoken on behalf of bicycling and has even pointed out that Portland isn’t investing enough in them. In 2007, he told a select group of local business people that Portland needs to invest more in bicycling and that it’s, “not just the right thing to do, it’s the thing to do.”

Also in 2007, in response to an increase in bicycling despite a lack of new bike infrastructure, Miller told The Oregonian that, “Our infrastructure investments have not kept pace with the growth in ridership. We’re actually behind.”

One unanswered question is whether or not Mayor Adams will use this opportunity to give the transportation bureau to one of his colleagues on City Council. Adams has taken on the police bureau in the past year and he has not been as engaged with transportation issues of late, choosing instead to focus on police matters, economic development, and other projects. Now, with his former right hand man at the helm a bureau he oversees — and what are sure to be criticisms of cronyism from the local media — perhaps now is the time for another commissioner (Nick Fish or Dan Saltzman come to mind) to take over PBOT.

Also, Miller could face a hurdle in 2012 if Mayor Adams loses his re-election bid. A new Mayor (or whoever else becomes in charge of the transportation bureau), might want someone else in the Director position.

Even with his obvious support and understanding of urban bicycling, I wouldn’t expect much to change at PBOT in the short-term. The Director position will be a major change for Miller, who goes from overseeing the Mayor’s office and advising Adams on strategy, to managing a large bureau with 700 employees and a budget of $275 million. It will likely take quite a bit of time for Miller to get comfortable in the new role and he’d be wise to earn the respect of his new colleagues before pushing a new and bold agenda.

But once he feels comfortable in the Portland Building, things could get very interesting…

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