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Editorial: Amid historic cuts, thoughts on “fundamental restructuring” of PBOT

Posted by on November 3rd, 2011 at 12:12 pm

bike traffic in Portland-2-2.jpg

Severe cuts will force us
to make bold decisions on how
we prioritize funding.
(Photos © J. Maus)

The Portland Bureau of Transportation made an historic announcement on Monday. In order to balance their budget, the agency needs to make $16 million in ongoing cuts. Not one-time cuts to patch a lean year, but ongoing and permanent into the foreseeable future.

This is a very big deal that is likely to fundamentally change how PBOT does business (read that sentence again). It’s also an opportunity to consider a complete restructuring of how the bureau goes about its business, where funding should be cut, and what expenditures should be prioritized.

For context on how large this cut is, $16 million is the total of all the cuts PBOT has made over the last decade. PBOT has been cutting budgets and staff (83 positions to be exact) since 2002; but according to one source who works at the bureau, these pending cuts are “an order of magnitude” greater than anything they’ve seen before.

“Filling these budget gaps will require that cuts be permanent and ongoing… that will fundamentally restructure the organization.”
— from a PBOT statement issued Monday

It’s also important to understand that the $16 million in cuts will come from just $100 million of PBOT’s budget; that’s the portion of their overall $280 million budget that is “discretionary” and doesn’t come from federal/state grants) — that’s a 16% cut, which is two times the size of the worst-case scenario Mayor Sam Adams recently told all bureaus to prep for.

How’d PBOT get in this dire position?

The Oregonian reports that it’s partly PBOT’s own fault due to financial mismanagement. However, PBOT says they’ve fallen victim to lower than expected state gas tax revenues, fewer cars being registered in Multnomah County, and ongoing obligations they made when revenue projections were rosier (like funding the Sellwood Bridge, Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail, Eastside Streetcar, sidewalks, neighborhood greenways and so on).

So what now?

If ever there was a time when PBOT and City Hall (Mayor Sam Adams oversees PBOT) needed to hear from the community about transportation priorities, now is the time.

It was no accident that PBOT included an email address — pbotbudget(at)portlandoregon(dot)gov — in their official statement yesterday to solicit citizen comments.

PBOT and its director, Tom Miller, will face intense media scrutiny and special interest lobbying in the days, weeks and months ahead. Without a loud voice from the community, PBOT and City Hall will likely fold to whatever narrative the media sets and whoever has the most powerful lobbyists and deepest pockets.

New bike lanes on N Rosa Parks Way-25

As a recent road diet/bikeway
project on Rosa Parks showed,
we can get much more out
of our roads for relatively low cost
by re-allocating space to bikes.

One thing you can count on is that there will be attempts to characterize bike-related spending as being frivolous and unnecessary and groups like the Portland Business Alliance, the Oregon Trucking Associations, the Cascade Policy Institute, and others will make their priorities loud and clear.

This is not a moment for business as usual and band-aid fixes that simply kick the can down the road. Now is the time to not just stop the bleeding but to fully heal the patient and make them healthier than ever. Our system that relies on inadequate gas taxes to fund a transportation network that favors the most expensive modes is broken. We all know that.

We also know the type of city we want to live in; we’ve set ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for increasing non-auto trips; but are we ready to make the tough decisions required to make it a reality?

PBOT themselves say the cuts will, “fundamentally restructure the organization.”

Will PBOT’s priorities mimic or
ignore their stated goals?
(Image: Green Transportation Hierarchy,
Portland Bike Plan for 2030)

The big question is what will that organization look like on the other side? What expenditures will survive with the fewest cuts? (And yes, I’m assuming no PBOT program will be left completely unscathed). Will PBOT end up truly transformed into the transportation agency of the future, focusing on moving as many people in the most efficient, safe, and cost-effective ways possible? Or will they simply end up as a smaller version of what they are now — an agency bursting with ideas, potential and employee activism for healthier streets, but that remains shackled to the old status-quo?

The bad news is that 16% of PBOT’s discretionary budget must be axed. But the good news is that facing such a dire situation, the agency is likely to put everything — and every idea — on the table. This could mean shifting expenditures away from an existing priority on “modernization” and repaving of major arterials and putting more money into bikeways and neighborhood traffic calming; this could mean finding new revenue streams like higher parking citation fees or a general “street fee” as proposed by Mayor Adams a few years ago; it could mean major organizational restructuring of the bureau itself — or perhaps all of the above.

This isn’t about protecting the little pots of money for bike programs and projects; this about a fundamental — and much-needed — reform of PBOT.

The more PBOT and City Hall hear about transportation reform from the public, the more they’ll be able to speak publicly about new ideas (ideas that will seem radical to many people). I’d love to live in a world where bureaucrats and politicians just did the right thing simply because it was the right thing; but the reality is our leaders will only take bold action when they feel the public has their back.

That’s where you and I come in.

“This would be fantastic time to see how the Vision Zero concept of reducing crashes and fatalities will guide and inform budget decisions the bureau has to make.”
— Gerik Kransky, BTA

PBOT has already given us an email to share our feedback: pbotbudget(at)portlandoregon(dot)gov. I strongly urge everyone to use it and share your opinions about PBOT’s future and their current need for cutbacks.

For their part, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) has a man on the inside, Gerik Kransky, who sits on the City’s Budget Advisory Committee. This morning Kransky told me he will urge PBOT to make sure any cuts do not hit bicycling and walking disproportionately to other modes. He also said he’ll make sure PBOT lives up to its stated mode split goals and he’ll also urge them to make a commitment to safety.

“This would be fantastic time to see how the Vision Zero concept of reducing crashes and fatalities will guide and inform budget decisions the bureau has to make.”

With limited dollars, Kransky feels saving lives should take priority over road repaving and operational capacity improvements for freight. “If the bureau was committed to safety, they’d do things like invest in photo radar enforcement on ‘high crash corridors’ and traffic calming.”

Like PBOT, Kransky is also urging BTA members and non-members to email him at gerik(at)btaoregon(dot)org with ideas about how PBOT should approach these cuts. He’ll then take those ideas and share them with the City’s official Budget Advisory Committee.

Stay tuned. In addition to emailing PBOT and the BTA, there will be other opportunities to make your voice heard.

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  • 9watts November 3, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    “we’ve set ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for increasing non-auto trips; but are we ready to make the tough decisions required to make it a reality?”

    What I’d like to see is Miller or Adams, or Council standing up and saying ‘cars have no future. look, right here in our own report from the Portland Peak Oil Task Force, and over here from the Oregon Global Warming Commission’s reports. The 20th Century is over. We need to focus on transport solutions and infrastructure that will be useful to us ten, twenty, thirty years into the future. And infrastructure that only serves modes of transport that burn fossil fuels isn’t going to cut it.

    And paranthetically, it is unfortunately probably necessary to say that this view is not about scoring points for or against one mode, about the fact that Council or PBOT ‘likes’ bikes or doesn’t like trucks, but it is what it is because we overdid it with the fossil fuels and now we’re going to have a course correction.

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  • 9watts November 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Links and a few quotes in case anyone at PBOT doesn’t already know these reports:

    The Oregon Global Warming Commission’s Roadmap includes the following language on p. 42:
    “7. Embed Climate Change in Transportation Planning
    Embed greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation goals into least cost transportation and land use planning conducted by state, regional and local governments.”
    see more here: http://tinyurl.com/3s76voe

    The Peak Oil Task Force Report, http://tinyurl.com/3ohs8gh commissioned by our own City Council almost five years ago now, is considerably more blunt and specific: Under the heading
    Impacts on Transportation and Land Use (T)
    the authors note:

    “T1. Automobile use will decline and people will seek alternative transportation for their needs.
    Rising prices for gasoline and its alternatives will force consumers to choices other than
    conventional single-occupancy automobile travel. Increases are expected in the use of gasoline electric hybrids and other efficient vehicles, car pooling, combined multiple trips into one, and park-and-rides. Car trips will be fewer and shorter, and car sharing will become more common. While biofuels offer a partial replacement of petroleum-based liquid fuels, their scale is limited by agricultural capacity and the need to maintain food production.
    Rising fuel prices will increase the demand for added capacity in non-auto modes. Use of public transit, bicycling, and walking will increase over time as fuel prices continue to rise. Likewise, demand for compressed work weeks and teleworking will increase. The cost of providing alternative transportation infrastructure and equipment, such as light rail, buses and bike paths, will rise as oil and natural gas prices rise. The longer action is delayed, the more expensive it will be. In addition, the operating costs of transit systems will rise.”

    I’ll just include the remaining subheadings:
    T2. People and businesses will relocate to be closer to each other and to transportation options; population will likely shift to city centers, and density and mixed-use development will increase.
    T3. Transportation of freight will become more costly, likely leading to mode shifts from air and truck to rail and boat.
    T4. Air travel may decline significantly.
    T5. Maintenance of road infrastructure will be increasingly difficult because of loss of revenue and reliance on asphalt.

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  • Case November 3, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    I’ll send it to PBOT too, but how about a Portland studded tire ban? Just in time for the stupid things to come out all winter for that one time someone drives to Timberline Lodge.

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  • carie November 3, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    I am going to send a note NOW!!, waiting to testify and having the alloted time to speak cut down to three sentences because they don’t really want to hear it will not happen to me again. (CRC hearing a few months ago was a very disappointing experience). One could copy and paste as easily as sharing thinking outside the box- let them read it sooner than later!

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  • ambrown November 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks for an incredibly well timed and important article, Jonathan. While these changes are set to occur in the next year, I think its imperative that Brady, Smith, Hales and anyone else running for Mayor of the City of Portland are asked to comment on where their own priorities lie, and where they would like to see the $16 million cuts take place. In addition, I think this article demands a call for actions for our state representatives as well; it’s critical that we develop state-wide funding streams for active/alternative transportation that don’t run dry as soon as these initiatives begin to work and people stop driving automobiles.

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  • Jim Lee November 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Very well reported, Jonathan.

    For an “order of magnitude” perspective, the eastside streetcar is costing–so far–about $150 million, ten times the amount PBOT is being asked to cut. Its funding is from several sources, but ultimately a transportation dollar is a transportation dollar.

    If the eastside streetcar were to be left uncompleted, Portland Streetcar, Inc., would have the distinction of having wasted more money on it than ODOT has wasted to date on CRC!

    Should I run for mayor again, Jonathan?

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  • BURR November 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Expand metered parking to business districts outside the downtown area, problem solved.

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    • El Biciclero November 8, 2011 at 6:12 pm

      There you go–start charging more for auto storage, not just for their operation. Alternatively (or in addition), ban street parking. There is nearly a 50% increase in capacity to be had on some streets except that they are blocked by parked cars. Move commercial parking to lots or garages only. I would almost dare to expand this notion to residential streets as well (with some kind of exception for neighborhoods where homes were built without driveways). Just a pet peeve of mine.

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  • Indy November 3, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    May sound strange, but much of our local and national monetary issues have a very easy solution: reduce the population.

    A national effort to reduce the birth rate will lessen the financial impact on every single service I can think of. It is an action all humans can willingly partake in, it does not mean killing off our species or stop having babies, but it WILL have direct financial efficiencies.

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    • Allan Folz November 3, 2011 at 1:24 pm

      Point of fact: Native US birth rate is already below replacement. All our population growth is due to immigration. Deporting those here illegally would reduce the population immediately. A moratorium on legal immigration would further reduce population over time. We can cross the reduce birth rate bridge once the much larger immigration problem has been addressed.

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      • Esther November 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm

        Really, guys? An aging population 30 years down the line and/or deporting immigrants won’t solve the 2012-onward PBOT budget problems.
        And allan, if you ever want to discuss immigration & fertility with me in person, I’d love to, but it’s off topic here. I just have to point out that 2nd generation fertility rates decrease sharply (cf. my family= mom, first generation, had 4; my generation has average of 2.0 which is slightly below US national average of 2.1)

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        • Allan Folz November 3, 2011 at 8:27 pm

          I’m not making an argument, I’m clarifying the facts related to Indy’s assertions. I agree they have no bearing on the topic at hand, but that doesn’t mean baseless innuendo gets a free-pass to go around unchallenged.

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  • Lance P. November 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    I just sent the following letter to PBOT

    Dear PBOT,
    I am a citizen of Portland residing in the Buckman district. I want to make it crystal clear that I support your position of prioritizing both bike and predestrians as displayed within your green transportation hierarchy .

    Over the years my family has completely changed how we move around. We could drive but we have chosen to bike to both work and play. One of the main reasons for this is because of the bike facilities that PBOT has installed. Without that these bike infrastructure investments none of this would be true. By biking to work and play we are helping both the city and ourselves to save money. Paint is a lot less expensive than repaving a street.

    I think this is a great opportunity for PBOT to completely change how you look at your role . At times like these we need to be wise about how we spend our funds. There is no better and cost effect form of transportation then a bike. As our bike facilities expand and improve, more people will ride to work and play. This means less congestion that freight will have to compete with, less wear and tear on our roads, our roads will be more safe, as well as allow PBOT to operate with a smaller budget.

    Cutting funding for either Bike or Pedestrian facilities will result higher congestion, a more hostile environment, more deaths, and would go against the wishes of the citizens of Portland.

    Please do not bow to the 1%. We watch, we listen, we speak, and we always vote.


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  • are November 3, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    where can we find a clear statement what items are within the discretionary portion of the budget, and what items are within the mandatory portion

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  • Will Radik November 3, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    They could start by cancelling the reflective armband plan. Probably save a few bucks there.

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    • Randall S. November 3, 2011 at 2:52 pm

      That’s just silly. I can’t be bothered to look for things like pedestrians while I’m speeding through neighborhoods. If they aren’t wearing full body reflective clothing, I won’t see them when I glance up from my cell phone. Pedestrians need to accept 100% responsibility for motor-vehicle caused car fatalities. In addition to wearing arm-bands, we also need to mandate reflective codpieces, neck bells and NASCAR style helmets.

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    • are November 3, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      i thought that was an ODoT project

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  • Tim Davis November 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    If PBOT wants to save money, they need to spend MORE on cycling infrastructure, because every $1 spent on cycling equates to at least $10 saved on road building & maintenance costs–not to mention vastly decreased health care costs, increased quality of life, and many other benefits.

    Improving our cycling infrastructure is probably the greatest civic investment we can make (and we’re falling increasingly behind other cities that are now recognizing the value of integrated bike transit corridors). It’s shocking that PBOT doesn’t realize this, especially given their Green Transportation Hierarchy. It makes me wonder if they’re serious about bike/ped mobility.

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    • Lance P. November 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm

      shouldn’t you have sent this to pbot’s email? 🙂

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  • Alex Reed November 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks for the call to action, Jonathan. I sent an email to pbotbudget (at) portlandoregon (dot) gov including the following analogy.

    “If single-wage-earner Mom loses her job, causing financial hardship for the family, they cut many expenses, but increase others. For example, she might drive less, or even sell her car. If so, she might take some of the (substantial) savings and buy better walking shoes and foul-weather gear for herself, her husband, and her brood. They would end up saving lots of money overall, even spending somewhat more on walking shoes and clothing. They would find the added walking hard at first, but might come to like it even more than their previously auto-dependent lifestyle!

    Similarly, the City (and citizens) of Portland would end up saving lots of money overall while increasing quality of life with sizeable cuts to motor vehicle infrastructure and increases to walking and biking infrastructure.”

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  • Tim Davis November 3, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Agreed, Lance! And I will do that, as well! 🙂

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  • Tim Davis November 3, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Thanks, Lance, Alex, Jonathan and others for reminding us to stay active and keep the pressure on PBOT.

    Although I read your wonderful blog every day, I don’t post comments very often. After all, we are, generally speaking, “the choir.” I do, however, write at least 300 e-mails per year (yup, averaging about one a day) to our elected officials. They need to hear our consolidated voice now–more than ever!

    Drafting yet another letter to PBOT, Metro and others right after these messages. 🙂

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson November 3, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    On the “Freight/Jobs” front, I hope Tom Miller takes seriously the fact (which he knows) that the obstacle to moving freight is too many people alone in their cars. PBOT should turn the staffing of the Portland Freight Committee over to its members…who have plenty of dough; that’s two FTEs right there! And make the PBOT Options Division (Sunday Parkways, Smart Trips, bike maps, etc.) the central pillar of the new PBOT…”helping the citizens of Portland get around without their cars!”

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  • Matt November 3, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I emailed them this link:


    heck it out.

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  • Spencer Boomhower November 3, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    There’s 4,700 miles of paved roads in Portland:


    How do the miles of bike infrastructure in town compare? Probably not enough to warrant the claims that bikes are getting special treatment.

    Bike infrastructure has a way to go before it achieves parity.

    And that “frivolous” claim is as silly as it is predictable. Transportation is transportation, and as it happens, people who can meet their transportation needs by walking or biking require far far less of city resources. (Resources they’ve paid into via all sorts of taxes; not just gas taxes.) I’ve heard Sam Adams call bike transportation a “cheap date”; I think that’s what he means by that.

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  • 9watts November 3, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Oh, and in case PBOT’s forgotten, in the 2000 census 18.5% of households in Multnomah Co. did not own a car. Your invisible carfree constituents. Someone probably knows what the 2010 statistics look like.

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  • Tim Davis November 3, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Thanks so much, Lance, Lenny, Matt, Spencer, 9watts, Alex, ambrown, and others for the great comments and helpful statistics that support our position! And thanks, as always, Jonathan, for bringing this disturbing news to us all in the professional way that you always do.

    I’m adding these stats (being a mathematician) and more to a long note to Tom Miller and a few others. Let’s gang up (in a friendly, positive, professional, educated-with-numbers-etc way) on the powers that be with a big letter-writing, calling and meeting-attending campaign to do the right thing and invest heavily in bike/ped infrastructure!

    This can only benefit everyone: less auto congestion, better freight mobility, increased social interaction, $billions saved on road maintenance, better health, increased quality of life, less stress, more creativity (my best ideas almost always come to me while out walking or biking with no cars beside or flying by me), more eco-tourism, etc.

    I agree that PBOT needs a “fundamental restructuring”: a really bold up-front investment that pays back at least 10-fold and results in a bike mode split of at least 20-25% in Portland and 5% (hopefully higher) in the suburbs.

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson November 3, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    I keep thinking the money not sent to Iran & Saudi Arabia for motorized fuel is what powers the thriving “human fuel” industries in our neck of the woods…coffee, beer and good food. Jane Jacobs “import replacement” come to life.

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  • Steve Brown November 4, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Great article. The budget review seems like it might just be the right catalyst to really discuss transportation. It is one of those items that cuts across all political lines and effects us all. Instead of thinking about cuts, we have to think about how much much we do have, what we can do with that money and then if we need new or more appropriate resources to get us where we need to be. What we have going for us is some good models and real data about how to get around without being car centric. Transportation is not about cars, it is about how we choose to live. My car is convenient, but I hate driving in the metro area. I like riding my bike but it is not always appropriate. Mass transit kind of works, but it is not the Paris Metro. This could be a real opportunity in disguise.

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  • beth h November 8, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    I will email, of course, and I will stay informed and all that. That said, I fear this is another opportunity that will be missed by elected officials and administrators who do not have the political will to think beyond that 20th century.

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