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Blumenauer warns regional transpo leaders about lack of vision, strategy

Posted by on November 15th, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Blumenauer: Come together. Right now.
(Photo © J. Maus)

United States Congressman Earl Blumenauer spoke during a rare appearance at an influential Metro committee last week, doling out some tough love over the groups’ inability to come together around a regional vision for transportation investments. It was a rare showing of straight talk that speaks to a larger issue facing metro Portland’s elected officials and transportation leaders:

To achieve a new vision of transportation it will take big and bold projects that the entire region supports… But what projects fit that bill? And are regional leaders capable of agreeing to a single priority over pet projects in their own backyards?

Metro’s 17-member Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) is staffed by bigwigs like Portland Mayor Sam Adams, TriMet GM Neil McFarlane, and many other agency directors, Metro staffers, mayors, and commissioners from around the region. The group recently submitted five projects to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER III grant program.

In his speech to JPACT Blumenauer blasted that scattershot approach, telling the committee that it hurts their competitiveness in winning major federal funding. (TIGER funds are extremely hard fought. The US DOT announced today that they received $14.1 billion in applications for just $527 million in grant funds.)

Based on transcripts of the speech (read it all here) we obtained from Blumenauer’s office, he began by reflecting on his past, recalling that it’s been nearly 25 years since he laid out a vision for the region at a City Club event in 1987. “Now 25 years later, it is time to step back.”

Blumenauer spoke of extending light rail all the way to HIllsboro and “some trade-offs that we could have looked at a little differently.” But, he added, “it was part of trying to stretch a little bit as a region.”

“I think it was a decision that was right to stretch… which sort of begs the question, where are we now?”

Blumenauer warned that, “It is not clear what our regional transportation funding strategy is” and he cautioned committee members that things at the federal level are, “going to be much harder over the next two to three years.”

In a comment focused directly at JPACT’s TIGER III application letter, Blumenauer said it, “will have no impact on the administration other than to move us down a rung because they’re five projects and no priorities.”

Blumenauer’s main point of concern is that having five relatively small and uninspiring projects (see the list below) shows not just a lack of vision, but also that the committee is more worried about pleasing everyone around the table instead of coalescing around a regional priority similar to what Blumenauer and others did with large-scale projects like the first MAX light rail lines.

Lake McTighe, Metro’s Active Transportation Program project manager, says she agrees with Blumenauer. “For big, regional-scale active transportation projects we definitely need a regional strategy and priorities that there is agreement on.”

What’s missing, McTighe says, is a roadmap on how to get there. Fortunately she also happens to be working on Metro’s first-ever Active Transportation Plan (ATP).

“Until that happens,” McTighe says about the ATP, “it will be hard for the region to leverage local funding and resources to effectively compete for funding opportunities such as TIGER.”

Work on Metro’s Active Transportation plan is slated to begin early next year and a final rough draft is expected to be completed by March of 2013.

But that plan won’t be a panacea. Regional consensus, which might include some uncomfortable trade-offs and “stretching” as Blumenauer puts it, will be needed.

“We as a region need to be very clear about what we’re doing… we need to think about what our strategies are,” advised Blumenauer.

Read a recap of Blumenauer’s visit to JPACT from Metro News.

Below are the five projects Metro has applied for (taken from PDF of letter from JPACT to USDOT):

  • Sellwood Bridge: A request for $22.7 million from Multnomah County to complete the $268.8 million finance plan for replacement of the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon.
  • I-84/Troutdale: A request for $10.97 million from the Port of Portland to complete the $35.17 million finance plan to improve the I-84/Troutdale interchange and access to the Troutdale Reynolds Industrial Park for autos, trucks, bikes and pedestrians in Troutdale, Oregon.
  • Lawnfield Road/Sunrise: A request for $10.5 million from Clackamas County to complete the $210.5 million finance plan to improve auto, truck, bike and pedestrian access to the Clackamas Industrial District as part of the Lawnfield Road/ Sunrise Corridor Improvement.
  • Oleson Road: A request for $24.96 million from Washington County to complete the $31.2 million finance plan to realign Oleson Road in the vicinity of Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway to improve safety for autos, trucks, bikes, pedestrians and transit riders.
  • US 26/Brookwood: A request for $15 million from the City of Hillsboro to complete the $72.35 million finance plan for the US Highway 26 – Helvetia/Brookwood Parkway Interchange and Industrial Land Improvement Project.

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  • Andrew Seger November 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    I’m really curious what other people think the region should be doing in a think big sense?

    My own $.02: North/South heavy commuter rail from Vancouver to Salem and from Hillsboro to Salem. The tracks already exist and if we had the leadership it could be part of an alternative to the CRC. Tie it in with bike sharing/improvements along the way and it’s a huge win for the region at a reasonable cost.

    Or tear down I-5 and fix the screwy interchanges coming out of the west hills.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) November 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    I love your idea. I think it’s insane that not only do we not have any north/south regional rail (given size of Portland/Vanc and state capitol directly south in Salem), but last time I checked it’s not even in the planning stages!

    My idea would be similar to yours, but would be human-powered corridors. Let’s focus on a regional active transportation corridors that do for biking and walking what the light rail network has done for rail. We can start by really putting some firepower and money behind Sullivans Gulch and extending the Esplanade to St. Johns.

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    • 9watts November 16, 2011 at 10:22 am

      I’d even be for going further. But I think the hurdle we are up against hasn’t been mentioned yet.

      I think it boils down to this: in this country 97% of all opinion makers[1] drive, rely on cars for a majority of their transportation needs, and most everyone they know does as well. As such, doing without the car is to them unthinkable.

      Of course doing without the car is very thinkable, as many of us know from experience. The tragic dimension of all this is of course that history is in the process of overtaking the elites who can’t think outside the framing of transportation as being about cars, of ushering in a new era in which cars no longer make sense, have ceased to deliver on their promise(s), are not something we can collectively afford any more. The fact that this transition will be protracted both because our economy revolves around the continued dominance of the automobile and because everyone who matters is also (still) wedded to the car’s continued dominance is tragic but it has nothing to do with the *physical possibility* of transitioning much sooner, and less painfully away from cars and toward human powered transport.

      The obstacle is our imagination and our lack of humility–our willingness to admit that we overreached, that fossil fuels are, for all intents and purposes, over.

      [1] elected officials, business leaders, the wealthy, movie stars, and most everyone else too.

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  • Jim Lee November 15, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I disagree. The era of mega-projects and the federal government’s role therein is drawing to a close.

    Now we need to concentrate on small and local but broadly based initiatives that affect pedestrians and cyclists in the city and throughout the region.

    High on that list would be straightening out the mess with Portland Streetcar, Inc., and deprivileging motorists’ interference with pedestrians at traffic signals.

    Please note that federal policies and funding have amplified these problems substantially.

    Are you listening, Earl? Or are you just telling us what kind of power trip you prefer?

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  • ScottB November 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    How about a new bold move?

    Per the City: Governor Tom McCall created the Harbor Drive Task Force in 1968 in order to study proposals for creating a public open space in its place. In 1974, Harbor Drive was torn up and construction of a waterfront park began. It was completed and dedicated in 1978, gaining instant popularity. In 1984, the park was renamed Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

    Instead of replacing the Sellwood Bridge, why not re-task it to only ped and bike use? Think of the views and silence without autos on the bridge. Sellwood would get relief from the traffic. The bridge would need much less upkeep – I bet the safety rating would soar up from the current 1 to over 70. There are plenty of alternatives for auto users. The $8M a year savings could close some of the PBOT budget gap.

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    • Schrauf November 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm

      With the added benefit of sticking it to Clackamas County voters who could not even help fund the bridge a little bit, even though they are major users.

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  • Spiffy November 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    it’s good to see people saying what needs to be said that nobody wants to hear…

    but he’s absolutely right…

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  • Andrew N November 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    It doesn’t exactly help that, at a time when there seems to be a deficit of big-picture vision in Portland, many of the region’s elected leaders are rolling over in the face of the CRC — a regressive project if there ever was one.

    I love the north-south commuter rail idea; love the prioritized human-powered corridors; but what about removing or burying the East Bank I-5 as part of a regional plan for the interstate system? (@Andrew Seger: is that what you mean by “tear down I-5”?) Talk about visionary, i.e. planning for the future with fewer cars that Mark Edlen is talking about. There was a time when people thought the idea of removing the Harbor Freeway was crazy; it’s time to take back the other side of the river for the people of Portland.

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    • Andrew N November 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm

      Actually, just remove the words “or burying” from my comment.

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      • Jacob November 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm

        umm so you’re basically saying “just let the eastside (205) deal with the traffic.

        If so, NOT COOL, the east side has enough problems as it is, we (or I, as a recently removed occupant) are not your traffic corridor, we are a community and we don’t need your snobby west side screwing up everything we’ve rebuilt in the last ~30 years…

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        • Andrew N November 16, 2011 at 6:24 pm

          Nice try.

          No, I don’t have some sort of snobbish view of East PDX and I fully support transportation equity in the city. 205 has had a negative effect on the area in a similar way that 5 has in N/NE Portland, where I live, so I can relate to the feeling of “hey, we’re not just a place you drive through, there’s a bunch of people living here”.

          I am suggesting planning now for fewer cars being on the road. I would utilize as many tools as possible to both prepare for and create a more multi-modal future: institute a VMT tax asap; congestion-toll *both* Columbia interstate bridges, if legally possible; continue expanding public transit and human-powered transit options; etc, etc. As part of the process of removing the Eastbank I would designate 405 the new 5 and create a new interchange near the 84/5 intersection to provide freight access to the CEID. I’m not saying that doing all this would *not* have an effect on 205. However, I also did not imply that I think of East Portland as “my” traffic corridor or that I was thinking anything like “just let the eastside deal with the traffic” — those are words you put in my mouth. Thanks for the comment, though.

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  • Joe Rowe November 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Earl should help build consensus rather than blame others. It’s clear that other cities have a vision and leaders lacking in Portland.

    Here’s a best example cited by Ray in his blog.
    quote>>>>>a 325,000 square foot project that combines a bus transfer station with public parking, retail and commercial space, and pedestrian and bicycle connections. Plus, the center also includes 13,000 square feet of rooftop solar panels<<<<<

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  • jim November 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    I think Earl is thinking things are going to work well if we do them like they did in the 80’s. I think we should try and be responsible and do things like in 2012 fashion. We borrow money from China, give it to the banks, Banks don’t want to lend it out….. Whats wrong with doing smaller projects that benefit several different parts of the region. The list of projects were all excellent ideas worth pursuing. Perhaps we need someone better to help us get the money. Time for a new coach?

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  • Joe November 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    There seems to be a rift growing at the regional level between Washington, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties. The region should focus on a cohesive and interconnected active transportation and bus rapid transit system to bring everyone together once again.

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  • 9watts November 16, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Funds (and the big projects that need that money) are (sometimes) nice, but I think vision and a strategy for achieving it is more important.

    I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. Spending money to shore up much less expand infrastructure that serves the automobile and its relatives is worse than foolish. We’re already well past carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere that correspond to a habitable, stable, familiar planet, and pretending–as most opinion makers in this country almost still are–that this doesn’t concern us is insane. Human powered transport isn’t just for fun, for young energetic folk, to boost our image, to score points on national rankings… it is the future. Not only that but if we were willing to jump the tracks and head off in that direction, the city and region we could build would yield so many side benefits in terms of quality of life, traffic safety, physical health, livability, money staying in the local economy….. that one wonders why we haven’t already gone down this road.
    I know that the car has become our pacifier, something we think we can’t take out of our mouths, but kids grow up. We can too.

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