(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.