Site icon BikePortland

An interview with mayoral candidate Charlie Hales

Charlie Hales photographed in my office a few weeks ago.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with candidates for Portland mayor. With the primary elections just about five months away, it’s time to start doing your research and learning more about the people we’ll elect to lead our city.

The first candidate up is Charlie Hales. Hales served as a Portland City Commissioner for 10 years (1992-2002). Since leaving office he has worked as Senior VP for HDR Inc., a streetcar feasibility and planning firm. I sat down with him at the BikePortland office in downtown Portland.

Do you ride around the city regularly? What’s your biking background?

“I don’t ride everyday now because I have a very weird schedule with the campaign… but when I have a more normal life — like when I serve in office (if I get to do that again) or when I showed up to my old office here in Portland for the last 10 years — I used a combination of bike and transit to get to work and to get downtown.”

[Hales noted that he lives close to the Springwater Corridor (“a project I am very proud of because I helped make happen” he pointed out) and uses that as his primary bike route. When he buses it, he takes the 19, “but it will be a lot better when the light rail comes onto Bybee,” he said. After that opening question, Hales shared an anecdote…]

“When I arrived in City Hall as City commissioner, it’s almost unbelievable now, but the 4th Avenue side of City Hall was a parking lot with reserved parking spaces for the Mayor and city commissioners. It was asphalt! The whole thing where the garden is now on either side, all asphalt. One of the things we did while I was in office was say, ‘We are not going to be talking about transit and walkability and bikes while having reserved parking spaces and a surface parking lot outside of our City Hall. This is going away!’ and we got rid of it and we installed bike racks.”

As commissioner, you were in charge of the transportation bureau (PBOT); if you had that bureau again, is there anything that you would do differently?

“I think there are some things that are not going well now that I would want to correct. I think one thing we did very well before was try to keep the whole community on board with what we were doing: that it’s about giving people choices and about a safe street system for everybody. Mia [Birk, the bicycle program coordinator at the time) and I and others were very much on that message.

“I think some of the controversies and advocacy of the last few years has unnecessarily polarized people into pro and anti-bike camps.”

The message was, you may be in that 30% who are never going to ride a bike but this is going to make the system safer for everybody. Kids are going to get to school, young people are going to get to their job, you may want to stay in the Buick but everybody wins.

I think some of the controversies and advocacy of the last few years has unnecessarily polarized people into pro and anti-bike camps. I don’t mean we’re always going to sit in a circle and sing Kum-bay-ah — in politics you are not going to please all the people all of the time — but I think it’s possible in Portland, it has been true in the past that we can keep most people on the bus if you will, that we are building this system to give everybody lots of choices and to build a livable, safe city.”

So what do you think is different that’s causing that polarization?

“In part it’s just — and I never thought I’d accuse Sam Adams of being maladroit politically — although the 2025 [sic] bike plan is a very good plan, putting a multi-hundred million price tag on a plan right now is unhelpful. It would be better to say, ‘we’re going to continue to devote a reasonable percentage of our budget to advancing this choice of modes in the city’ and not jam in people’s face, ‘We’re gonna spend $800 million on bicycles whether you like it or not!’ — that’s a little harsh. But I’m not suggesting we shine people on or hide anything, but the message needs to be; we’re building a complete street system for everyone to travel safely the way they want to travel. How many reasonable people would disagree with that as a philosophy?”

So, you see the problem as a City Hall communications flub?

“I do.”

What about the sewer money for bike lanes fiasco? Would you chalk that up to the same problem?

“I would. I think once again that is thinking that we can just proceed using whatever means we choose and not worrying about keeping the public on board. And again, I’m not a lover of process for process’s sake, lord knows, we often have too much process around here; but we have had in Portland and I believe we still have — a broad consensus that we’re going to be a green and responsible city that spends people’s money prudently.

So, if you want to spend a little of my gas tax money on striping those bike lanes so everyone knows where the bikes are going to be or putting those green boxes at the corner so nobody dies… Even if I’m a 70 year-old Buick driver, I’m going to have a hard time arguing with that.”

Hales at Sunday Parkways.

Do you think some of the blame for the pro-bike/anti-bike polarization is due to how the media covers bicycling

“Sure. The media now doesn’t do much in depth. The media is more soundbite oriented and on a thinner slice of facts than they were in the past, it’s the nature of what’s happening to the news business.”

If you were mayor, how would you “damp down the polarization” as you put it?

“Be a cheerful advocate of a great city. Lead from optimism and I think that, in times like these it’s even more important. Come on, we’re Portland! We’ve done a lot of things right! Maybe in the last few years, you’re not happy with how some of the money has been spent. Maybe you feel like the ‘bike people’ have gotten a big share and you haven’t. Come on, we’re Portland, we have a habit of doing the right thing, of listening to people, and being a model place to live. That’s still true. I believe that.

I wouldn’t want to run for office if I thought this was the dog watch of city government, if I thought this was going to be a terrible time to be on deck.

I think there are going to be challenges, but this is still Portland. The second thing is, we need to re-establish that we are going to follow the rules on how we’re going to spend people’s money. That there will not be cause for anyone to take the City of Portland to court for how their water bill is going to be spent.”

What have you heard about bicycling on the campaign trail? What’s the vibe you’re hearing out there?

“I hear two things I hear older voters particularly say, you know, the city’s just spending too much money on bike lanes. So, again that ‘s not a new observation but I’ve had it confirmed demographically on many front porches.

The thing that I’ve heard (that is pretty wonderful in my opinion) are from people in Ladd’s Addition, Irvington, or Westmoreland, who say, ‘I have pretty good bike access to the places I need to go. I have routes that work for me, go spend the city’s bike money on the parts of the city that have terrible bike access before you come back here and do anything more for me.’ I think that’s pretty altruistic and pretty impressive and I’ve heard that not from one or two people, but from dozens.”

Given what you’ve heard from voters, do you think that bicycling is a winning issue politically-speaking, today in Portland?

“I do. I think bicycling is part of a commitment to livability that most Portlanders actually believe in. Even something as seemingly volatile as this new compost system has gone over pretty well because Portlanders really do want to walk their talk, or ride their talk.

It’s not just that the ‘bike community’ as a special interest group has gotten big enough that they must be attended to, it’s that a lot of Portland citizens are riding their bikes now and many of them want to ride more and they may not be a member of the BTA but they came here, or they live the way they do because Portland has allowed their values to show up in how they move around the city.”

In a recent interview you said a mayor has to choose a short list of things to get done. If you get a chance to make that list, will bicycling play a prominent role?

“One of the things that will be on my short list is not just continuing this broad effort of expanding transportation choice in the city, which naturally does include bike projects; but I think we need — and I will look for and find — one or two iconic projects like the Springwater Corridor that are game-changers and that get people thinking about the role of bikes in a new way.

If you look at the data of how many people ride, it jumped after the Springwater opened because a whole bunch of people that wouldn’t have thought about it started riding. The same thing with Sunday Parkways. That’s a game-changer, it gets thousands of people out on their bikes with their kids, with their neighbors. Those kind of iconic projects to me are important. Not that I need to cut a ribbon in order to be a good mayor, but something like the Springwater changes people’s understanding of the city.”

In the last several years we’ve put a lot of paint on the ground but we haven’t done much in terms of the major, iconic projects you mentioned. Do you agree? Is Portland still a leading light for bicycling in America?

“I don’t know if we’ve slowed down in terms of the incremental process of building out the system. There’s been a lot of sharrows painted, a lot of bike boulevards, and a lot of cycle tracks and PBOT deserves credit for those. I do believe that it’s important to find a project that appeals to that broader majority; so, Sullivan’s Gulch or the North Portland Riverfront trail, maybe those kind of opportunities to really kick it up to another level.”

Both of those projects are in the initial planning stages and progress has been slow. If you were mayor would you work to speed them up?

“The thing a good mayor can do, and I believe I’ve demonstrated I can do this, is the planning process does what it does. It has a process, it deliberates, and then someone has to say, ‘I’ve found the partners to actually make this happen right now’.

For example, the regional planning process was supposed to start thinking about airport light rail seriously in 2009; we opened it in 2001. That’s because it had been in the regional plan, it was a dotted line on the map and Vera Katz and I and a couple of other people were able to put a partnership together that got it done. So that’s what collaborative leadership can accomplish in city government — you reach out and find the partners and say, ‘We’re going to do this one, now!'”

Is that the kind of thinking you have in mind for the Sullivan’s Gulch project?

“Yeah. It might be something the city’s planning now or it might be something new.

“Even though there are some old hands in the ODOT Rail Division that think, someday we’re going to have a train there, and even though i’m “Choo-choo Charlie” and love trains… Imagine a river-level bikeway from Portland to Astoria…”

I’ll tell you about one that I’ve been dreaming about… And I haven’t talked to anybody about this one yet and there are some people who are my friends in the rail industry who will go crazy when I talk about this; but there’s an old rail line that goes from Portland to Astoria. It’s hardly used. If you’ve ever been up and down the Columbia by boat you see it come and go along the riverbank through tunnels and trestles and it hasn’t had a train on it in years. In my opinion, even though there are some old hands in the ODOT Rail Division that think, someday we’re going to have a train there, and even though i’m “Choo-choo Charlie” and love trains… Imagine a river-level bikeway from Portland to Astoria and therefore all the way to the beach and Fort Stevens. Imagine those towns on the Columbia River that have slept since the timber industry went into its terminal decline that then could be spots on a bikeway that are perfectly located for a night’s stay. Imagine the bike tourism that would come to Portland if you could go from Portland to Astoria. Imagine Cycle Oregon having that as the first leg of their trip.

Now, a whole bunch of people have to be brought together to accomplish that. You’d need a big room just to have the meeting; but that was true of the Springwater, that was true of widening the Hawthorne Bridge bikeway… You’ve got to be able to go into that environment and say, ‘Can we do this?’

I’d love to take on that one, that trail to the coast.”

Do you see economics becoming a stronger pillar of the case for bicycling if you become mayor?

“Yes, I think so. One of the things we’ve done a good job of the last few years is documenting the personal financial consequences of relying on a car versus not. There are people who will respond to economic arguments who won’t respond to carbon footprint arguments or other more altruistic planes of thinking.”

So the work you did making the case for transit projects could be applied?

“Absolutely. every streetcar or light rail project has to do that. We have to document the economic cost-effectiveness for the FTA [Federal Transit Administration]. Roadway or even bicycle projects are not subject to anywhere near the rigor and cost analysis that transit projects are; so that’s second nature for me.”

Speaking of project costs, you’re clearly supporting moving forward with the CRC project…

“With a bridge, not the CRC as it is currently envisioned. The Oregonian misreported what I said. Ive said the same thing to everyone.”

OK, can you clarify your position?

“I support building a bridge, a new bridge, and I don’t believe that the project on the table today is the project that’s going to be built because it has become so expensive and so enormous that I think it’s going to collapse of its own weight or at least be significantly downsized long before I take office or anyone takes office as the next mayor of Portland.

My position on the bridge is, I’m not sure what we’re gong to be building, but it’s almost certainly not what the two DOT’s have spent $150 million planning. I’m pretty good at getting projects from shelf study to reality, so I’m looking forward to that renegotiation over what the project will actually be.”

So if it came to your desk for some sort of approval vote what would you do?

“The city doesn’t get to decide. It won’t come to my desk, I’m not the governor… I’m not trying to dodge the questions… I believe I will have a role in redefining the CRC project because I don’t think the current version of the project is going to happen. So I’m looking forward to that role, the project that makes sense is one that is multi-modal, that is sized appropriately to both resources and reality — and I don’t think the current project is.

I’ve said the same thing in slightly different words all the way back to June, but I’m a little frustrated that everyone from the environmental community to the Portland Business Alliance and the labor unions are trying to hold us to a yes or no litmus test on a project that I think is an imaginary question, because I don’t believe — and I don’t think Jefferson [Smith, another mayoral candidate] does either — that the current version of the project is going to be built no matter what we say, now or later.

You can’t make $3.5 billion fall out of the sky and they don’t have a dollar for construction yet.”

For many in the public though, it looks like the CRC has momentum. As someone who might become their mayor, don’t you think it’s reasonable that people would ask whether you support it?

“In my opinion, what people ought to do about this issue in trying to evaluate candidates is, don’t use a yes or no question about the current version of the CRC that a politician is answering with words. Don’t use that as a basis of evaluating how progressive we are in terms of transportation. Look at what we’ve actually done on those issues.

I’m the guy who led the city council to face down ODOT and not build the Water Avenue ramp; I’m the guy who told TriMet, no you will not build the light rail line in the 1-5 ditch, you will put it on Interstate Avenue even though the engineers didn’t like that because it goes slower; I’m the guy who told the JPACT [Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation] table we will only build a two-lane Sellwood Bridge, we will not up-size that bridge because neighborhood plans trump regional auto convenience.

So I’ve got a record on these issues. In every case, there was strong pressure from the DOT or somebody else to just do the usual and customary capacity thing. Those are three real cases where there were divided votes. So, listen to what we say a little bit about the CRC, but look at what we’ve actually done in tough decisions on transportation projects and I’ll hold my record up against anybody’s, including the people I’m running against.”

Given today’s budget realities, are you concerned at all about the high cost of light rail and streetcar projects, especially compared to the relatively low cost of bus and bike expenditures (two modes that have been proven to be successful in Portland)?

“I am. I’m concerned about our ability to sustain almost everything that we’re doing. I want us to build more transit projects, but TriMet’s ability to operate even one more rail line after Milwaukie is questionable with their current resources. I want us to build the 60 miles of unpaved streets in Portland and the sidewalks, so I think we have to do several things to respond to that economic reality.

One is we have to relentlessly go through the whole city budget and shrink overhead in order to save scarce dollars for direct services — everything from park maintenance to police officers to transportation. And yes, we need to have a General Fund capital budget [instead of relying almost solely on federal and state grants for capital projects], which the City of Portland has never had the discipline to have.

We have to finally face down the fiction that we’ll be able to pay for transportation with gas tax revenues for the rest of our lives — that is not reality. We will have to spend other money like general fund dollars on transportation and we’ll have to come up with new money, probably a regional source. So yeah, I’m very concerned.”

Do these new realities fundamentally change your view on the priority of light rail and streetcar vs other priorities?

“I don’t think they change it fundamentally. My fundamental belief is that we ought to be systematically making the city’s transportation system more rich in choices and more rich in choices citywide. That’s my fundamental belief. But the rate of progress will be slower than we’d like because resources are tight and if we want to be serious about this we have to, I think, come up with new resources for that whole agenda.”

Let’s switch gears a bit here… I know you’re aware of the safety issue of bikes crashing on streetcar tracks. Why do you think that’s happening so often in Portland?

“I think it’s happening in part because a lot more people are riding and we’ve been building more streetcar tracks and there are more places to crash… that’s a bad combination. I think there are a couple things we ought to do. One is I think we can do better in the design of future streetcar projects than we have done so far. I wish we’d really pushed to have the streetcar in the left lane of Grand and MLK instead of the right lane. And certainly the whole issue with the streetcar at 9th and Lovejoy…

I think we have been around and around on the issue of flange fillers. I think we ought to invite any manufacturer of anything that might work to come to town and take a block and do a tryout. Make it like a design competition.”

Do you think the city has a responsibility to go beyond “do no harm” and actually enhance bicycling access when they do a streetcar project?

“Yes, I think it has to be a design requirement that we will improve the bike environment when we build a transit project. The design standard we should hold ourselves to is, all modes get better.”

We face historic cuts at PBOT. Do you see this as a chance to change the status quo?

“It has to be.”

How so?

We must have a general fund capital budget that’s systematically addressing capital deficiencies in neighborhoods that need basic infrastructure. And secondly, we need discipline from the top line of the budget to the bottom.

Speaking of the top line, Mayor Adams’ office has 24 staff positions, Mayor Katz’s had 10-12. Start at the top and come all the way down. Look at overhead in admin versus direct services to citizens and prioritize direct service. That’s hard medicine and the city hasn’t taken it in a while.

Then, again, I think we’re going to have to look for new revenue in transportation — local and regional. Probably not going to be property taxes… There’s local and regional gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, mileage charges.”

Do you think a stronger focus on bicycling is a natural response to the budget crisis?

“I’m going to tell every Portlander that we’re building a multimodal tranportation system to give everybody choices, so that means that we’ll be building more bike infrastructure. But I think it’s very important to constantly put it in that context that we’re doing it for everyone and for everyone’s choices — rather than a win/lose proposition of, ‘I’m going to advance the bike agenda at the expense of repaving’, I think that’s another deadly political mine that no one should step on… Like Sam appeared to step on with the sewer money “going to bikes” or an “800 million bike plan” quote-unquote. Those were polarizing points that I’d rather avoid, not just because I’m trying to avoid controversy but because I think we get more done if everybody understands what the common good is and that we’re trying to advance that.”

Speaking of the common good, something I’ve heard from you and other people around the table is this idea of making streets work for all modes. Do you see a point in our future — given the environmental imperatives, the budgetary realities, and other factors — where sometimes we’re going to have to discourage certain modes in favor of others?

“The unspoken part of this conversation that isn’t unspoken in my record is we’re going to improve biking walking and transit and that’s going to take capacity away from single occupancy auto driving. That’s Portland. That’s bedrock for us. Doesn’t mean you won’t be able to drive your car downtown; doesn’t mean that cars and trucks won’t still be able to circulate in the city; but we are moving from being a very auto-dependent city that we were 20-30 yrs ago to being a city that has a lot of choices and a lot of people not using their cars. And that’s progress.

We’ve made a lot of progress, we’re going to make a lot more and we’re not going to chase you off the street if you want to drive your car — but you’re going to have to understand that automobile convenience is not what we’re designing for…

[long pause]

… And it’s really important to remember too that, in doing this, we’ve made Portland a more prosperous city. We have a tough economy right now, but so does the rest of the country. And we are more prosperous and better positioned for the future because of what we’ve done to make Portland livable and a bike and transit and pedestrian oriented city.

You can start a business in Portland and never have to provide any employee parking and you can put that money into health care for your employees or into that next piece of equipment. Or, you can start a bike-oriented business — this enormous proliferation of local industry, there’s $100 plus million a year in economic activity in this city in the bike industry. You can start a business here oriented toward those transportation choices and actually make a go of it. And so, our policy direction of saying, we’re going to, at the modest expense of automotive convenience, we’re going to be a world class city of transportation choices, has not only made it a place the NY Times likes to write stories about but a better place to live and better positioned for real prospersity where people aren’t putting a billion dollars a year in their gas tanks because of the choices we’ve made.”

What’s your ideal type urban bikeway facility?

“Separated is clearly my preference. Can we find the opportunity for that in every case? Of course not. But as someone who uses the Springwater a lot I have a strong preference for that when we have the opportunity.”

We have a lot of commercial districts with streets that have a very narrow cross section (like Mississippi, Alberta, 28th); half the space is taken by parking, the other half for standard vehicle lanes. It’s not a very pleasant space to ride a bike in. What do you think we can do on those streets to make them more welcoming for bike traffic?

“Slow the average speed by how we set signal timing, among other things, so that if the only physical choice that’s possible is riding in the travel lane, that you’re riding at a speed that you can manage, you know, in traffic that’s going slowly enough that you’re not a huge obstacle to the flow of auto traffic.

You have to have that parking for that storefront environment to prosper so there are limited opportunities, but I think you try to control speed and make that street more hospitable to the rider who is in the travel lane, hopefully following the rules of the road, wearing their helmet, and having their lights on. I think that behavior really helps remind drivers that these are legitimate vehicles on the street.”

Why do you think that on-street storefront auto parking is so important and would you consider using some of that space for moving people instead of parking cars?

“Well, we have used some of that space for bike corrals. Those bike parking areas are great and have demonstrated that that’s a very effective use of space. But again, I think my philosophy is, we’re going to make progress in Portland not by pitched battles but by bringing a broad majority of people along and if we polarize those storefront merchants into thinking that the bike zealots in City Hall are going to “put them out of business” quote/unquote, we’re not helping the cause.

I’d rather help the cause in ways that those folks say, ‘Damn there’s sure a lot of people coming to my store now on their bikes! I never thought they’d come to my hardware store on a bike!’

The Westmoreland hardware store where I get house parts has a lot of people coming to it on their bikes and those guys know it; yet they still have parking spots out front for the person who pulls up in a pickup and wants to buy a lawn mower. So I better keep them on board and avoid the pitched battles — not because I’m a wimp, but because I think that’s how you make progress and not have a backlash.”

Recently we’ve had several small bikeway projects go through lengthy public processes and still not reach a conclusive decision. Why do you think that’s happening and do you think PBOT is taking a risk in having such an open-ended approach?

“I think it’s just a bad habit on the part of the leadership being fearful of opposition. Process lately has sometimes seemed like an excuse to do nothing or endless because we’re going to wait until the last holdout agrees before we do anything. That’s not legitimate process and that’s not democracy. People want to be heard, they want a discussion, they want deliberation, and then they want a decision. The risk is that a few unreasonable people will hijack the process and you’ll decide to do nothing.”

Do you think that fear of backlash is more prevalent in bike projects than in other transportation projects?

“One of the things I bring to this question of whether I should be the next mayor or not. One is a passion for Portland as a livable city. And secondly is the experience of knowing that even the best ideas will get backlash. I built a community center in SW Portland now filled with happy families and it was viciously opposed by a small group who didn’t want change or new people coming to their neighborhood… It’s crazy that a community center drew out that kind of backlash.

I know you have to persevere through special interest backlash to get any good thing done. And I know that not just verbally but I know that in my bones from having survived those fights and seen Portland get better, and that’s a great advantage I have over my opponents because they’ve never been in that osition of having to do the right thing under fire and that’s what you have to do.

So, waiting for perfect consensus is not a legitimate public process because you wear out the majority by waiting for the minority to finally get on board.”

What do you want BikePortland readers to remember about you as they consider who to vote for?

“I hope they’ll remember that I rode down the street on a city paving machine when we started striping the first bike lanes back in 1995 with a big smile on my face. I don’t know if there’s a picture of that moment, but I remember riding that stripping truck and hearing shhhhhhhhhh, that continuous hiss of the paint nozzles laying down that white line and that fresh white paint trailing behind the truck.

Portland was going to have some bike lanes. It was fun to start it and it will be fun to carry it on.”