“… In a deep recession, people who are struggling — in addition to buses and bike paths — also need access to a job.”
— Ann Lininger, Clackamas County Commissioner
A 17-member Metro committee made up of mayors, commissioners, and transportation agency leaders around the region voted this morning to do away with a 75/25 federal funding allocation split that was hailed by active transportation advocates when it was established in 2010. At their meeting, Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) voted instead to adopt a new policy direction that will have projects of all types — including massive highway expansion projects — competing against each other.
At issue is how best to dole out an additional $38 million ($37.78 to be exact) that is unspoken for out of a $147 million pot of federal grant funds administered through the federal Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program (MTIP) for the years 2016-18. (Note: Of this $147 million, JPACT has already decided to allocate: $48 million to transit bond payments, $26 million to Metro planning and regional programs, $26 million to “Active Transportation and Complete Streets” projects and $8.7 million to “Green Economy and Freight” projects).
The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), backed by Mayor Sam Adams and a host of local environmental and social justice organizations, had waged a campaign to maintain the 75/25 split (known as Option 1) with this remaining $38 million; but that option didn’t muster much support at all around the JPACT table. The option favored by most of the JPACT membership going into this morning is known as Option 3, which would establish a set of new policies for handing out the funds. This new policy would focus on “Regional Economic Opportunity” and would bring in a new set of criteria that includes things like access to industrial lands, private sector investment interest, safety, and so on.
In citizen testimony prior to committee discussion, founding member of the Latino Network and Portland State University instructor Cynthia Gomez said she supported Option 1’s strong equity and environmental justice provisions: “Our community seeks transportation and environmental justice,” she said, “Show us you are part of our community, that you represent our interests.” Gomez also urged Metro to review their public participation process so that, “all voices are heard.”
Community activist, Occupy Portland participant, and former hunger striker Cameron Whitten also testified. He said that supporting Option 1 and making more investments in bicycling and walking, “make our community more versatile and resilient.” (He also noted to me prior to his testimony that he was the only black person in the entire room.)
to BTA’s Gerik Kransky after the meeting.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)
Once official committee discussion got underway, ODOT Region 1 Director Jason Tell was first to speak. Tell put forth his proposal (a version of Option 3) to earmark three projects to the tune of $27 million. Tell wants $9 million each for three major highway expansion projects that are already far along in the planning stages: the Sunrise Corridor (total cost $1.5 billion), the Brookwood/Helvetia Interchange project (total cost $45 million), and the Troutdale Interchange project (total cost $30 million). As for the remaining $11 million, Tell said it could go toward a 75/25 split (in favor of Active Transportation project), but that he “would be open” to where it goes.
Tell argued that Metro and the region have a responsibility to fund those three projects because they’ve already gone through a federal vetting process (they were selected by JPACT as TIGER stimulus grant applicants). “The goal was that these three projects,” Tell said this morning, “were to be funded with new money… Now, new money has shown up… So we have to make a decision… We have made these projects priorities… Let’s go ahead and get these built.”
Portland Mayor Sam Adams didn’t like that Tell had brought a pre-selected list of projects to the table. “How is your proposal,” he asked Tell, “not cherry-picking projects?” Adams continued: “There’s always a good debate and discussion around this table, but to just say that TIGER is it and we’re going to fund TIGER and we’re not going to go through the normal process and we’re going to earmark those projects… That makes us like a lot of the regions around the country that are not as thoughtful in their approach as we are.”
In a somewhat terse exchange that followed, Adams maintained that ODOT’s projects need to go through the Metro process, and that the federal (TIGER) process isn’t adequate. “It strikes me as earmarking… How is this not earmarking?”
TriMet GM Neil McFarlane called Tell’s insistence on earmarking projects a “slippery slope”. McFarlane also accused JPACT of not doing enough to fund projects that improve safety for the “most vulnerable users of our system”. “I honestly don’t think the recommendations in front of us put our money where our mouth is in terms of safety, particularly for bicyclists and those trying to access our transit system.”
As discussion continued, it was clear that Option 3 would win the day. Clackamas County Commissioner Ann Lininger said the region is still “struggling to come out of a deep recession” and that, while she believes in “conservation values” and “environmental justice values.” “But you know you,” she continued, “people who are struggling — in addition to buses and bike paths — also need access to a job.”
Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers said voting for Option 3 is a matter of “regional equity”. While he said his county “isn’t against bike and ped” his primary mission is job creation. Rogers warned JPACT members of voter outcry if they were seen to be voting against jobs. “We have to bring jobs… If you want to tell your constituents that we just turned away jobs [he estimates the three ODOT projects will bring a total of 2,500 jobs to the region], it will be interesting to talk about in campaigns.”
Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder also criticized ODOT’s attempt to earmark projects, but he added that he’s in support of Option 3 because it “opens doors to things I’m interested in.”
At this point — with even Mayor Adams not fighting for Option 1 — it was clear that Option 3 would win the day.
As for ODOT representative Tell, he realized his project earmarks were unpopular, so he agreed to give up on them. But his urgency around the Sunrise project wasn’t clear. He urged the committee to “expedite” their work so that he could have “some level of confidence” that he’d get funding. At one point, seemingly annoyed by Tell’s incessant cheerleading for his project, JPACT Chair Carlotta Collette stepped in said, “Jason, I don’t think this is an opportunity to write you a check.”
In the end, JPACT adopted a motion to move forward with Option 3 without any specific projects named and with a more fleshed-out set of criteria and with a commitment to “expedite” a vote of confidence in the Sunrise project.
After the meeting, the BTA’s lead advocacy staffer Gerik Kransky said he “Wasn’t surprised” at the outcome. He said he’s concerned that the committee committed to an “expedited process” for ODOT’s projects because he fears that could mean they scuttle key equity and environmental justice review processes. He’s also generally perturbed by what he referred to as ODOT getting “Sweetheart deals for pet projects.”
Now the work begins.
JPACT will start a process to select projects that will compete for the $38 million. If Option 1 would have passed, active transportation projects would have been guaranteed $28.5 million. Now they are assured nothing (out of this $38 million pot). This decision follows similar trends in both federal and state funding policy, which is to do away with dedicated bicycle-specific pots of funding and instead open-up the process to finding which projects align most successfully with our shared values (at least that’s the idea).
For the first time since I can remember, bicycle-oriented projects will get the chance to go toe-to-toe with major highway expansion projects. How will they compete? A lot of that depends on what criteria are used to judge the projects. Will safety of vulnerable road users get as much weight as access to industrial lands? Can a project that includes “Diamond” quality bike access also make a strong case for jobs?
So far, JPACT members seem to assume that projects with a strong bike access component are only for urban areas and cannot make a strong jobs and economic development case. That is far from the truth. Perhaps through this process we’ll be able to explode those myths and come up with some great projects.