PBOT’s effort to cut budget could hit street lights, streetcar

Outgoing PBOT Director Tom Miller led a meeting
of his budget advisory committee on Tuesday.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

When members of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Budget Advisory Committee settled into their fourth and final meeting on Tuesday, they got some grim news. On top of the $4.5 million in ongoing cuts the bureau was initially told they needed to make, PBOT Director Tom Miller announced they needed to identify an another 10% — or $784,000 — in cuts. The way I understand it, Mayor Charlie Hales has asked for each bureau to come up with this 10% cut so that he can ultimately decide what stays and what goes.

The tricky thing for PBOT is that after years budget shrinkage, they have very little fat left to cut. Committee member and east Portland advocate Dave Hampsten put it this way: “We’ve gotten to the point where every cut is a core function.”

“If it’s being sold to us as an economic development tool [not a transportation mode], they why should PBOT maintain it?”
— Paul Cone, a union rep on streetcar funding

Thankfully, the cuts being considered by the committee don’t include active transportation-related expenditures. There was a discussion at City Council last year that Sunday Parkways isn’t a core function of PBOT and the program has teetered closely to being de-funded. Last year, the City only invested $120,000 into Sunday Parkways (the rest of its $490,000 budget came from private sponsorships and donations). That City investment came in the form of “one time” funds which are paid out of the general fund. This year, bureaus have been directed by City Hall that there can be no new one-time funding requests; but anything funded last year is automatically grandfathered in. “So,” Tom Miller explained to the committee, “The only thing PBOT can request one-time funding for is Sunday Parkways. Either you ask for it or you don’t get anything, so you might as well ask for it.”

Keep in mind that even if the PBOT budget advisory committee forwards the Sunday Parkways funding request (which they plan to do), Mayor Hales could choose to axe it. The decision will be up to him (and his Council colleagues once the horse-trading begins in February).

Once the committee’s attention turned to figuring out what exactly to cut to arrive at the $784,000, the conversation was wide-ranging and included some surprises.

The largest line-item in PBOT’s budget that comes from the general fund is the $5 million or so for street lighting. I always thought that expensive service was off-limits in terms of cutbacks, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Veteran PBOT staffer Paul Smith shared at the meeting that years ago PBOT proposed “roving blackouts” of neighborhood street lights as a way to save money. In the end, the Police Chief volunteered to pay to keep the lights on out of the Police Bureau budget.

The PBOT budget advisory committee discussed several scenarios of how a street light service reduction might work. Corky Collier, a committee member who represents freight interests, pushed for the street lighting cutbacks. “Is it a core function of PBOT or of the City? I don’t think it’s a core function of PBOT as much as these other things on the table.”

The committee also proposed moving the leaf removal program out of PBOT’s budget and making the Bureau of Environmental Services pick up the bill. That move would mean a $200,000 cut to the PBOT budget. “There’s an argument to be made that leaf removal is a City priority, but not a transportation priority,” said Miller. He explained that leaf removal must be done as part of the City’s Clean Water Act compliance permit. “But does it have to come out of PBOT’s books?” he wondered.

In addition to street light cutbacks and moving the leaf removal program out of PBOT, the committee seems likely to propose cutbacks in streetcar operation and maintenance. The budget advisory committee discussed cuts to streetcar operations of $200-600,000 (it’s not finalized yet). The ongoing maintenance bill for the ever-expanding streetcar line has been a thorn in the side of PBOT for years. The big shiny streetcar projects get hundreds of millions in grants and other regional funding; but no one ever talks about the ballooning cost to maintain the system. And with PBOT’s dire budget situation, the expenditure is now (finally) being questioned.

Currently, PBOT spends about $2.7 million per year on streetcar operations and maintenance (the total bill for the city is $8 million). When the central city streetcar loop is completed in 2015, annual costs to maintain streetcar are estimated to be $11.4 million. Union rep Paul Cone questioned whether PBOT should foot the bill. “If it’s being sold to us as an economic development tool [not a transportation mode], they why should PBOT maintain it?” Cone asked, “If you want streetcar to run and make a fancy new neighborhood, than show us the money.” The union rep suggested perhaps the Portland Development Commission or the City’s general fund should pick up the tab (unfortunately the PDC can only invest in capital projects, not maintenance).

“The long-term benefit [of streetcar] to the City is by future tax revenues that streetcar encourages and those funds go to the general fund,” he added, “so that’s where payment for it should come from.”

The other argument against PBOT paying for streetcar operations and maintenance is that it’s not an equitable service. The lines only run in certain neighborhoods, yet they are subsidized by the entire city.

PBOT planner Paul Smith explained that currently, parking revenue is what pays for streetcar maintenance. With those revenues falling flat and even decreasing, Smith shared an ominous prediction. “Expansion of streetcar over time is going to compete with all the core functions of PBOT. This is a precursor to future discussions.”

But cutting streetcar funds will be a difficult political lift. As Miller pointed out in the meeting, “It’s a streetcar-friendly City Council” with Mayor “Choo Choo” Charlie Hales at the helm. Also, if streetcar gets less funding for operations, that means greater headways and less service through the entire system. If that happened, PBOT would face angry business owners who agreed to helping pay for the streetcar project with the expectation of a certain level of service.

The budget advisory committee is currently drafting their official budget recommendations (with help from PBOT), so we’ll know more once their letter is done. Their letter will be sent to Mayor Hales and he’ll have ultimate say over what gets cut and what gets funded.

A lot can still change, but these conversations show how serious the PBOT budget situation is. Stay tuned.

— Read more about the PBOT Budget in our story archives.

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