Mayor Hales shares his thoughts on paving and the PBOT budget

Mayor Hales
Mayor Hales at a City Council
PBOT budget work session yesterday.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

At an event last night I was able to grab Mayor Charlies Hales for a few minutes to ask him for his thoughts on the major PBOT budget move that was unveiled yesterday.

At a City Council budget work session, Hales’ interim director of PBOT, Toby Widmer, unveiled a plan that would take $7.15 from existing budget items and put it all toward street paving and maintenance. Among the places Widmer “realigned resources” for more paving is a $1.2 million sidewalk project already funded and slated for construction this summer in East Portland on SE 136th between SE Powell and Holgate (about 0.52 miles). Another Widmer realignment victim is PBOT’s ADA curb ramp program which is being asked to give up $500,000. According to PBOT sources, that chunk equals about 30% of the entire program (which has annual budget of $1.7 million).

Asked about the proposal last night, Hales distanced himself from it. “It’s a bureau budget. It’s just a starting point.”

“No matter how thoughtful we are with the cuts, they will piss people off.”

What he’s referring to is the PBOT budget process. First, the bureau director submits the bureau’s budget as a request. Then, the Mayor makes final decisions before the budget is officially adopted. So, technically, Hales is right to make it seem like this is simply all the work of Toby Widmer and that he has yet to really get his hands dirty. However, that’s not entirely the situation this time around. Widmer, a former head of PBOT’s bureau of maintenance, was hand-picked by Mayor Hales specifically to re-focus the bureau on paving and maintenance. Also, Hales has taken all the bureaus under his wing and he’s been close to the transportation conversations since Day One. It’s highly unlikely Hales was not privvy to at least some details of Widmer’s proposal.

Even so, Hales told me last night he simply advised Widmer to find him the money to pave/maintain 100 miles of roads next year (and thus fulfill a publicly stated promise).

Specifically, about the cuts in the ADA ramp program, Hales said, “That was Toby’s idea. He looked at the cost-effectiveness of all the ramps we’re putting in. We can do less and still make progress. Simply carpet-bombing the city with access ramps isn’t the best expenditure of city dollars. You look at some ramps and you just scratch your head. It’s like really?! Who’s gonna’ use that?”

Turns out Hales and Widmer might be onto something here. From what I hear, the curb ramp program could indeed use a keener eye and the cuts being discussed won’t have a major impact. The reduction in ADA ramps will also still keep the City in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act that mandates the ramps. (Note: We have since learned the City is not in compliance with the ADA act; but that these cuts jibe with a previously agreed-upon plan to eventually become compliant. Sorry for any confusion.)

About the sidewalk project cut, Hales said that idea also emanated from Widmer and the bureau. “I didn’t craft that part of the proposal,” he said, “but I’m not unhappy with it.” Asked about the chances the sidewalk project cut would survive, Hales said, “I’d say it’s about 50/50 that the cut will remain.”

Hales then shared that, as he already experienced with his unpopular move to cut the Youth Connect summer program, the budget shortfalls faced by the City are so severe that he can’t avoid scorn. “This budget cycle, no matter how thoughtful we are, no matter how careful we are with the cuts, they will piss people off… The City is in a very tough spot. We can’t just sprinkle a little cut here and there and expect to get through this. It’s not going to be easy; but it’s not like we’re vindictive about it.”

Hales knows his decisions will be unpopular. “I’m willing to take whatever hits I have coming. I think this is the way forward and this is the way toward new revenue.”

“I’m willing to take whatever hits I have coming. I think this is the way forward and this is the way toward new revenue.”

I asked Mayor Hales how the new funding priority on paving will play out in the future. Is this a one-time thing or will he seek significant additional funds for paving and maintenance every year? “This commitment to maintenance is a must-do. It’s a pre-cursor to new revenue.”

Hales strongly believes his focus on paving is imperative to any future effort to establish a new transportation revenue stream (he’s expected to push for a new revenue stream next year). The idea is to, “Restore public trust that they can give us money and get a good result for it.”

In other words, Hales believes many Portlanders have lost faith in PBOT because of how the agency has prioritized spending.

“This is a response to the majority of the public that says, ‘Keep my streets in good shape!'”

I countered Hales’ assertion that the majority of Portlanders would put street maintenance as their #1 priority. Ask people if they want smoother roads, I said, and of course most people would say yes. But overall, people are clamoring (and PBOT is listening) for new things like sidewalks, neighborhood greenways, and so on. I have never heard of a rally or advocacy campaign for a maintenance project.

To that, Hales said he’s hoping to connect with the “silent majority.” “There’s an active minority out there,” he said, referring to citizen activists who are plugged into political power, “But there’s a silent majority that’s pissed off [about lack of road maintenance] and they have some complaints.” “If we respond with action, they won’t have complaints anymore… If we respond, then we can ask the public, ‘Hey, can we spend more of your money?'”

So in some ways, this is all part of Hales’ elaborate plan to prime the pump for a major transportation funding package he’ll ask voters for in 2014 (it would be a repeat effort for Hales, who pushed for a road fee as a Portland City Commissioner in 2001.)

With more paving on the way, I asked Hales if he’d consider re-striping the roads for maximum efficiency of all modes, instead of just putting them back the way they are now. Perhaps PBOT could have a team of engineers analyze new paving projects to see if there are opportunities to re-stripe lanes and include bike lanes wherever possible?

Hales was amenable to that idea. “Restriping is a possibility,” he said. “Maybe it’s not just about paving more, but paving smarter. I’m open to having those discussions with PBOT.”

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