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Major new pro-transit advocacy group prepares to launch in Portland

Posted by on July 8th, 2013 at 3:58 pm

David Knowles

David Knowles, a longtime politico,
is leading the new effort.
(2012 photo by Portland Afoot)

A new nonprofit advocacy group is setting out to be public transportation’s answer to the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

Using Seattle’s Transportation Choices Coalition as their working model, a small group of Portland-based advocates has been working since December under the leadership of David Knowles, the top Portland executive at government contractor CH2M Hill, to discuss the nonprofit startup.

The group is in the process of recruiting its founding staffer.

“I think this region has generally been committed to transit, but a focused effort to expand transit is really needed at this time,” Mara Gross, interim executive director of the Coalition for a Livable Future and a participant in the conversation, said Monday. “Lower-income communities and communities of color are increasingly living in a ring around the central cities. They’re in East Portland, east county, Washington County, Clark County … regions that are harder to serve by transit.”

Rob Sadowsky and Steph Routh, executive directors of the BTA and Oregon Walks, have also been invited to the talks, as have TriMet, Bernie Bottomly of the Portland Business Alliance, the anti-sprawl nonprofit 1000 Friends of Oregon, and representatives of many local businesses including chipmaker Intel, planning firm David Evans and Associates, architects Zimmer Gunsul Frasca and downtown real estate firm Melvin Mark.

Though those groups haven’t necessarily signed on to help the effort, organizers believe all of them, among others, share an interest in good public transportation and could be willing to support advocacy on its behalf.

OPAL’s Bus Riders Unite, the region’s most prominent transit advocacy group since 2010, hasn’t been part of the talks yet. Neither has Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, the transit workers’ union.

Transportation Choices Coalition, the Seattle group that serves as the model, has six in-house staff and a 2013 annual budget of $625,000. It’s sponsored by regional and national foundations, transit agencies, railbuilding contractors and unions, developers, major employers and between 400 and 450 individual donors, according to TCC membership manager Carla Saulter.

“I think there is a need for an outside-government voice broadly speaking about the value of transit.”
— Mara Gross, Coalition for a Livable Future

Chris Rall, a Portland-based advocate for better federal transit funding who’s been involved, said he sees a “hole” in local and regional advocacy, with the BTA and Oregon Walks missing a counterpart and ally when public transit issues come up for debate.

The new Oregon effort is conceived to build consensus around both transit service and transit infrastructure, Knowles said Monday. Both seem to be in danger.

Ten days ago, an expansion of TriMet’s Yellow Line died with the Columbia River Crossing. Last year, a top Metro planner said explicitly that “most corridor plans are not going to end” with light rail “for a long time.” New Portland Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick ran for office saying he didn’t expect further Streetcar expansion in the near future. TriMet, meanwhile, is about to be audited by a skeptical state government and dealing with a three-way tradeoff among tax levels, service frequency and worker pay.

If anyone in the Portland area could gather enough momentum for a well-funded new pro-transit group, Knowles would seem to have the resume for it.

A board member of the Portland Business Alliance and former chair of its transportation committee, Knowles has run Portland’s Bureau of Planning, served as a Metro councilor and been an executive at the major engineering and planning contractors David Evans and Associates and CH2M Hill.

“This group has folks around the table with resources, and they could bring more capacity and voices of unlikely allies to this conversation,” said Gross. She said that although some of those voices have disagreed with her on past issues, she’s optimistic about the possibility to unite around common ground.

For those of us in the Portland area who believe in bikes, this is an important development. Governments often don’t seem to think holistically about how bikes and transit can cooperate to make a great city work: all Portlanders would benefit from having affordable housing in central neighborhoods and making sure all projects are served well by something other than cars. If Portland’s rich and growing expertise in bike planning can be part of this new transit advocacy, everyone will benefit.

To pick just one instance, as Portland transportation advocates talk more about a possible per-household “street fee” that could fund some combination of bike, pedestrian, transit and paving upgrades, the new group might be a useful political ally.

“There’s a potential at all different levels of government for some sort of policy and funding changes,” Rall said. “The street fee would be an example of something where there would be an opportunity for collaboration.”

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • That Guy July 8, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    From the headline I was hoping for a more grassroots organization that would be willing to challenge the powers that be and their Pro CRC mindset. Instead I find a an org composed of, or seeking input from, many of the same people and orgs that directly and tacitly (BTA/1000 friends )supported the CRC.

    This effort appears to be another pro freeway, pro light rail, anti sustainabilty effort. If we get results that cost everyone less & increase 24/7 transit options count me surprised.

    Waiting for the next big transporation boondoogle…

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    • was carless July 9, 2013 at 11:43 am

      So transit is only viable if it is “grassroots”? Transit is bad if it goes mainstream?

      That doesn’t make any sense. For transit to be be successful, it MUST be promoted by the government and embraced by the people who ride it. If it isn’t, then:

      1) the government won’t fund & build it
      2) people won’t ride it

      The “mass” in mass transit = lots of people

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    • chucklehead July 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      Sigh…..seems like anyone who has a different opinion than you MUST be an extremist.

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  • Babygorilla July 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    I’m sure Mr. Knowles, whose associated firms of Evans and CH2H took home $39,000,000 of CRC funds (http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2013/07/columbia_river_crossing_spends.html), has the public good purely at heart.

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    • are July 8, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      i thought the point was they would generate paying work for the engineers and contractors who make up their funding base

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    • Hart Noecker July 8, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      Seriously. This doesn’t sound like an exciting new development to me. This looks like just growth machine business as usual.

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  • Alexis July 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    They’re not talking to OPAL even though they’re talking to possible allies that don’t even do transit? OPAL is far from perfect, but they’re basically the only group that has done quality work on transit-focused advocacy, and leaving them out shows total disregard for grassroots or equity. Not a good start.

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    • i ride my bike July 8, 2013 at 6:02 pm

      Free transit is not necessarily
      pro transit. OPAL is an environmental justice advocacy group and low income straphanger group and theres a place for that. There is also a place for an organization to advocate for transit expansion and the economic benefits of transit like every other region has except for Portland surprisingly.

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      • Craig Harlow July 9, 2013 at 12:29 pm

        No OPAL (“yet”)? This question really needs to be asked, not only of the primary organizers, but of the other stakeholders we normally count on such as Oregon Walks and the BTA.

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        • i ride my bike July 9, 2013 at 8:47 pm

          The whole point of this organization is that it is NOT the BTA, Oregon Walks, OPAL, those organizations and voices already exist. We dont need multiple organizations arguing the same point and perspective, hence the reason for this missing voice in the local community in favor of expanding transit.

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  • Terry Nobbe July 8, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I’m sure that low income members of our society could benefit from increased public transportation IF they could afford to pay the fare. Many of those less fortunate citizens work hard to own and maintain a bicycle, though investing in a secure bike lock as well seems to be a serious challenge for them.
    If being pro-transit means bicycles aren’t part of the transportation mix then I’m definitely NOT pro-transit.
    As well, unless the yellow bike program is re-awakened, PUBLIC transit options for EVERYONE will be sadly lacking.

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  • mas July 8, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    well, CLF was one of the few groups that consistently outspoken against the CRC, so its not fair to say all the groups in today’s conversation were on board with the CRC.

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  • dwainedibbly July 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Sounds like an industry group trying to hijack a different direction now that the CRC is dead and in case it stays dead. If they can get more funding support for transit (with cycling infrastructure included), that’s ok, I suppose. Still, I’m a bit suspicious.

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  • Babygorilla July 8, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Yep, pretty much just a group of government insiders looking for subsidies for their “industries,” with a free flow of funds and personnel between government and the “private” sector. Glad some readers are critical.

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  • Jim July 8, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Astroturf! This will lead to a reduction in service for the low-income communities who need it most, and more construction of less than needed transit infrastructure to enrich developers. Proof? OPAL isn’t at the table. You can’t spend millions of dollars on bus infrastructure, so why would CH2M invest in a non-profit that would achieve that?

    Sometimes I really wish Bike Portland, given it’s incredibly important role (Bravo to Jonathan for his hard work), would actually try to use critical thinking and provide journalism, not just rewarm some press release.

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  • CaptainKarma July 8, 2013 at 11:51 pm

    A “street fee”? Only of transit fares come down, service cuts restored, & more REAL non-motor infrastructure is generated. BTW, unfortunately yellow bikes will never be allowed to fluorish where a corporate bike “share” system is in place

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    • dan July 9, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Unfortunately, yellow bikes will never flourish when people can use them (steal them, destroy them, etc.) with no accountability. You remember what happened with Portland’s last yellow bike experiment, right?

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    • Todd Boulanger July 9, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Yes, I remember and tried to use the Yellow Bikes in Portland…please do not try to resurrect phase 1 bike share (“hippy phase”). If you are really serious about dependable AND corporate free bike share then you should focus on setting up a public system/ public utility…or perhaps having it administratively added to an existing public contract (TRIMET, etc.). [This then brings up other institutional short comings and operational problems.]

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      • Glen July 10, 2013 at 9:48 am

        I just returned from Barcelona and saw their bike share program in action. I was impressed. They charge 40 Euros per year to be a member. After that, any trip under 30 minutes is free.

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  • Todd Boulanger July 9, 2013 at 11:07 am

    A group focusing on transit riders and system would be a great addition to the often lopsided transportation service and funding discussions in the Portland metro area. Transit commuters in the City = 12% of commute mode split.

    Ideally any future group would be multimodal…vs. the modal silos we have…though such a single entity is much more difficult to establish given existing modal bailiwicks and self identification POV based modal technology (bicyclists). A unified transit+bike+walk mode split voice could champion 23% of the daily commute traffic (Source: 2009-2011 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimate) and potentially influence the 9% who carpool, as those commuters (and others) utilize the active transportation modes for a portion or some of their commutes during the week.


    TCC has been a very important resource in the Puget Sound Region and to a lessor extent statewide in Washington.

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  • was carless July 9, 2013 at 11:51 am

    At least the majority of people in Portland & the metro area support mass transit. Even the city of Vancouver generally supports a MAX extension.


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  • BURR July 9, 2013 at 11:54 am

    As long as they don’t advocate for expansion of more poorly designed streetcar lines at the expense of the cycling environment and cyclists’ safety…

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  • Craig Harlow July 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Jonathan, forgive me if I’ve missed it somehow… It’s unclear to me whether you interviewed any of the the parties represented in this post, or from where the info and quotes in this post originate.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
      Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm

      Craig, I can take this one: the information here comes from conversations I had last Friday with Chris Rall, and yesterday with David Knowles and Mara Gross. All three are quoted above, though Knowles’s comments for the record were very brief, so I decided to paraphrase for clarity.

      For what it’s worth, the group hasn’t issued a press release about its existence, because its messaging and identity isn’t worked out yet as they recruit their founding staff; we decided to run the above information not because we were asked to (we weren’t) but because we wanted to bring this important conversation into public light.

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  • Craig Harlow July 9, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    Thanks, Michael, for the additional info–and apologies for not noticing your byline. I agree that it’s an important story, and the earlier this community is in the know, the better–and the more timely and more intelligently we can all be involved and possibly influential.

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  • subsidizers anonymous July 9, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    The only name missing here is Patricia McCaig’s. Perhaps they are waiting for the ethics complaint reviews to be completed. http://www.wweek.com/portland/tag-0-1-Patricia%20McCaig.html

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