Newly minted Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat made her official media debut at City Hall today. Just two days into her Portland career, PBOT made Treat available to local media (just me and KXL Radio showed up) for an informal briefing session where she appeared alongside her new boss, Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick. It was an opportunity to learn a bit more about Treat, see how she interacts with Novick, and to get a sense of what we might expect from this (hopefully dynamic) duo down the road.
“People are biking, walking and taking transit more. People are moving to cities more. But it’s not my agenda to make the car go away.”
— Leah Treat, Director of PBOT
At the outset of the event, Novick said PBOT currently has “a mess of challenges.” Among them are a road maintenance backlog that Novick said has ballooned to $750 million, parts of the city with “unimproved streets,” and “areas that don’t have the transit service we’d like them to have.” But compared to a lot of places, Novick added Portland has “great transit and great walkability and bikeability.” In the end, he said, Portland needs to “Recognize our challenges and build on our strengths.”
As for his hopes for Treat, Novick said, “She has phenomenal experience in terms of managing money and that’s a skill set we definitely need.”
For her part, Treat is still very fresh on the job. She is starting from scratch as the head of an agency with 700 employees and a $275 million (or so) annual budget. “I’m doing a cannonball,” is how she described her big leap into the new job. Prior to her first day yesterday, Treat hadn’t met any of her PBOT staffers, and she even managed to get lost while biking into work on Monday (she said she typed in “SE” on Google Maps instead of “SW”).
Treat, 42, said she’s hoping to close escrow soon on a house in the Alameda neighborhood. She’s currently living with a friend until she can bring her family out from Chicago. Since she’s been in Portland for the past few days, Treat has been riding her bike around town, purposely (and accidentally) getting lost to learn more about the streets.
Her first impressions? “I’ve ridden my bike over some pretty rough roads on the way home and I think I’m living in one of the better neighborhoods.”
While the poor surface of many of our streets made an impact, Treat said she’s thrilled at how courteous most drivers are. “The thing that has impressed me beyond belief is when I come up to an intersection with a crosswalk, cars stop for you and let you cross the street. In Chicago or DC, you have to sit and wait for all the traffic to come by. I think it’s amazing. I feel like calling Gabe and saying, ‘You won’t believe this!'”
In her limited riding, Treat has already sampled North Going Street, one of Portland’s finest neighborhood greenways. “I like that there are really big lane markings in the road [a reference to sharrows]. And it helps that there are orange things on top of the signs [PBOT’s “sign toppers”] that designate bike routes. All the bike signage is helping me get around.”
But closer to downtown, it appears Treat has had some trouble finding her way. She’s gotten lost on the Esplanade and while trying to return home on the Hawthorne Bridge.
I asked Treat if she plans on riding her bike to work. Once settled into the Alameda neighborhood, she said she’ll likely take the bus; but she’s clearly a fan of biking. “It’s amazing to ride by a river on your way to work,” she said, describing her commute, “I love it.”
Treat said her family has one car and that it’s always an option if she needs it. “If something comes up, I’ll be realistic. I’m a mom with four kids, if I have to pick them up and them to the pediatrician during the day… There are realities I’m going to have to deal with. And if I have to go pick up something from the grocery store; yes, I will use a car but it’s not my first choice for transportation.”
When it came to policy questions, Treat avoided answering them, saying repeatedly that she simply doesn’t know enough yet to wade into any substantive issues. She did say that her top priority is “safety” and that to her, safety “starts with pedestrians because everyone is a pedestrian.”
During her job interview, Treat said Portland had started “stagnating” when it comes to doing things differently on the transportation front. Asked about that perspective today, Treat was quick to walk those comments back. Turning to her boss, she said, “I definitely want to comment about complacency. I would not attribute that adjective to Commissioner Novick at all. That definitely has changed under his leadership.”
A reporter from KXL asked Treat if Portland is “changing from a car-centric transportation system to more of a multi-vehicle system.” Treat deferred that answer to Novick. “In terms of the country as a whole,” he said, “that seems like a reasonable thing to say.”
Treat then added: “Data shows car registrations are going down. People are biking, walking and taking transit more. People are moving to cities more.” Then, perhaps showing her experience in dealing with the public and the meda, she said, “But it’s not my agenda to make the car go away.”
I’m hopeful for Treat, especially because she’s surrounded by people that “get it.” Novick seems ready to do big things, Mayor Hales seems like he’s ready to support them, and the PBOT rank-and-file have been champing at the bit for City Hall politics to get more lined up to their agenda (which it appears to be now more than any other time in the past five years).
Treat faces a steep learning curve; but she’s a very smart woman (she graduated with honors from her undergraduate and graduate schools) with a record of figuring things out and the experience of the scrutiny that comes with working in major cities like Chicago and DC. That being said, whether or not she can untangle Portland’s unique “mess of challenges” remains to be seen.