“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. Senator 1976-2000
It’s one thing to be opposed to something on principle or policy grounds, but when the facts are twisted to suit an agenda, that’s something else entirely.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what The Oregonian Editorial Board and the Portland Business Alliance have done. Both of these groups are staunchly opposed to the latest transportation revenue proposal unveiled by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick earlier this week. I’m not entirely in love with the proposal (I think a paltry 7% of total spending toward biking-specific infrastructure isn’t enough); but that’s a different conversation. For now, there’s one aspect of the argument from the PBA and The Oregonian that really needs to be called out.
Almost before the cameras were even turned off at Monday’s City Hall press conference to announce the new proposal — a mix of personal income tax and business licensing fees — the PBA put out a letter that made headlines all over the local media. Among the PBA’s four major objections to the proposal was this one:
“Finally, it is not clear that a preponderance of the newly raised revenue would go toward paving maintenance, which was the initial impetus for creating this new program.”
Note that “initial impetus” part.
Then one day later, The Oregonian Editorial Board blasted the “street tax mess.” Like the PBA, The Oregonian’s Editorial Board wants a much larger portion of the revenue raised by this program to go toward maintenance and paving — instead of safety projects. (The current split is 56/44 paving/safety. The PBA has advocated for a 75/25 split.) And, just like the PBA, The Oregonian pulled out the following argument to make their case:
Meanwhile, only half the revenue would pay for street maintenance, which is odd considering the tax is a response to a huge backlog of deferred maintenance.
The reality is, the City of Portland has never framed this as being solely intended to pay for paving and maintenance. The “impetus” for new transportation revenue has always included safety projects.
Both the PBA and The Oregonian have just forgotten this fact or they’re intentionally misleading people.
I went back into my email archives to find PBOT’s first press release about the “Our Streets” funding effort. Dated February 3rd, 2014, the release was about a telephone survey of Portland residents that asked about their top transportation funding priorities. A month prior, PBOT had convened an advisory committee to help them craft the questions. Their plan was to use the survey results to craft their entire approach to the program.
The headline of the press release was, “Maintenance, safety top Portlanders transportation priorities, survey says.”
Below is an excerpt from the press release. Note the emphasis on both paving/maintenance and safety:
Portlanders are most concerned about basic maintenance and safety. Consistent with prior surveys and audit reports, general repairs like potholes and repaving ranked among the top four “most important areas to invest in now.”
Four out of six safety needs ranked among the top six “most important areas to invest in now.” Responses identified safe pedestrian street crossings, safety around schools, safety at intersections and transit stops, and the addition of sidewalks as top choices.
The survey reaffirmed commitment to public transit and identified needs for increased bicycle safety. After road maintenance, improving MAX/TriMet and better/safer bicycle lanes were the two biggest needs identified by respondents. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed responded supportive to “safer bike routes to separate people riding bicycles from car and freight traffic.” In response to the question at the end of the poll asking Portlanders to identify “biggest transportation needs,” five of the top 14 response categories were related to public transit service.
Given the results of this survey — where 86% of Portlanders said investments in sidewalks and safety would make them support a new street fee — PBOT’s proposals have always put investments in safety projects on equal footing to paving/maintenance projects.
Going back even further, Hales told The Oregonian during his 2012 mayoral campaign that a new source of transportation funding was “necessary to to maintain and improve the city’s transportation system.”
And (as Portland Mercury News Editor Denis Theriault pointed out in a comment below) Hales was even more direct in 2013, when he told the Mercury, “I see us spending more on bikes and on paving,” he says. “I want us out of the zero-sum game. They don’t need to be in opposition.”
It’s clear that Hales’ inspiration for wanting to raise new transportation revenue was based not just on paving and maintaining what we have, but on building more of the stuff we need to keep all road users safe and happy.
The PBA and The Oregonian are promoting this false narrative so everyone thinks PBOT and Mayor Hales pulled some kind of bait-and-switch with their proposal. That’s not the case. I guess when your priorities are way out of line with what the vast majority of Portlanders want, the only tactic you have left is to mislead and hope your opinions are accepted as fact.
This has never been all about paving and maintenance, nor should it be. We need different opinions and a good civic debate about this important proposal — but that’s much harder to have when these two influential voices are muddying the waters with half-truths.
Michael Andersen contributed reporting to this story.