With friends like Joe Cortright, Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick doesn’t need enemies.
That’s the case Novick made this morning in a sharp response in the comments beneath a widely circulated column we published by Cortright, a local urban economist.
Cortright, who like Novick comes from a generally leftish perspective, had made eight arguments about transportation revenue in the context of Portland’s effort to create a new, local street fund. In the comment below, Novick raises thoughtful objections to two of them.
I have two main problems with what my friend Joe Cortright said in his recent column. First, he’s using generic arguments against a specific proposal while largely ignoring what the proposal actually is. Second, he’s adopting the rhetoric of his political opponents to attack spending on projects that he actually isn’t opposed to.
Joe says people should be suspicious of the word ‘safety.’ The implication is that since we’re talking about ‘safety,’ we must be planning to waste money. But what do we mean when we say we’re going to spend Street Fund money on ‘safety’? We’ve made it very clear that we mean sidewalks, crossing improvements, greenways, and other measures to make it safer for people to walk and bike. Joe acknowledges that in passing, but then warns that future City Councils should reallocate the money to something else. Well, by that logic, you should never send any tax money to government, because they might spend it on something you don’t like. That’s generic anti-tax right-wing logic. And if we follow that logic, there will never be any money for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.
Second, Joe – again sounding just like a right-wing online commenter, or the Oregonian editorial board – attacks the City for spending money on “shiny, big” new projects like Portland-Milwaukie light rail. But Joe doesn’t oppose light rail – nor does he oppose the streetcar, which actually costs PBOT more ($4.5 million a year). Moreover, the City’s investment in light rail is $2.5 million a year – significant, but not a large fraction of the PBOT budget. If Joe had said something that fully reflected both objective facts and what he actually believes (and I say this with confidence because I asked him what he actually believes), it would have been something like this: “Of course, I am a supporter of Portland-Milwaukie light rail, and the city couldn’t pave all its streets for $2.5 million a year. But given that the amount the street fee would raise is still not sufficient to address current maintenance needs, the City should not follow past practice and spend Street Fund money on major new capital projects like PMLR. Mayor Hales and Commissioner Novick’s commitment to spend 56% of the new funds on maintenance and 44% on pedestrian-and bike-oriented safety projects would seem to preclude such practices, if followed by their successors.” Instead, Joe uses the same simplistic rhetoric that anti-transit Tea Partiers would use.
So Joe – I’m one of your allies, and I’m trying to do exactly the kind of things you know need to be done. But you’re using the rhetoric of our common enemies to blast me. What sense does that make?
It’s worth noting that Novick doesn’t dispute the general theme behind most of Cortright’s piece: that the whole system would work better if we stopped subsidizing car use with free public parking and too-cheap gasoline.
Just the opposite, in fact — one week after Cortright’s piece, Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales seem to be taking steps to help raise gas taxes and allow cities to charge for public parking.
Yes, we pay for good comments. We’ll be mailing a $5 bill to Commissioner Novick (or to the charity of his choice, including the Portland Street Fund) in thanks for this great one. Watch your email, commissioner!
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.