new revenue, and a host of other projects on pause.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)
“There are some who say, ‘Why would you move ahead with bike share if you can’t pave the streets?'”
— Mayor Hales, August 2014
This story was co-written by Michael Andersen and Jonathan Maus
Now that Portland’s erratic search for new transportation revenue is on “pause”, it’s raised another question for the city: How long will the rest of our transportation agenda be on pause?
There’s no better illustration of this problem than the way Portland’s plan for a public bike-sharing system fell apart.
In a previously unpublished interview last August, Mayor Charlie Hales was characteristically candid about this. He and his colleagues have not prioritized bike sharing, he said, because it might endanger their push for new revenue.
The biggest hurdle to his becoming a champion for bike sharing in the way other mayors have been, Hales told us on the Policymakers’ Ride last August, is “the accidental or deliberate entanglement with the street fee.”
“There are some who say, ‘Why would you move ahead with bike share if you can’t pave the streets?'” Hales said. “Well, those are two separate questions. Both important questions. But it’s politically tempting for those who want to be naysayers to entangle the two.”
“I’d say we’re not highlighting the bike share idea as much because we want people to concentrate on job one,” the mayor went on. “And that is: We’ve got to take care of our streets. It’s a separate question if we should move ahead with bike share or not. But for people that are looking for an excuse to do nothing, the fact that we’re even talking about bike share is an opportunity to say no to the street fee.”
Put another way: If we want the street fee to pass, we’ve got to muzzle all talk of bike share or anything else that the critics might use against us.
In some ways, Hales was correct. It’s practically social science that whenever a bike share system is about to go in, people freak out.
It’s equally true, however, that the freakout always ends a week after the system opens, at which point everyone quickly realizes that public bike sharing is a perfectly fine idea that costs cities practically nothing to operate and makes biking much more visible, accessible and convenient for quick central-city trips.
But in the world of politics, long-run outcomes rarely matter as much as perceptions.
Hales had decided to stick out his neck on the street fee. So on bike sharing, he decided to keep his head down. Or, to use the word that’s becoming distressingly familiar, he decided to put it on pause.
This is what makes bike sharing a clear warning sign of the dilemma Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick have backed the city into. When a project that practically has money on the table from a private sponsor and would cost the city nearly nothing is put on hold, what happens to projects that actually cost money?
The city still has big projects in its pipeline: A major road diet on Southeast Foster, a downtown protected bike lane project. Both began rolling before the street fee fight got hot.
And to be clear, the indefinite stall of bike share isn’t just a matter of mayoral inattention.
“The timeline for bike share depends on the industry and has nothing to do with the Portland Street Fund effort.”
— Dylan Rivera, PBOT media relations
In December 2013, the City of Portland said the sponsorship money was all lined up. Then a few weeks later, sources inside and outside the city told us the press conference to announce the sponsor was imminent. Then everything changed in late January 2014 when Alta’s equipment supplier filed for bankruptcy protection. According to what we knew at the time, the sponsorship talks didn’t get back on track until early March. On March 4th, former PBOT Active Transportation Division Manager Dan Bower told us the agency, “Could announce [the bike share sponsor] any time,” and that it would certainly happen by the end of April.
But the announcement never came.
We still don’t know all the details of how this verbal understanding between the city and its unknown corporate sponsor fell apart. Maybe they got cold feet about Alta Bicycle Share’s faulty hardware, shaky financial status and the mountains of negative media coverage that came with it?
What we do know is that something caused the city to “pause” the bike share effort. That’s the word PBOT Director Leah Treat used in a speech on April 22nd, and it’s the same word Mia Birk used one week later when we asked her why the system hadn’t been launched. “We were very close to having our sponsors ready to go and they are pausing,” she said, “The City and the sponsors are wanting to have more time.”
Months passed and Alta Bicycle Share started to rebound as their New York City system found solid footing and other systems moved forward. But in Portland, as a debate about how to raise new transportation revenue heated up and became ever more controversial, bike share was all but forgotten.
“We’ve never stopped working on developing a bike share system for Portland,” city spokesman Dylan Rivera wrote in an email Thursday. “The money from Metro is still allocated for the project. The timeline for bike share depends on the industry and has nothing to do with the Portland Street Fund effort.”
But as Hales’s comments last August suggest, there are bigger things going on here.
Last year, Seattle’s bike share plans faced almost exactly the same constraints Portland’s do: a contract with the troubled Alta, a sponsor shortage, the risk of media backlash.
Mayor Ed Murray solved those problems personally. He placed a sales call to Alaska Airlines; they signed on as sponsor. Alta turned to a new hardware supplier to get Seattle’s system running. Murray has publicly embraced Pronto, making the system and an accompanying, planned network of protected bike lanes one of his key accomplishments.
Portland has no such champion. All the major players who pushed for it and supported it within PBOT — former Mayor Sam Adams, Alta’s Birk, and PBOT’s Bower — have all moved on. Even Alta Bicycle Share itself, which is now called Motivate, is no longer based in Portland.
The momentum for bike share in Portland has all but halted completely. But as with a dozen other initiatives — some of which, it’s true, will only be possible with new revenue from somewhere — all we’re really waiting for is someone in City Hall to push “play”.
The damage from waffling on how to design and sell this funding package, to the city’s credibility, to bicycling, to any future effort to fix transportation funding, is immeasurable. How a little nobody like me could see this trainwreck 24 months ago, while Hales and Novick and the rest missed that is very hard for me to understand.
(1) You do your homework.
(2) You pick a sensible strategy.
(3) You anticipate pushback but having done your homework you are in a position to defend it (to the death).
(4) Then you pass it with your colleagues on the city council – see (1) above.
And you don’t withhold city functions (like paving streets) to try to sway your case with the public. Hales made some very loud campaign promises about starting first with cutting waste etc. But has done much at all in that regard.
*HASN’T done much at all.
I’m really looking forward to the next election.
You and me both. Would love to throw the mayor and all 4 commissioners out. We’re the city that talks for months about big ideas only to throw them out in the end. Propose idea, offer timid support to own idea, back pedal on idea in the face of even the slightest dissent. Repeat.
To those of you thinking that the next election, when you can exercise your power to vote and “eject,” will magically fix this and everything else, I would caution you to rethink. And maybe think about what you can do now, in the meantime.
The answer to this and any other problem isn’t to just elect and throw out representatives/councilpeople/etc until you find the perfect one who creates a perfect society, but to make sure that you speak up to them about what matters to you. No, that won’t always lead to the solution you want either, but democracy works better if you show up and talk to the leaders involved.
Just a thought:)
Can we recall Hales and Novick? What kind of city council puts all city plans on hold for 14 months while they debate funding options, only to say “well, never mind, Salem will handle it”?
Does anyone know Fish and Saltzman’s role in all this? As far as I can tell, they’ve been saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!” so maybe a good portion of the truth is that they’re the ones making this whole issue so difficult. They seem to have been awfully quiet in the media about this issue and never been counted by Hales and Novick among possible supporters….
On the other hand, if they’ve been saying that any funding option needs to go to the voters up-front (because we all know it will end up in front of the voters anyway, better to do it proactively) then they’ve been the sensible ones. Has anyone been following this closer than me and able to give insight into this?
Unfortunately, all you need to know to understand how city council works in Portland is to be able to count to three.
That’s a good point.
From my recollection I think it it has been Fish that has been adamant about taking it to the voters the entire time. Saltzman seemed to be going that route and then waffled a bit recently. Do others agree with that?
There was a recall attempt against both that failed miserably. And bike share is one city plan, not all of them. One that most people don’t know or care about.
Sam is moving to D.C., where he can use shared bicycles to his heart’s desire.
This whole mayoral term is feeling like a pause: it’s the Hales comma.
Did you mean “comma” or “coma”?
I meant “comma,” but “coma” certainly works as well.
” …all we’re really waiting for is someone in City Hall to push “play”.”
I’ll volunteer to help press “eject.”
On a slightly less sarcastic note, I do appreciate that NE 28th finally got repaved earlier this week, after spending the last several months ground down to reveal streetcar tracks and creating a wonderful assortment of bumps — which I was beginning to think was my personal punishment for desiring better infrastructure on that street.
The real problem is with the Portlanders who (1) insist that perfect must be the enemy of good, and (2) want everyone but themselves to pay.
With those attitudes in control, there will be no new funding, potholes will multiply, and a few painted stripes will be all the new bike infrastructure the city will get each year. Except when a little money comes in from external sources – feds, state.
Good luck, eight and eighty year olds! Bonne chance, interested but concerned! Better get that driver’s license.
Portlanders already pay….quite a lot. My property tax was north of $4300 this year and growing 3% a year. why should Portlanders’ homes be taxed and be expected to pave roads that most everyone uses from all over the region? Hales and Novick were bumbling idiots by not talking to the state in the first place. I wonder what gave them the original idea of a regressive head tax…what could it be?
Who doesn’t want to pay? A big part of the reason I didn’t originally (and really still don’t – I’d rather see it as either as a gas tax, or property tax) approve of the street fee is that they were attempting to bypass the public vote.
I don’t think anyone gives enough credit to the general public on such matters, our schools, libraries and parks usually get what they want. I don’t see how putting it up to a vote from the get go would have been a bad thing.
And in trying to sweep under the rug coupled with the fact that they never really had a clear plan they lost all credibility. They just made themselves look unprepared and untrustworthy. Which yeah, despite the need for better funding such a sloppy piece of legislation shouldn’t be approved.
Most of us bikers or not, would have likely supported a fee of if the ballot/measure was simple, well planned and transparent. And it was never once any of those things.
Yes, It’s crazy that anyone would consider Portland a town that won’t pay taxes. How much did the Arts tax pass by?
I’m not a fan of direct democracy. I much prefer electing representatives and trusting them to make hard decisions than to leave it to the will of the people.
Case in point: raising the gas tax polled horribly. The public doesn’t want it. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
“raising the gas tax polled horribly. The public doesn’t want it.”
I’m curious if this is actually true. Some time back when this was asserted I tried to find evidence that a serious effort was made to ask about the gas tax in that poll done by the City a year or two ago. I couldn’t find anything that would confirm this oft-repeated conclusion.
I found this in PBOT’s FAQ:
6. Why not just raise the gas tax, which could discourage people from driving?
Surveys show that gas taxes are extremely unpopular with the public, and this effort has been shaped by public input. A survey of Portland residents in March 2014 as part of the Our Streets PDX conversation showed that residents favored a street fee over a gas tax and other alternatives.
A gas tax would keep the transportation system financially dependent on the growth of driving and the associated pollution, climate change and negative health impacts. It would continue to diminish in purchasing power relative to inflation. It would also increase the perception that people who bike, walk or take public transit do not financially contribute to the transportation system. With a transportation fee, everyone pays and everyone benefits.
Perhaps you can email them to find out the details of the March 2014 survey.
Yeah, I remember seeing that little writeup as well.
Then I discovered the earlier conversation you and I had here about this (back in October).
That survey was pretty rough though. There were some very leading questions.
Last night I emailed the address associated with that quote to get to the bottom of what actually was asked/answered in the survey re: gas tax. I’ll follow up if/when they respond.
Well after a bit more back channel communication we found the following from a 2013 (PDC/Hales) survey by the same folks (DHM) who were hired to conduct the 2014 surveys for PBOT:
“Thirty-five percent of polled voters said they’d support hotel and rental car taxes to fix roads, compared with 24 percent who would favor a local gas tax. A street maintenance fee tacked onto utility bills and a local sales tax each received support from 12 percent of those polled. ”
This is very hard to square with the language currently found on the PBOT website suggesting strong local opposition to a gas tax.
“The real problem is with the Portlanders who (1) insist that perfect must be the enemy of good, and (2) want everyone but themselves to pay. ”
Where do facts fit into that calculus of yours, John Liu?
Like studded tires;
like free on street parking;
like those who benefit directly from driving their cars all over the place not paying the full cost which their preferred mode bequeaths us;
like how cars and bikes compare under the harsh light of climate change.
Your celebration of expediency does not take account of the medium-to-long-term prospects, of charting a course that might stand a chance of actually solving some of these challenges rather than just nibbling away at the margins, all the while demonstrating to anyone paying attention that those in charge have no plan.
The preceding three comments are all examples of what I’m talking about.
Jeff: make others pay, not me.
Gutterbunny: support only tidy and simple things.
9watt: make others pay, not cyclists.
To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if all you can discern from our comments is that little phrase then I can’t help you.
But I’ll also note that you didn’t answer my questions. Why are you so fixated on ‘everyone pays’? What sense does that make, if we take the longer view; ask how we got into this pickle in the first place, not just the ‘we’re out of money! quick! someone, do something!’ view.
John I think it’s more an issue of people saying “insist that GOOD must be the enemy of SOMETHING.”
Taxpayers have every right to be critical of a new tax that is supposed to supplement something they’re already paying taxes for.
First off, Portland roads really aren’t all that bad. I’m from the Rust belt and I’ll take the worse Portland road over an average Rust belt road any day.
Second, the tax was one of the clumsiest attempts at achieving anything I’ve seen from city hall in —well nearly 20 years of living here.
There was never a clear plan, adjustments were made at such a rate that even those of us that actively followed it in the news cycle, didn’t know what it was.
You’re call for immediate action sounds very familiar to me. Hyping it as an immediate problem that needs ANY (good or bad) action sounds way too much like “Too big to fail”. Quite honestly I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.
I want a good sound system, one that addresses the current problems and one that addresses future problems as well. I’m more than willing to send it a ballot for a well crafted new tax. This tax (or fee if you insist) wasn’t it.
The sky isn’t falling, and yes they might get a little bumpier- but the roads will still be there for fixing if we slow down and do this right.
Well, maybe the next city council will try again, in four years. The “what, me pay” and “it’s not perfect” objections will still be there.
For the bike advocates out there, be aware that after deferring road maintenance for another four years, the next funding proposal will have less allocated for bikes or “safety”.
Portland is way too prone to just accepting ANY tax. I’m glad that we’re actually trying to do this right, and not just accepting whatever they throw at us (which in the past has essentially just been throwing money down a hole for the commissioners to use however they want).
You can keep calling these arguments “it’s not perfect” objections, but someone is not being unreasonable just because they would like a well thought out plan.
do you actually want your home taxed to pay for car-induced road damage? do you even own a house in PDX?
John. quit characterizing me. I said I already pay. what part of $4300 do you not understand? the city doesn’t use the money I give it well. ever ask yourself why others, outside of Portland, are not being asked to pay for the roads they use here in town? its not just Portlanders using the roads. wander around downtown and tell me how many Washington plates you see.
Perhaps playing devils advocate here: Car sharing programs are run by private industry – why do we expect a bike share program being run by the city? Municipal offices are responsible for the needs of the entire community. As passionate as we are about Portlands Bikelandia, Repair & Maintenace of infrastructure will/should (alone for liabilty reasons) always take precedence of new services (Bikeshare will require R&M eventually, leading to us ask in 5 years why the bikes are not fixed when the city has money to start a new scooter rental program). If a city wide bike rental was profitable, Portland would have had 5 private companies running one by now. But its not, so we are expecting the city to create a program that is going to cost money – ergo needing taxes to pay for it. Not sure that I would want to be in the seat trying to sell that to the community.
I would actually prefer bikeshare to be privately run/owned. And I’m a big advocate for bikeshare.
Still haven’t figured out why Trimet has taken up bike share. Check out stations at all the Max, park and rides, and more popular bus stops. Add racks to the back of the buses for shuttling bikes to where they are needed or for direct rental from disembarking passengers.
Seems like a no brainer to me.
I think TRIMET (and other transit agencies around the country) view bikeshare as competition. It definitely felt like this in Minneapolis, where there was a big disconnect between their light rail and bike share (i.e. no bikeshare markings on any official transit maps).
1. Car sharing programs are profitable in part because their costs are externalized. We subsidize free parking in the city on our most valuable property (the streets), we don’t tax gas nearly enough, and cars don’t pay their fair share of the damage they do to the roads.
2. Implicit in your question is that somehow free market capitalism is inherently an indicator of an idea’s value. Maybe we want to subsidize bike share because it will lead to more people on bikes, which will make our city more livable, our streets safer and less congested, our population healthier, our air cleaner, our neighborhoods more walkable. Even if all that didn’t tally up economically (though it most certainly does) I resent the trend in thinking that if an idea doesn’t pencil out that somehow makes it less worthy.
I think what Portland does best is to adopt unloved DIY transportation modes before they go mainstream.
Streatcars, PEDs, LRTs and bikes were done well as v1.O before they go mainstream, now that it’s mainstream and v3 there is too much navel gazing false public process and less leadership (risk adverse) in city hall that doom the bicycle moonshots we still need to do to reach the 2030 mode goals. (The private sector adoption of biking is the one ray of hope.)
Jonathan, given the last 8 years of progress in Portland, I respectfully suggest you rebrand BikePortland as RollerSkatePortland (or something with a buggy whip or a monorail) or time to franchise Bike______ [city of your choice] for the second ring bike cities. 🙂
Thanks for the overview. I was wondering what the hell was going on with our bikeshare here, thinking, “weren’t they saying 2015?”
Their is an old expression. “You can please some of the people some of the time. But you can’t please all the people all of the time”. It seems council is always doing the later.
I think the commission form of government is to blame for many of our problems. It appears to me that the commissioners focus on “their” bureaus and exhibit sort of a “hands off policy” as in “you keep your hands of my bureau and I’ll keep my hands off yours.”
I’d point to the failure of the commissioners to keep an eye on the BES building that ended up costing three time what was originally intended. It’s a building for goodness sake. I can understand it costing some extra when one wants to add some innovative features, but three times the budget?
I can partially excuse the tram because it’s innovative from the beginning, but even so, it looks to be another failure.
Closer to home, I saw streets in SE Portland being slurry sealed last summer and being torn up for sewer replacement in the fall. And, I’m not talking about a few spots with isolated emergency sewer work, but blocks and blocks.
Yet another is the city’s replacement of hundreds of feet of very serviceable, though not quite perfect, sidewalks adjacent to Brentwood Park. At the same time, some of the frontage of the same park has no sidewalks at all! I can only conclude that no one is paying attention to the big picture and that is due to the government structure.
Curious how the tram got thrown in there?
“The tram was jointly funded by OHSU, the City of Portland, and by South Waterfront property owners, with the bulk of the funding coming from OHSU. It is owned by the city and operated by OHSU.”
The tram is driving growth at one of the biggest employers in the city (and the south waterfront neighborhood). Wouldn’t call it a failure at all.
Completely agree about the other issues you bring up (the sidewalk being particularly ridiculous, our neighborhood association told the city about our dissatisfaction that when they finally decide to spend some money in BD, THAT’s what we got).
We have a very timid, “think small” council, afraid of the political gadflies that bubble up out the neighborhood associations. This has less to do with the commission form of government and more to do with the individuals we choose to elect. I have personally voted for each of these council members at one point or another, including all that were up for the last election. With the exception of the Fritz/Nolan race, there were no good alternatives and I’d still have voted the same way. Most social activists who run for election in this city are one-trick ponies with a focus on homelessness or flouride in the water, or demolitions. I’ll skip on those, thanks very much.
Why can’t we get a big-picture, pro-smart growth, pro-walk/bike candidate who isn’t crazy???
You know, eventually when the streets are in bad enough shape, the populace WILL back an increased gas tax. The question is, how much degradation in our streets will the public be willing to endure before they support one?
I disagree that the Seattle and Portland bikeshare situations were similar.
Where I see differences:
(a) Seattle has a huge number of large corporations that could step up as sponsors (Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing, Children’s Hospital, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Microsoft, WaMu, Weyerhauser, Group Health, CenturyLink, etc.); Portland has far fewer. I don’t know the backstory on the sponsors in Portland. But kudos to Seattle Mayor Murray for having a good relationship with Alaska Airlines and being able to get them on board. And to be clear, it was Mayor McGinn (Murray’s predecessor) who led the way on separated bike lanes, getting several built across the city and dealing with the backlash. Glad to see Murray’s continuing to build them out and embracing them.
(b) Portland was looking at new revenue for streets that might be referred to voters, and polling showed narrow-thin margins. The Oregonian-driven Portland media surrounding any high profile bike investment might poison the debate, and losing 4-5% of voters could be the difference between victory and defeat for Portland’s street fee. Why risk a $40-$50 million annual investment in transportation safety and maintenance for a ~$2 million annual investment in bike share?
(c) Most of Seattle’s media has, over the past two years, been brought along by advocates to realize that the “war on cars” narrative was tired and unbelievable. In November Seattle got some new transit money via voters by 59% yes vote, while BikeShare press surrounding its launch seemed pretty universally positive. Check the editorial and news differences between the Seattle Times and Oregonian.
(d) Seattle is booming. There are dozens and dozens of construction cranes, the city adopted an eventual $15/hr minimum wage, etc. The mentality of plenty is omnipresent, which changes how people look at public investments. Major debates are over the loss of housing affordability, what to do with the multi-billion-dollar boondoggle of a tunnel project, how much density to allow where, etc. The city budget is expanding and transit system is growing. So while Portland is healthy and growing, the feeling in Seattle is very different.
None of this is to agree with the assertion that the “pause” on BikeShare was the right call, it’s just to say that the situations in the two cities seems significantly different.
All good points.
Well, lookee here: http://www.pdxcityclub.org/streetfee
City Club thinks a gas tax is a good idea, should be part of the package. Hm.
“In recent years, Portland’s transportation budget has shifted away from maintenance and toward spending on capital projects. Seven years ago, maintenance and operations were more than two-thirds of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s budget; today they are less than half because more money goes to new capital projects and debt service on past projects.”
“If users paid primarily a flat fee, they would be incentivized to use more water or more electricity, driving up system costs for everyone.
Streets are similar. If users pay the same amount regardless of use, the fee would provide no incentive to constrain usage. User fees could encourage more efficient use of streets, keeping system costs down for everyone. They also link consumption to cost, so that those who use streets more pay more for their upkeep. Finally, they spread costs across all categories of users so that no single group has to bear the burden alone.”
This looks like a serious effort. I am cautiously optimistic.