Portlanders itching for more places to ride bikes in the dirt will now have to work extra hard, thanks to a report from the City Budget Office (PDF) that recommends zero funding for two Portland Parks & Recreation projects we’ve been following very closely: Gateway Green and the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan.
Does this mean those two projects won’t be funded? No. The report is just one factor Mayor Hales and City Council will use to decide where money should be spent. But the CBO recommendation does underscore the difficult politics around these two projects and it means anyone who wants to see them become reality will have to make sure their voices are heard in the coming weeks and months.
We reached out the Budget Office, Commissioner Fritz’s office, and supporters of these projects to learn more about what this all means…
Each budget cycle the City Budget Office (CBO) reviews each bureau’s budget requests and issues a report that is then passed onto the commissioners and the mayor. The CBO refers to its work as, “timely, accurate, and unfiltered information and analysis regarding budgeting, forecasting, and fiscal policy issues.” As part of the review, the CBO looks at a range of factors before deciding whether or not a specific project should be funded. Those factors include: how strongly the project aligns with adopted plans, priorities, and policy goals (like equity and maintaining existing assets), whether or not there’s a more suitable revenue source, how important the requested funding amount is relative to the entire project, and so on.
Parks has requested $250,000 in “one-time” funding to help with the ongoing development of Gateway Green (the total phase one project cost is $5.4 million). The project will build a network of bike trails, a bike skills area, and other new outdoor recreational opportunities on a 36-acre parcel at the confluence of I-84 and I-205. This past fall, we reported on an exhibition cyclocross event held on the parcel that gave an exciting glimpse into its potential.
Parks’ $250,000 ask would help the non-profit Friends of Gateway Green raise $1 million by 2016, a fundraising goal teed up by a Metro Nature in Neighborhood Grant they won back in July.
Unfortunately, the CBO does not think this a worthy funding request. Here’s their reasoning:
“The completed Gateway Green will primarily serve cyclocross riders but also include pedestrian trails, a children’s play area, and a field house for environmental education classes. With the planned access improvements, the park will serve 413 households within 1⁄2 mile of the park to the west of I‐205.
While this project does increase park access to households, other bureau capital projects would provide greater increased access to a broader group of residents. As such, CBO does not recommend funding for this project at this time.”
It’s important to note that this funding request is not tied to any actual capital construction. If it was, the CBO says System Development Charges could be a possible source of funds.
We asked Friends of Gateway Green Chair Linda Robinson for her response to the CBO recommendations. “What it means to me,” she said, “is that it will be very important for folks to show up at the budget hearings this spring and advocate for this one-time funding for Gateway Green!” While Robinson will obviously be pushing for this funding, she told us her group has other options they are pursuing in case in doesn’t come through.
The Parks bureau has also requested $350,000 for the Off-Road Cycling Master Plan. This plan has made headlines recently because Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz says it must be completed before off-road biking access is added or improved in any city park. Bike advocates have strongly supported the funding of this plan, but their willingness to support Parks in the request has been seriously tested after the recent decision by Fritz and Environmental Services Commissioner Nick Fish to ban biking at River View Natural Area.
Here’s why the CBO doesn’t think the plan is a wise use of city funds:
“The cycling community has expressed strong interest in expanding off‐road cycling options; however, the current focus of the bureau’s current capital plan reflects its most pressing needs: maintaining assets and expanding access to underserved resident [sic]. Because this project is not included in capital plans and the bureau has other, higher priority capital needs, CBO does not recommend funding this project.”
Advocates for off-road biking have expressed concerns to us about the information the CBO used to reach their decision. For instance, the CBO cites an estimated cost of $120,000 to $300,000 per mile for building trails while one trail building expert we talked to said the actual cost would be closer to $50,000 per mile. The CBO analysis also mentioned that the plan “may identify four to six miles of new trails.”
According to City Budget Office analyst Ryan Kinsella, both of these figures came directly from the Parks bureau. “They did caveat their estimates as being ‘low confidence’,” he shared. While the direct costs of single-track construction can vary anywhere from $60,000 to $150,000 per mile, he said the “soft costs” like staff and design time would double that amount.
While the CBO review of these project is a respected voice in the budget process, even City Budget Director Andrew Scott calls his reviews nothing more than, “a starting framework for Mayor and Council deliberations on the budget.”
Commissioner Fritz’s Policy Advisor Patti Howard put a positive spin on the recommendations. She told us that since they came out earlier this month, “revenues projections have increased significantly so there are now more funds to be allocated.” She also added that Fritz and Commissioner Fish still support both of these projects and urged citizens to speak up for them during the budget process.
Even so, simply having the support of Fish and Fritz will not be nearly enough to get the Off-Road Cycling Plan fully funded. As Scott, the CBO chief told us, “Even in a year with a surplus, there are far more requests than available funding, so we’re comparing requests like the off-road cycling master plan against requests for housing, firefighters, street paving, etc.”
From here, Council will hold work sessions on the budget with CBO staff and public hearings are scheduled for April and May.
After those hearings, Mayor Hales will release his proposed budget and the final budget won’t adopted until late June. Stay tuned.