Support BikePortland

Insiders dish on regional funding measure, BRT dreams, and more at ‘Future’ panel

Posted by on March 3rd, 2017 at 10:50 am

The panel from L to R: Michael Andersen (moderator), Tyler Frisbee, Leah Treat, Chris Rall.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

As the debate in Salem about a major transportation funding package just starts to boil (more on that later), insiders in the Portland region have been meeting for months to decide the framework of a separate, regional funding measure.

The future of that effort and the politics behind it were one of several topics discussed at a panel hosted by the local chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation at a pub in northwest Portland last night. The panel featured: Metro Policy and Innovation Manager (and former senior assistant to Congressman Earl Blumenauer) Tyler Frisbee; Transportation for America NW Region Organizer Chris Rall; and Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat. The discussion was moderated by the ever-sharp People for Bikes writer and former BikePortland News Editor Michael Andersen.

Andersen kicked things off by asking the three panelists for the latest on Portland’s regional funding measure.

Packaging a funding measure

Given the immense amount of investment needed for roads through the state, the transportation package being put together by the Oregon Legislature won’t come close to funding everything. The state package is likely to be about $500 million — and that will have to cover portions of several freeway widening mega-projects, seismic readiness upgrades, port and rail projects, active transportation, and so on. Also on the minds of regional policymakers is that the federal spigot under the Trump administration is wholly unreliable. With those funding realities looming; regional elected officials, transportation agency leaders, and representatives from powerful interest groups have been working behind closed doors on a plan to step up and fill the funding gap on our own.

“There’s a need to address through-put. Unless we satisfy people outside of Portland on that, a package won’t be successful.”
— Leah Treat, PBOT

All the panelists said it’s still early in the conversations, but the prevailing politics that will shape the package are coming into view. It’s a new approach for the Portland area, Frisbee pointed out. “Our region has done very well in the past in getting money from the federal government; but we have to shift our thinking and we don’t know how to do that yet.” Something must be done, she added, because at our current rate of investment Metro’s Active Transportation Plan wouldn’t get built out until the year 2256.

There was a consensus on the panel that the large number of interest groups and leaders around the table has grown considerably since the effort began. Treat pointed out that this large coalition is good for building support — but also makes reaching agreement more difficult. On that note, Frisbee pointed out that other regions that have passed major funding packages recently — like Seattle and Los Angeles — by not trying to satisfy everyone at the same time.

For instance, stuffing a package with lots of funding for transit/bicycling and highway expansions could spell doom because both things are so disliked by various groups the fight it would spark could be fatal. In Seattle and Los Angeles, they avoided that pitfall by having their state packages be more traditional and highway-heavy, while they put together transit-only packages at the regional level. That approach could work in Oregon with the Legislature’s package funding new capacity and road upgrades, while a regional measure focused more directly on biking, walking, and transit needs.

Why even fund any new roads or capacity at all in 2017 when we know the climate, health, and transportation impacts are overwhelmingly negative? It’s all about politics.

Both Frisbee and Treat said the success of any funding package is only possible if it throws some red meat to the “we need more freeway capacity” bloc.

“There’s a need to address through-put [a euphemism for widening freeways],” Treat said. “Unless we satisfy people outside of Portland [a euphemism for people who think the solution to congestion is wider freeways] on that, a package won’t be successful.”

That candid acknowledgment of the need for freeway widening from Treat sparked Andersen to ask her, “What’s the acceptable ratio of freeway capacity projects to active transportation projects?” “My perception,” Andersen added, “is that any money toward new capacity is money that’s just thrown away because it won’t solve the problem.”

Treat paused before saying, “I don’t have answer. That’s a trick question!”

Advertisement

Then Frisbee followed that up with more on how politics trump values. “I don’t think we’re at the point of picking projects yet. And it’s not about a percentage [of which which modes get funded], it’s about what projects do you need to get people on board. You have to build the package for the yes votes.”

That being said, Treat made it clear that in order for the City of Portland to support a regional funding measure it must include these four elements: jurisdictional transfer (from ODOT to PBOT) of Powell Boulevard; money for the SW Corridor project; money for the local surface street/active transportation elements of the the I-5 widening project (a.k.a. I-5 Broadway/Weidler Facility Plan); and it must include a policy that any new tax revenue that comes from increased development as a result of the I-5 widening project gets spent in east Portland. (The Portland Planning Commission passed a similar policy in their meeting this week that said, “City funding [of the I-5 Broadway/Weidler Facility Plan] will be limited to multimodal aspects of the project and to funding sources that do not reduce planned investments to fund transportation improvements in support of Vision Zero and safety and livability investments in East Portland.)

Treat also said that while Portland is willing to compromise on freeway spending, it doesn’t mean biking and transit interests should simply roll over. “We have the advantage that nothing will get passed without Portland’s support,” she added. “So we need to be loud about what we want.”

Will Portland ever get real bus rapid transit (BRT)?

“Who here has shown up for transit at City Hall?”
— Audience member trying (and failing) to prove a point

Being loud was precisely what was missing, Treat said, when Metro and TriMet were planning the Division Transit project. That project started as Portland’s first and best chance to have bus rapid transit where the bus line would have a dedicated lane. But the plan failed because planners weren’t willing to constrain auto capacity and they said expanding the road would be too onerous for the community and to the project’s cost. Andersen asked the panel why that process didn’t result in a dedicated bus lane and asked what steps would need to be taken to make it politically viable in the future.

Treat said she feels “There’s plenty of space on Division to have a bus lane.” However, once again, politics trumped our lofty values. “We started to look at that,” she continued. “But it became a cost of the project we moved off of as a group. There was a lot of dissension [among the stakeholder committees and policymakers].”

Treat and Rall agreed that bold bus service projects like BRT haven’t happened in Portland in large part due to a lack of activism. “Frankly,” Treat added as a reason why Division BRT failed to materialize, “We don’t have people coming to council saying, ‘Hey, we need transit!’ Without that oomph from you all, it’s not going to happen.”

Someone in the crowd seemed offended by the suggestion that no one shows up for transit at City Hall. He asked the crowd, “Who here has shown up for transit at City Hall?” Only four or five people — out of 50 or so — raised their hand. “I think you just made Leah’s point,” Frisbee offered.

Chris Rall concurred with Treat that Portland needs more focused transit activism. He said TriMet themselves wasn’t advocating for a bus-only lane.

Autonomous vehicles and downtown’s future

BRT is just part of the transit future. There’s also the prospect that those buses will drive themselves. While autonomous transit vehicles are in the works, there’s a lot more momentum behind autonomous cars. If the latter takes off first, the case for limiting new road capacity will be even harder to make. On this topic, Treat had encouraging words. She said the City of Portland is advocating for autonomous transit before autonomous single-occupancy vehicles.

The conversation around this topic led to views about the future of business advocacy in Portland. The Portland Business Alliance has historically been a thorn-in-the-side of biking and transit interests. To keep Portland thriving, the PBA says, we need driving to be easier. Rall said the politics of this capacity debate — as it relates to getting more people into the downtown core — “Must start taking into account geometric realities.” This was Rall’s way of saying that basic math dictates a future where private cars simply won’t fit in the central city.

Treat painted a grim picture of downtown Portland. “Large retailers are suffering… Businesses are dying,” she said. Because of that, she believes it’s now more important than ever that new voices in the business community step up. She was very supportive of the fledgling Business for a Better Portland (formerly PICOC) as a counter-balance to the PBA.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

BikePortland is supported by the community (that means you!). Please become a subscriber or make a donation today.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

69
Leave a Reply

avatar
9 Comment threads
60 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
17 Comment authors
rachel bHello, KittymaccoinnichqGlowBoy Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Adam
Subscriber

Treat painted a grim picture of downtown Portland. “Large retailers are suffering… Businesses are dying,” she said. Because of that, she believes it’s now more important than ever that new voices in the business community step up. She was very supportive of the fledgling Business for a Better Portland (formerly PICOC) as a counter-balance to the PBA.

What is Dir. Treat talking about? Other than the Macy’s closing, downtown seems to be doing quite well. There is a ton of foot traffic during the day and new businesses are opening frequently. New buildings are being constructed and old ones are being renovated.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

The PBA knows what it’s talking about. Has known for years. The problem is, I think, their idea about driving in Portland becoming easier, is up against a wall. Hasn’t Downtown already peaked its available capacity for motor vehicle use? I think so. I don’t go down there much anymore, and when I did, I parked out of Downtown and walked in. It was capacity with motor vehicles then.

Many people do need to drive though…I know that. Oregon people outside of Portland where driving is comparatively easy, coming into the traffic of Downtown Portland, may find themselves having a ‘heck with that’ feeling. They don’t want the ability to drive to be so affected by Portland’s traffic. And some of that money the state package is being assembled from…is their money. They have a say in how it will be spent.

“…To keep Portland thriving, the PBA says, we need driving to be easier. Rall said the politics of this capacity debate — as it relates to getting more people into the downtown core — “Must start taking into account geometric realities.” This was Rall’s way of saying that basic math dictates a future where private cars simply won’t fit in the central city. …”

m
Guest
m

I think Amazon has a lot more to do with Retailers “suffering” than cars or ANYTHING under the purview of Ms. Treat.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I oppose most of what the PBA does, but I have some level of faith that they do promote the interests of their members, and, on that level, are trustworthy.

Why do they promote auto access if that is not what the retailers need to be successful? Are the retailers wrong about what they need, or is the PBA wrong about what its membership wants?

q
Guest
q

People who do programming for building design learn that it’s important to state needs in a way that doesn’t jump to a design solution. So the programmer knows when a client says, “I want lots of skylights” it might be they actually want skylights, but they might really be wanting lots of daylight, and don’t realize there are other ways to achieve that.

I’d guess retailers really want customers in their stores, and how they get to the store’s front door is irrelevant. They may actually know (and be correct) that they won’t get people at the door unless they can drive and park within a block, but it may also be that they assume that the only way customers can get to the front door is if they can drive and park easily, and other ways of getting people to the door may work as well or better.

So I’d say the retailers MAY be wrong about what they need.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

God damn it, I want skylights!

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

But aside from that, I agree with what you posted.

q
Guest
q

Good to hear. I often start doubting myself by the time I’m about 3/4 of the way through my own comments.

q
Guest
q

Now I’m thinking it’s more like 1/2.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Type faster; the trick is to click Post before you have time to think.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

“…They may actually know (and be correct) that they won’t get people at the door unless they can drive and park within a block, …” q

Two ways retailers know their customers need to be able to drive and park within a block of stores: 1) their customers…or maybe that’s ‘former customers’…tell them they’re no longer coming to the store, because downtown traffic and parking, has become very hard to deal with. 2) retailers are finding they get less business as traffic conditions and parking availability worsens. They’re making less money.

Maybe that contradicts with what some people see and observe Downtown as still being vibrant, robust and busy, etc. Maybe only some businesses are being adversely affected by difficult driving and parking situations, while other businesses are flourishing despite what are obstacles for some, but not all customers, particularly those that for various reasons, don’t need to travel by car to do business in Portland.

If Portland businesses are doing great despite difficult driving and parking conditions, I’m glad for them. Area shopping malls with their parking lots full, and without homeless people camping out on retailers doorsteps, are glad for them. At least Portland has light rail and the streetcar…and now, bikeshare, for however many businesses’ customers can use bikes for travel in Downtown.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Great reporting again, JM–thanks. My impression is that downtown businesses are most concerned with the impact aggressive street people are having on doing business and, hence, on customer/tourism traffic in the core. We’ve developed a bad rep over the past several yrs. I think Adam’s right about Macy’s and big box stores in general. ‘Cept for Walmart. 😉

http://www.kgw.com/news/local/homeless/vandal-trashes-historic-downtown-portland-office-building/418673607

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

p.s…the scolding to “show up.” I confess it does flood me with jadedness. I really don’t feel like I have a voice in this city anymore, and that wasn’t always true. And I don’t have the energy or heart to spend hours of my free time “showing up” when all it means in the end is a certificate from the Powers That Be saying “Message: We Care” to hang on my wall.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

I live in the Jaded District.

q
Guest
q

Is that the one just after the Poor Ol’ District?

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Heh, q. You mean The Clam? I renamed it. 🙂

q
Guest
q

But if you name your neighborhood The Clam, and then start showing up and testifying at public meetings, wouldn’t you be worried that you’ll get told, “We’re tired of your shellfish demands”?

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

HAR!

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

I used to live in the Stark & Divided District of East Portland; persuaded the city to re-direct over $100 million in transportation funding toward useful stuff, like bikeways and sidewalks, over an 8-year period of unemployment and grinding poverty. I even got one of those certificates you mentioned (Independent Spirit of Portland award 2013). But I got priced out like everyone else. Now I live in the ‘Boro of North Carolina. The City Council here is very friendly as they ignore my activism, as they bankrupt this city to build a new interstate bypass. Sigh.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

You deserve more than a certificate, David. And, hey! Thanks for using my preferred no-nonsense naming system! “Stark & Divided District.” Catchy! 😉

Good luck in NC. I envy you for living there, despite the City Council woes. I would dearly love to be able to move away from here.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I had the same thought. I spent quite a bit of time in downtown Portland last week, and it seemed more vibrant than ever. Interestingly, a huge amount of the foot traffic seemed to be tourists. I noticed a lot more people stopping to check or ask for directions or generally seemed to be learning their way around than in the past. Of course this should be expected with a number of new downtown hotels opening up (AC, Hi-Lo, Rose, etc.)

Other than Macy’s I sure didn’t see any obvious signs of distress. Lots of people on the streets, very few shuttered storefronts, busy restaurants and food carts. On the ohter hand, I do agree with her in supporting a PBA counterbalance.

I just posted some comments yesterday on streets.mn contrasting Portland’s and Minneapolis’ downtowns. Downtown Minneapolis has several times the number of jobs as Portland, yet outside the main entertainment district (think SW Broadway) there’s not much vibrancy to street life. All the affordable restaurants are 20 feet up on the skyway level – stupendously busy during the day, when thousands of office workers come down the elevators for lunch, but not at night when they’ve all gone home. As in Portland, Macy’s is shutting down in a few weeks and selling off the building for $60 million. Barnes & Noble is closing their big 2-story location there too.

Downtown Mpls’ problems are mostly specific to that city (the massive skyway system, plus the main pedestrian mall having been under reconstruction for 2 years), but the contrast in what these cities have decided to subsidize is relevant to Portlanders:
– Portland has, in effect, subsidized downtown retail businesses by providing a bunch of subsidized Smart Park garages. Despite the downtown parking cap, these provide suburban (and other car-based) shoppers with a predictable hourly parking cost and (most of the time) certainty that they can easily find a parking space without circling blocks for 20 minutes as in other cities.
– Minneapolis has, in effect, subsidized downtown office employment by providing a staggering array of express bus routes that go directly downtown from far-flung suburban areas. These use freeway shoulders as dedicated busways when traffic jams up, resulting in very reliable service regardless of traffic conditions. Portland has 5 rail lines and only a handful express bus routes converging downtown. Minneapolis has just 2 rail lines but literally dozens of these express routes. Example: I live 6 miles from downtown in a neighborhood roughly comparable to Montavilla. Although I live by a Frequent Service local bus line, it takes 35 minutes to get downtown. But during rush hour I can get on the #553 Express and predictably be downtown in 12 (yes, Twelve!) minutes. Again there are dozens such routes that only run a handful of times per day but shuttle huge numbers of office workers downtown. So downtown Minneapolis has managed to keep a huge number of businesses downtown that would otherwise have relocated to the suburbs, by enabling their workers’ commutes.

Which is better? I don’t know. Minneapolis has subsidized businesses that employ office workers (via transit investments), with great success. Portland has subsidized retail businesses (ironically, via car-infrastructure investments), also with success. Downtown Portland retail is definitely not suffering. Any improvements in the downtown economy will come from improved transit investment, not further investments in driving infrastructure.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

It apperas that Minneapolis has devoted a significant amount of downtown real estate to urban interstates. Some of these interstates are 12-lanes wide in spots. The interchanges are massive, often with multiple flyover ramps leading to the same spot, I’m assuming for these express busses? For example, if you overlayed the massive I-94, I-35 interchange over Portland, it would occupy the entire South Waterfront.

If Portland wanted a similar express bus system, we would need to widen all of our interstates by a lane in each direction. Our breakdown shoulders are already substandard, and cannot be used by an express bus. If we are going to spend that kind of money, we might as well build dedicated, grade-separated transit that paralells these corridors.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Yes and no. The freeways around downtown Minneapolis do consume more real estate (although, as in Portland, they don’t go through the downtown core itself but wrap around 3 sides of it), and you’re right that the I-94/35W commons along the south edge is a ridiculous 13 lanes wide for some of its length.

As for the express buses, I’m not aware of an extra square foot of pavement that was poured to make way for them. Except for the Transitway between the two University campuses (which is awesome, and open to bikes as well as buses), I don’t think there are any dedicated busways anywhere. The buses only use existing full-width shoulders. Most Minnesota freeways have standard shoulders, except for ramps and the occasional underpass chokepoint.

True that Portland doesn’t have full shoulders everywhere – especially on the horrible Banfield – and even before I knew about the idea of buses driving on them I thought that was one of the stupidest things ever (and I don’t know why the federal DOT has allowed it). If someone breaks down they block traffic and/or put themselves in really serious danger, and cops won’t bother pulling over anyone on the Banfield because there’s nowhere to do it.

It’s a terrible design, but I agree it wouldn’t make sense to widen the Banfield or other substandard freeways just to accommodate express buses. Besides, the Banfield already has parallel MAX service. But it might make sense on some freeways with standard shoulders. It’s a great way to provide fast service with minimal capital cost.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

In general, Minnesotans are more willing to tax themselves than Oregonians: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_tax_levels_in_the_United_States (see the chart and map for State and Local Tax Burden as a % of State Income.) Moreover, Minnesotans are much more willing to use non-vehicle taxes, such as highly-regressive sales taxes and highly-progressive property taxes, towards transportation improvements than Oregonians.

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

Also, Minnesota has about a $5B PERS unfunded liability vs. Oregon’s $22B. UofO students will see a 10% tuition hike next year, plus non-tenured staff layoffs, in part to pay higher PERS costs for tenured staff.

Face it. In Oregon PERS gets paid first. Trickle down for everything else.

Don’t expect much from “regional funding measures” except happy talk.

Asher Atkinson
Guest
Asher Atkinson

>While autonomous transit vehicles are in the works, there’s a lot more momentum behind autonomous cars. If the latter takes off first, the case for limiting new road capacity will be even harder to make.

More likely, it’s just the opposite, as self driving vehicles have potential to more efficiently use existing capacity. Furthermore, self driving vehicles, and related technology, can potentially obviate much of the costly hardened infrastructure the panel is busily planning. For a night billed as future focused, I was disappointed that the topic of emerging technology was barely mentioned.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

Comparing Minneapolis to Portland is like comparing Denver to Atlanta. Look at the home values. People want to move and stay in Portland in higher numbers.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Minneapolis has also seen rapidly increasing housing prices. It is a popular and attractive city with a rich arts scene.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Minneapolis!

People tell me it’s much prettier than Portland, and it smells better! Hair is shinier and sleeker there, and everybody loves dogs! Weed naturally grows…like weeds! And around every corner is a rainbow! AND a pot of gold!

Minneapolis! It’s The New Place For People Who Google ‘What’s the Best Place to Live?”

Adam
Subscriber

It’s really f-ing cold there though! And so many highways everywhere — look at the maps, there practically a grid of them every few miles. Beer’s good though. 🙂

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

The hotdish is amazing.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Minneapolis: It’s For Foodies

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

Warmer in Minneapolis than Portland the last few days. 😉

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

I’d move there in a heartbeat. It’s where my Norwegian forebears settled when they came on over. Well, not Minneapolis, but Minnesota. Fergus Falls.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

four bears. 🙂 they opened a growlery.

HAH!

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

p.s…I love lefse and pale casseroles.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I’m not comparing Minneapolis to Portland generally, I was specifically comparing government investments in each downtown and how they have produced positive results in very different ways.

But even in a general sense the comparison useful, because despite a radically different climate, a much stronger economy (not always good for biking), and far higher car-dependence, Minneapolis has been the #2 bike city in terms of ridership for a very long time. There’s a lot of bike culture and industry here, and a fiesty band of urbanists that are creating real change. Having lived in Portland for 18 years and now being a daily cyclist in Minneapolis, I’m in a good position to not only evangelize here for what works in Portland, but to illuminate for Portlanders what works elsewhere that isn’t happening in Portland now.

This is important, because Portland can be a pretty insular, parochial place. Sometimes that leads to wonderful things and trying ideas that haven’t been tried elsewhere (like Urban Growth Boundaries and killing the Mt. Hood Freeway and using the money to build the Gresham Blue Line). And sometimes that leads to complacency and smugness that Portland’s the Greatest City on Earth, so far ahead of other cities that it can’t learn anything from them (like building more protected bikeways, or building safe bike lanes outside the urban core, or figuring out how mountain bikers and hikers can coexist, or Bike Share until – finally!! – a few months ago, or encouraging more suburban MUPs where bike lanes aren’t getting put in, or keeping more jobs from migrating to the suburbs – especially higher-paying jobs in the western suburbs that are a loooong, usually car-based commute from the eastern suburbs where most of the population growth is).

It’s true that Portland has put more effort into its cycling infrastructure than just about any other city, but it’s also true that ridership has been relatively stagnant for years. In order to get that next big increment, Portland needs to keep doing what it’s been doing that’s good, AND also adopt strategies from other cities that might not be as strong as Portland overall but are doing things that Portland isn’t doing enough of.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

The above comment was directed towards Mark smith’s above, but got placed down here.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I’ve been trying to get Portland to build a network of giant habitrail tubes for people to scurry about above the street network, so far to no avail.

q
Guest
q

Not surprising given your obsession with skylights.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Yes to skybitrails! My sister and I fantasize about a network of those “whoosh!” underground bank tubes (human-size) we could take, i.e., to the sea, to the mountain, to Shari’s…

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

With the system in Minneapolis, you are far more likely to end up at Shari’s than either mountains or the ocean.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

That can only be described as a bonus. 🙂