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!”
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.