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Guest opinion: It’s time to coalesce around Metro’s transportation measure

Posted by on October 16th, 2020 at 8:36 am

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

For nearly two decades, transportation advocates and forward-thinking politicians around the region have talked wistfully about “The Big One,” the opportunity to ask voters to approve funding for a massive litany of transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects all over the region.

For the last eighteen months, a massive coalition of transportation wonks, social and racial justice advocates and climate hawks shot numerous spitballs at Metro and drew hard lines in the sand to push the agency to propose a transportation package in line with their values of carbon reduction, improved transportation options for the communities that need it most, and addressing violently deadly arterials that frequently kill and harm people trying to cross the street.

This week “The Big One” finally arrives in your mailbox. And this longtime transportation-minded, freeway-skeptic, community organizing rabblerouser is imploring you to vote “Yes” on Measure 26-218.

There are times to shoot spitballs (and lord knows I’ve shot plenty), and there are times to coalesce in support of funding for a vision for the region. I’m writing to tell you that the spitballs have effectively been shot, and now it’s time to support this effort and vote yes.

Screengrab from Let’s Get Moving campaign ad.

You can check the campaign website for the general campaign messaging you’re going to see on television ads and mailers – how Nike and Intel and other wealthy corporations enjoying handsome profits are dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into opposing this measure, how crucial it’d be for our regional economic recovery to create 37,000+ jobs building bus lanes, how miserable traffic congestion is and how much worse it’ll get without massive investment in alternatives, how working families and 91% of small businesses won’t pay a dime. But the skepticism I’ve seen from BikePortland readers and my corners of social media are instead hung up on some belief this package “isn’t good enough for climate” or is somehow “insufficiently anti-car.”

That’s, politely, ludicrous.

What’s at stake

First, let’s be clear about exactly how many substantial bike, ped and transit projects will be funded: $111 million for PBOT’s Central City in Motion plan; major upgrades to deadly arterials we’ve been sick of forever (like SW Barbur, 82nd, McLoughlin, Tualatin Valley Highway, and Powell); $540 million for alone for a transit corridor on 82nd; $9 million for regional trails; $65 million for streetscape improvements in the Albina district, Youth Pass for the entire region, and much more.

If we vote yes, we get to channel our inner Bernie Sanders and tax wealthy corporations to hire tens of thousands of people to build safer streets and make crucial investments in these corridors and programs as economic recovery from our Covid recession.

If we vote no, we get nothing. Zilch. These plans for safer streets and priority bus lanes and separated bike lanes will instead sit on a shelf indefinitely, until Metro finds the guts and wherewithal to start all over and try again. Given the COVID-19 and wildfire-related bankruptcy of the state government, it’s unlikely we’ll find revenue or leadership from the sclerotic state legislature, (and the state DOT will certainly will be less likely to invest in making these corridors walkable and transit-friendly than Metro). There’s not exactly a Plan B for finding the money for any of these investments, many of which have been desperately called for from advocates and communities for decades.

Every one of Cortright’s suggestions on how to get people driving less will be more cost-effective to implement (and more equitable) if we build the streets, sidewalks, bus lanes and bike routes they will need to make the transition to a less car-reliant lifestyle.

But what about climate change?

Make no mistake – this is an investment in a climate-friendly transportation package.

You’ve probably seen the blog posts on City Observatory by my friend and No More Freeways co-conspirator Joe Cortright. While I have immense respect and gratitude for Joe, I simply disagree with his characterizations of this package, take umbrage with the assumptions implicit in his modeling, and laugh at his reading of a political landscape willing to fund transportation improvements with a more pigovian tax mechanism.

Joe’s central argument is that this package isn’t doing “enough” for climate. I’ll happily concede that Joe is correct in that there are other policy mechanisms we simply must pursue to decarbonize our transportation system. Cortright suggests we should be raising the gas tax, instituting congestion pricing, providing more funding for operations for TriMet’s frequent service, exploring the feasibility of progressive-minded vehicle registration fees, and changing the zoning code to get more housing near transit in the suburbs. These are, indeed, largely excellent policy goals and many candidates currently running for office promise to push the city, region and state to move in those directions while empowering frontline communities to figure out equitable implementation.

Before we hit people living in far-flung suburbs with, say, a 40 cent gas tax hike, let’s make sure there’s a safe crosswalks connecting their house to a nearby bus stop.

Asking wealthy corporations to chip in to build more sidewalks and bus lanes across the region is not antithetical to these policy goals; in fact, I’d argue it’s wholly complementary and necessary. Every one of Cortright’s suggestions on how to get people driving less will be more cost-effective to implement (and more equitable) if we build the streets, sidewalks, bus lanes and bike routes they will need to make the transition to a less car-reliant lifestyle.

Before we hit people living in far-flung suburbs with, say, a 30-cent gas tax hike, let’s make sure there’s a safe crosswalks connecting their house to a nearby bus stop (and a bus that has its own dedicated lane so it doesn’t get stuck in traffic!) so that when we find the guts to raise the gas tax, a larger number of people across our region have legitimate alternatives to car ownership. Right now, outside of those of us lucky enough to own property or afford rent in Portland’s central core, very few people in this region could comfortably and reliably get to jobs, the doctor, school, and elsewhere exclusively without a car.

Why would anyone trust a single economist over a unified legion of the region’s top environmental and climate justice organizations?

The climate-friendly region we aspire to is full of dense, walkable neighborhoods with abundant and affordable housing connected by frequent, reliable, accessible transit. Investing billions in the backbone of a regional transit network doesn’t accomplish all of our goals, but it’s a necessary component. If we want to heckle TriMet to make the bus run every five minutes, it behooves us to fully fund the Rose Lane Project (which this measure would do) so every dollar TriMet spends on bus headways is maximized for public benefit.

There’s also a reality check – Cortright’s implicit suggestion that the region should instead pay for these projects by raising the gas tax or a carbon tax is both admirable from a policy perspective and absurd as political strategy. Back in 2016, Commissioner Steve Novick had to fight off $100,000 of opposition funding from Big Oil to pass the municipal 10-cent gas tax. I cannot fathom the well-funded opposition and regional voter tax-skepticism a campaign to substantially raise gas taxes from Hillsboro to Gresham would face, and it’s absurd to suggest there’s any viable pathway to winning that at the ballot box. We’ve literally had Republicans twice flee the state in the last year to avoid voting on market-based climate policy; without reform of our deeply broken democratic institutions, we’re left with imperfect mechanisms to raise revenue to tackle our overlapping transportation, housing and climate problems.

Coalitions matter

A few of the measure’s supporters.

I also think it’s worth pointing out the litany of environmental organizations who have looked over the details of this package and found a lot to celebrate. There’s at times a surprising level of disagreement between local environmental nonprofits who each have different sources of funding and theories on how to achieve their missions. Yet these groups are unified in their support; Climate Solutions is delighted by the funding for electric buses, OPAL-Environmental Justice is thrilled about youth pass, and Sunrise PDX is excited about the funding mechanism and bus lanes. I don’t agree with any of these organizations 100% of the time, but why would anyone trust the judgment of a single economist over a unified legion of the region’s top environmental and climate justice advocates organizations?

Sunrise PDX volunteers made voices heard at a Metro meeting in May 2019.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

These same organizations are the ones that tirelessly showed up to Metro meetings over the past eighteen months – it’s easy to forget that loud community opposition helped scuttle the proposal led by TriMet to ask voters in 2018 for funding for three freeways and the SW Corridor. This package’s contributions to regional equity and climate initiatives was a direct result of impressive organizing from the Getting There Together Coalition, OPAL – Environmental Justice Oregon and Sunrise PDX. Walter Robinson II, Alejandra Gallegos, Vivian Satterfield, Kari Schlosshauer, Richa Poudyal, Ashton Simpson, Maria Hernandez, and so many others deserve immense credit for slogging along with Metro and holding the agency accountable to demanding a progressive funding mechanism, fighting off many of the road projects, insisting on the inclusion of youth pass, and reflecting the myriad needs of the region’s diverse communities. This package includes numerous hard-won concessions won by and for communities of color, and any opposition to this package needs to grapple with why these hard-won victories for transportation justice aren’t worth supporting.

Let’s get real

Not voting for this package because you don’t like the road projects is like not voting for Joe Biden because he won’t ban fracking.

The claim that a ballot measure that overwhelmingly invests in girding a backbone of a regional transit network is somehow antithetical to our climate goals strikes me as preposterous. Even if this mechanism is ultimately not the one that will punish people to get out of their cars the quickest, it’s certainly a mechanism that will make that transition gentler and more appealing to more people. This is especially true for those of us priced out to the periphery of the region, living paycheck to paycheck, crossing haphazard streets to catch an infrequent bus that routinely gets stuck in traffic.

To be clear, I too share frustrations about the particulars of the SW Corridor, the inclusion of the Airport Way Overpass, and a handful of promised suburban parking lots. Given the existential threat that climate change represents and the emotional catharsis I feel every time I’ve attended an event with the brave youth from Sunrise, I assure you that my life is permeated with the climate anxiety that further radicalizes me with every wildfire.

But not voting for this package because you don’t like the road projects is like not voting for Joe Biden because he won’t ban fracking. Yeah, we know the dude should ban fracking, but we also need to unambiguously win an election, and the righteous fight to ban fracking can and should be resumed in January, (assuming we kick the fascist out of office) just as the fight to decarbonize our transportation system will require persistent community heckling after this passes.

I’d also point out that if Measure 26-218 fails, it sets regional efforts for investing in our broken system back by years. Even if you buy Cortright’s argument that this package is a deeply imperfect mechanism, what iteration of our region in the next decade is going to hit our transportation decarbonization goals without these transit investments? While I intend to join Joe Cortright in banging down the doors of the Oregon Transportation Commission demanding reform in the months ahead, let’s not fool ourselves — a “no” vote isn’t going to put any additional pressure on the OTC to reform the dinosaurs at ODOT.

The coming COVID recession is going to require an awful lot of economic stimulus to dig us out of this mess and put people to work. Asking Nike and Intel to pay taxes to hire people to build transit lines and sidewalks that communities of color have been demanding for decades seems like a pretty unobjectionable ask to me.

Join me in voting Yes on Measure 26-218. Let’s get moving.

— Aaron Brown is a community organizer working for the Let’s Get Moving campaign to pass Measure 26-218, although his support for the package was solidified months before being hired for the campaign. Aaron is the former Board President of Oregon Walks, a co-founder of No More Freeways, and a connoisseur of political buttons and stickers. He is a renter who lives in the St. Johns neighborhood of North Portland.

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Hello, KittyJonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)WongDavid HampstenDuncan Parks Recent comment authors
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Champs
Guest
Champs

As much as this feels like the wrong tax at the wrong time I am allowing myself to be convinced.

Joe Cortright
Guest

My friend and brother-in-arms in the freeway wars, Aaron Brown, has crafted a clever rationalization for a multi-billion dollar transportation Christmas tree that squanders the region’s limited financial resources on a series of projects that do little to advance equity or livability, and in the case of greenhouse gas emissions, do essentially nothing.

Aaron asks whether people should believe me or the coalition of groups supporting this measure—many of whom get pet project’s funded in the measure. I don’t ask anyone to believe me, just simply to read the facts and arguments I’ve presented and to decide for themselves. I come at this not because I’ve been paid by proponents or opponents, but based on my own independent analysis of the proposal, and decades of work on issues of urban policy, including transportation, the environment and equity.
https://cityobservatory.org/the-case-against-metros-5-billion-transportation-bond/

Let me reiterate the key arguments here:

This proposal simply takes Portland in the wrong direction. It ties up a huge chunk of capital in a series of projects that do nothing, according to Metro’s own estimates, (and not my modeling, as Aaron implies) to reduce transportaiton-related greenhouse gas emissions. The bulk of the money in this measure is spent the road right of way, where by tradition (and common sense) we’ve asked users to pay.

The Metro measure cannibalizes the payroll tax, which has been the foundation for paying for operating transit. TriMet’s finances are devastated now, with ridership (and farebox revenue) down sharply. It will need more money just to get ridership back to pre-Covid levels. This measure is likely to make it difficult or impossible for Tri-Met to find more money to maintain current bus service, much less expand it. A new light rail line won’t do any good if we can’t afford the salaries of the drivers to operate it. Equity comes from more transit service, especially more frequent buses, not an expensive and under-performing light rail line that runs to a tony suburban mall. (GB Arrington, a long time Tri-Met strategic planner has underscored the manifold shortcomings of the proposal).
https://cityobservatory.org/why-this-portland-transit-veteran-is-voting-no-on-metros-bond/

Aaron asserts that I’m politically naive to suggest that an increased gas tax is possible: But in his own op-ed, he notes that Portland approved a 10 cent a gallon gas tax in 2016 (and omits that we renewed voters overwhelmingly in May). Asking users to pay for the transportation system makes sense, and it puts the burden on those who use the system the most. The state Legislature also voted to increase the gas tax in 2017. There’s nothing magical or impossible about raising gas taxes. In fact, gas prices are roughly 50 cents a gallon lower than they were a year ago: Now would have been the perfect time to raise gas taxes.
https://ycharts.com/indicators/us_gas_price

The Metro measure spends the bulk of its money on improvements to ODOT highways: Barbur Boulevard, TV Highway, McLoughlin Boulevard, 82nd Avenue, Powell Boulevard. Why should Metro taxpayers pay to fix the safety and acces problems of these roads? And by letting ODOT off the hook for these costs, it frees up their resources to push the $800 million Rose Quarter I-5 project, and a revival of the $3 billion Columbia River Crossing. This measure enables the freeway builders, and fails to hold ODOT accountable for decades of failure in the Portland region.

A year, two years or five years from now, as the climate crisis worsens, and as we’re looking for the resources to pay for things that will really make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll regret that we tied up all of this $5 billion in payroll tax revenue (for the next twenty years or more) and got only a 5/100ths of 1 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from transportation. This region can, and must do better than that.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

I’m voting no because the green line extension is a mistake and it makes the package unpalatable. It’s a shame that Metro chose to weigh down an otherwise mediocre to good spending package with a $1 billion boondoggle.

I think its also sad that we are voting on “the big one” and it doesn’t even promise real bike infrastructure. Just unprotected gutter lanes throughout. How is this our best effort? We are being asked to fund a project that wont substantially make it easier to get around the metro without being in a car because leadership doesn’t have the vision or political courage to build good infrastructure.

It’s also silly to discount the analysis of the economist because lots of other groups found something to like in the package. That’s the point of pork. You put something in there for everyone to get them onboard with a package they otherwise wouldn’t like. PBOT came right out and said they did that with the Fixing Our Streets package. Putting token projects in to get votes doesn’t make it a good measure.

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

Aaron,

“…funding for a massive litany of transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects all over the region.” pretty much sums up this effort.

This funding package is a formal acknowledgement by Metro that they have failed for decades to do their basic job of getting local governments to prioritize fixing and improving infrastructure for our poorest and most vulnerable residents. At any stage along the way Metro could have – had the power to do so – to veto bad projects, prioritize funding for good projects, and penalize jurisdictions for delaying improvements. Instead Metro has acted like a rubber stamp for everything and anything member jurisdictions submitted for Metro approval. So why should voters feel any confidence that Metro has suddenly changed their ways and will get these $5 Billion in projects done on time, as specified? Why should voters trust Metro, and why now?

Our house in on fire, so vote like it
Guest
Our house in on fire, so vote like it

Our house is on fire and and Mr. Brown wants the metro region to keep on adding fuel to the fire for ten years.

Let’s get real, Lobbyist Brown, a $7 billion committment to continue to spew tailpipe carbon pollution at historically-high levels for a decade is only “climate friendly” if you believe, like Trump, that the climate crisis is a hoax.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
Member

I voted YES on this measure and encourage others who care about transportation investments to do that same.

Thank you to Aaron for writing such a compelling op-ed about why this measure deserves your YES vote as well.

We should all be very thankful of the numerous climate and social justice groups that worked to improve this measure and are now asking for your YES vote as well.

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

You lost me at the Joe Biden analogy. I do plan to vote green party and not Joe Biden because he won’t ban fracking, plus 100 other things. Remember, voting for the lesser evil is still evil.

Lisa C
Guest
Lisa C

It’s not just Joe Cortright who opposes this, so do GB Arrington and David Brandon. That is a lot of very informed, independent, expert opinion—from pro-transit veterans.

To read them, SW Corridor Light Rail should be opposed because it is a bad idea. A very expensive, bad idea which is possibly not competitive enough to get the federal grants it needs for completion.

Nathan
Guest
Nathan

I wish the Max lines had a third set of rails at as many stations as possible to allow express trains from the farthest out park and ride facilities. The length of journey to get on at the last stop of any of the existing or proposed lines is kinda ridiculous. That extensive time commitment de-incentivizes people to park and ride at those locations and instead drive closer in to get on at a smaller neighborhood station or close in ParknRide (reason why pre-pandemic, the Johnson’s Creek ParknRide or Sunset ParknRides fill up before the Parking garage at the end of their lines do). Every legacy mass-transit system on the east coast has express trains for a reason and it’s frustrating that aspect of rail mass-transit systems continues to be overlooked in Portland. I live a 15 min walk from a max stop and it is always faster to take the bus, spewing out exhaust and sitting in traffic, than to take the Max.

Laura
Guest
Laura

(Maybe) the right plan at the wrong time. I work for a local non-profit that falls over the “will pay” threshold. We are struggling this year, with increased demand for our services, and substantially lower income. We have not replaced those who have left in the past 8 months. With this measure, it just hammers us more, and makes it less desirable for us to hire and grow our ability to serve our community.
With no sunset date, it gives Metro a blank check to spend/misspend our money. At least the school bonds have to be renewed periodically.
Finally, the last minute scrambling by Metro to exclude local governments, including it appears, OHSU, and the “oh, we may not implement the full tax rate immediately” to try and appease the business community, is NOT confidence building.
I voted NO.

Tom
Guest
Tom

The issue here is accountability. This tax doesn’t end even after the projects are completed. It will be paid by a select group of private sector employers with 25 or more workers while public agencies of all sizes are exempt (without legal justification). Taxing companies by size is like taxing people by age. Metro can change the tax rate and even the project list whenever they want (this came up in one of the newspaper Q&A sessions where Metro dodged the question). Those are really problematic issues when you put forth such a large tax measure.

This measure is a vote to give Metro a permanent tax revenue. The light rail, pet projects and racial equity stuff are just part of a big feel-good smokescreen to distract voters.

Bradley Bondy
Guest
Bradley Bondy

I voted yes! The measure certainly isn’t perfect, but it’ll finally bring continuous bike lanes to 82nd in Clackamas County which is a big deal for me. I live a couple blocks away from the street yet almost never use it when riding my bike, even when I’m going to a store along 82nd.

This measure will make similar bicycle and pedestrian safety investments in several East Portland arterials too, as well as McLaughlin, Barbur and TV Highway. This measure is worth a yes vote.

Lazy Spinner
Guest
Lazy Spinner

Sure. Nike and Intel can afford the tax but, thousands of small businesses in our region cannot. Restaurants, local retailers, service providers, etc. will be negatively impacted in an environment that is already seeking record business closures. How many individuals at small concerns will lose their jobs when a 30 person firm trims to 24 employees to avoid the tax?

Like others have stated, the MAX Green Line bill disturbs me. The lack of major bicycle infrastructure improvement bothers me. Road improvements? That will likely only create induced demand due to making driving a more attractive option.

It simply is not the right time. Hopefully in a year or two, the economy will have improved and Metro can re-work this plan before putting it before the voters. In addition, it might be wise to see how the work-from-home economy plays out. If WFH becomes the norm, then many of these car centric projects may not be necessary or can be scaled back significantly.

JR
Guest
JR

Let’s assume payroll is 100% of the expenditures of a company (it’s not, but let’s pretend). This tax would cause a less than 1% increase in expenditures. That’s basically noise with anyone’s budget forecast. Considering the rich tax cut corporations got just from the GOP, this isn’t even a drop in the barrel to improve biking, walking, and transit throughout the region. I’m willing to hold my nose on a couple projects that will grade separate light rail from traffic – heck, I’m not that philosophically rigid.. those are OK too. I already voted YES.

chris m
Guest
chris m

The reason I would trust an economist over a coalition of nonprofits is that economists are dispositionally inclined to evaluate tradeoffs. All of the “pro” arguments on this measure indicate there will be a further tax hike to fund operations (presumably a payroll tax increase because that’s what TriMet does) and a later gas tax increase to achieve climate goals. One of Cortright’s key arguments is that TriMet is going to have an extremely hard time raising more money for operations if this passes. I have not seen proponents of the measure address this… perhaps an additional tax on top of Oregon’s very high income taxes, TriMet’s .7% tax, and this .7% tax will not pose a major problem but it’s an argument that should be addressed.

Michael Andersen
Subscriber

Good argument!

That rail line does suck though. Really really wish we could have done this without it.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

As the former chair of my NA transportation committee who has relied on trimet, walking and biking as my primary means of transportation for the last 15 years who absolutely believes we need transportation funding, I think this measure is a weak program utilizing a weak funding arrangement with weak quantitative outcomes. 

Many of these issues with the program, funding arrangement and outcomes have been described by Joe C and others in this thread. In a mtg with Metro President Lynn P earlier this year she said that transportation should be funded as a basic utility like water or electricity (paid for by the user). I’d agree. This measure does not do that. 

If instead of the users paying, one could contend that transportation is a basic service and all should pay. If so, we also have existing mechanisms for that (Trimet, ODOT & PBOT/cities). 

Instead of wishful thinking ODOT will fund improvements to their highways, create nice guidelines, not spend their budget on the rose quarter or interstate bridge and complete jurisdictional transfers, why not first ensure the items this community wants from ODOT are secured before taxing metro area non-government businesses over 25 people. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. 

I also agree we need to ensure Trimet has the funding it needs for the existing system to survive the current crisis before utilizing the payroll tax for other means.

Lastly, we are in the midst of a downturn that isn’t over. Every business or family has had to adjust their plans. So should Metro. For me, that’s the prudent thing to do. 

Doug Hecker
Guest
Doug Hecker

I voted no.

Matt S.
Guest
Matt S.

No sunset clause, no thank you.

Wong
Guest
Wong

This is not “asking Nike and Intel to pay taxes”, this is “asking Nike’s and Intel’s employees to pay taxes”. The actual corporations Nike and Intel (and every other Oregon employer that has more than 25 employees) won’t be paying a dime of this tax. They’ll simply pass it on to their employees. This is a payroll tax. I already pay a couple bucks out of every paycheck for “Oregon Transit Tax”. This tax would be yet another line item eating into every employee’s paycheck.
This is a regressive flat tax, like sales tax. I agree that Metro needs funding for these projects, but given the current state of income and wealth inequality in this country, the tax should be progressive: taxing higher incomes at higher rates, and preferably not taxing low-income citizens at all. Going forward, we should insist that most new taxes are progressive.