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PBOT eyes tough choices as 10% cut looms over budget process

Posted by on December 18th, 2020 at 2:11 pm

Biketown and its sister program Adaptive Biketown are just two of the popular programs on the chopping block.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“I’m just speaking from a parent’s perspective and how hard it is to to get certain things done for schools; and to see more cuts even proposed… it’s frustrating.”
— Meesa Long, PBOT budget committee member

Something’s got to go in Portland’s transportation budget next year and the decision about what gets cut is right around the corner.

There are many challenging structural issues with how transportation is funded in the City of Portland and impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic have brought them into even sharper contrast.

One of the troubling quirks in PBOT’s budget is how a sizable portion of their discretionary revenue comes from people driving and parking in the central city — a behavior in direct opposition to many citywide goals. In a typical year parking-related fees from meters, permits, and citations make up about $50 million or one-third of the bureau’s total discretionary revenue. While traffic has inched back up to pre-Covid levels, parking still lags way behind and the hit to PBOT’s budget has been severe.

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General transportation revenue loss FY 2019-2020.
(Source: PBOT)

PBOT says parking revenue was down 90% in April and remains about 55% below forecasted levels. And the outlook isn’t great either. PBOT staff say it could take years to return to baseline revenue levels — and the baseline itself might have shifted for good.  

Combined with declines in revenue expected from state and local gas taxes (the other source of funding not dedicated to specific uses), PBOT faces the daunting task of shaving 10% from its “general transportation revenue” (GTR) for the 2021-2022 fiscal year (July 1 to June 30). With help unlikely to come from the city’s general fund (which only accounts for a paltry 0.22% of PBOT’s budget), this means PBOT will have to trim from popular programs and services that are already pretty lean.

Will we cut teaching kids how to bike safely?

Last night the PBOT Bureau Budget Advisory Committee (BBAC) began the hard work of prioritizing where the cuts will come from. Everything is on the table, including cherished projects in the Active Transportation & Safety program. At the meeting, members were given a presentation from PBOT staff that included a slide proposing potential cuts to: the Biketown bike share system ($35,000); Biketown for All ($50,000); Safe Routes to School ($65,000); Sunday Parkways ($40,000); and the Transportation Wallet, a service that offers discounted bus, bike, scooter and streetcar fares ($20,000).

Other possible cuts could include: a $900,000 cut to the sidewalk budget, a $400,000 cut to maintenance of street lights and signals, and a $400,000 cut to street cleaning just to name a few.

Committee member Meesa Long was surprised to see Safe Routes to School on the list. “I’m a teacher and I work and live in a neighborhood that has no sidewalks and Safe Routes to School is a really big deal for me and my neighbors and my colleagues… I’m not really sure what they would cut,” she said. In a typical budget cycle, making it safer to get to and from school would be an untouchable priority — but with no return to schools in sight, some people think it’s less important.

When a PBOT staffer clarified that the Safe Routes to School cut wouldn’t impact street projects but would come out of an in-school safety education program, the Long was still concerned. “I’m just speaking from a parent’s perspective and how hard it is to to get certain things done for schools; and to see more cuts even proposed… it’s frustrating.”

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When it comes to Sunday Parkways, a different committee member had a similar point of confusion. “Are those [events] even happening in 2021?” he asked.

Committee member Sarah Iannarone, who received 41% of the citywide vote in the recent Portland mayoral election and represents the Bicycle Advisory Committee, made a strong plea to avoid cuts to bike share and transit discounts. “I’m having a hard time looking at a $20,000 cut to the Transportation Wallet, which we fought so hard to get in place, with $300,000 in take-out [food] for police at protests this summer alone — that’s more than all the cuts proposed to Active Transportation combined [$210,000].”

“We should be fighting against cuts like this because we want to be growing these programs. We want to be growing access for people with disabilities into cycling, not cutting into them.””
— Sarah Iannarone, committee member

“I feel like $20,000 from the Transportation Wallet is robbing us of something that is a rounding error in the whole city budget,” Iannarone continued. “and we should be fighting against cuts like this because we want to be growing these programs. We want to be growing access for people with disabilities into cycling, not cutting into them.”

PBOT Director Chris Warner.

The BBAC’s task over the next few weeks will be draft a letter with recommendations that will be sent to PBOT leadership and city council members in January. Adding to the challenge of this year’s budget process is that Mayor Ted Wheeler has not yet appointed a commissioner to oversee PBOT. In lieu of political leadership, the BBAC must lean on PBOT staff and their three priorities of safety, equity, and climate.

PBOT Director Chris Warner is leading the process. He shared with me earlier today that the agency is, “Facing the need to make hard decisions.” He said their budget decisions will be guided by minimizing impacts to strategic and equity goals. Budget cuts hold particular peril for equity initiatives because recent hires (that reflect a commitment to employ Black, Indigenous and people of color) are often the first go. There’s also a concern that service cuts hit hardest to those who need them most. At the September Budget Advisory Committee meeting, Active Transportation & Safety Program Manager Catherine Ciarlo pointed out that, “It takes more work to deliver programs to our our traditionally underserved communities than it does to deliver programs to our usual suspects. And more work translates to more money.”

The BBAC has its work cut out this year. Director Warner will need their input. “We’ve asked them to give us their advice about where they would make cuts and where cuts would not be tolerable,” he shared today. “This is a difficult process and we value the thoughtful insights we have received from our committee members thus far.”

Stay tuned for more coverage and opportunities to weigh in on the budget process.

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

Is that the entire Sunday Parkways budget? Because… couldn’t we just not have those in 2021?

David Hampsten
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David Hampsten

In 2010 we had to cut $16 million from the PBOT budget when I served on the TBAC.

The first thing you cut are unfilled staff positions. Remember, you are dealing a projected budget, so it’s not at all like your home budget. These positions are not yet filled, but your baseline budget shows them as filled. A typical position is around $150,000 on your budget, so a cut of 50 unfilled positions is 50 x $150,000 = $7,500,000.

Then you’ll have some people taking early retirement, quitting, and regular scheduled retirement, say another 20 positions total. Another $3 million cut.

That leaves about $7 million more to cut.

Next on the list is reduced street repaving and maintenance. You don’t want to cut too much because for every $ you spend now, you save $11 later on increased costs. Let’s cut $2 million and look elsewhere for $5 million.

Some of the bond payments can be deferred, for another $2 million, leaving $3 million.

The $3 million can come from other delayed projects, based on the cuts to unfilled positions and retirements.

Nothing more to cut.

Chris I
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Chris I

Probably best to just plan on cancelling Sunday Parkways now. Avoid any planning costs and focus that money on safe routes to school. I love Sunday Parkways, but with the US not expected to reach herd immunity levels until later in the year, it seems like Sunday Parkways 2021 is not the best idea.

SolarEclipse
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SolarEclipse

Probably not pertinent to the discussion, but just as an FYI (in case I missed it in the article), the Mayor has asked all City bureaus to cut their budgets, not just PBOT.

Phil M
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Phil M

Make your own personal Parkways anytime you want. Lot more enjoyable not riding in a large mob anyway.

JoBra
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JoBra

New Gas tax!

hamiramani
Subscriber

Seems like it is time to change the way we fund active transportation. Why should we rely on gas taxes and car parking revenue to fund active transportation? This method makes it easy for city leaders to avoid investment in their people and continues he hegemony of the automobile and oil industries. What other funding methods are possible?

Pascual Perrin
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Pascual Perrin

Cutting Sunday Parkways for 2021 is a no brainer. Won’t be ready for it due to COVID.

On another note, Inarone is as worthless as a committee member as she was as a mayoral candidate.
She must think money grows on trees.
All these leftist protestors/rioters that she supported helped destroy our downtown economy and our tax base. Who wants to spend their hard earned money to come visit a bunch of plywooded businesses surrounded by garbage and hypodermic needles?

I disregard anything Sarah “I AM ANTIFA” Inarone says.

Roberta
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Roberta

I don’t understand why the Freight program isn’t also on the chopping block? That group has consistently pushed down minority voices. And really the entire program should be headed at the Metro Regionol Council. It’s not a city solo function and has a bunch of sway from people who don’t live in Portland having more say then Portland residents.

That being said, I’m also OK with cuts to Safe Routes to School. At least a pause for the year. The entire program is a way of not addressing equity issues in all trips across the entire network.

I’m also OK with no Sunday Parkways. Why are we paying for services which protestors and bikeswarm/criticalmass types already run crowd control just fine on major protest, which felt a lot like Sunday Parkways, anyhoo. Plus Sunday Parkways draws retail action from typical retail strips like Hawthorne and moves it to Parks. Which I don’t like commercializing parks. That’s what commercial retail zones are for.

And I agree with most of what Sarah says; keep the bike share and reductions in public transit fares for low income, disabled and YOUTH PASSES. We should be cultivating the next round of public transit riders. We don’t need more bike fairies.