Often the most effective methods of influence available to the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s various modal advisory committees is to write letters. There are three modal committees — one for bicycling, one for walking, and one for freight and trucking — all of whom regularly write letters to elected officials and/or PBOT leadership to express positions on projects and policies.
Something very rare happened last week when the Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) emailed a letter on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter Project to PBOT staff (the letter would be included in PBOT’s official comment submission). A staff member, PBOT Rose Quarter Project Manager Sharon Daleo, wrote back. “Would the PAC be able to revise and resubmit… ?”
The request caught committee members off-guard. Not only was the timeframe for completing the letter very tight (just one week, right in the middle of holiday break), but the reason for Daleo’s concern raised eyebrows.
First, some context: The PAC was just one of dozens of local groups that sought to weigh in on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s controversial project that proposes a lid over I-5 through the Rose Quarter and an expansion to the freeway between I-84 and the Fremont Bridge. ODOT opened the official (federally-required) comment period for the Supplement Environmental Assessment on November 15th and the comment period closed yesterday, January 4th. The PAC first met to consider the letter on December 20th.
For their part, PBOT is in a very awkward position. A former commissioner-in-charge of PBOT disliked the project so much that in October 2020 she made the unprecedented move of issuing a stop work order and pulled the city out of the project entirely. PBOT didn’t officially re-engage with the project until this past summer when they were told by a different former commissioner that if they weren’t at the table, they’d be eaten for lunch (to paraphrase one of Jo Ann Hardesty’s favorite quotes, “You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu.”) While PBOT staff must support the project, opposition to it still runs very deep among among many Portlanders — including members of the PAC.
That strong opposition is what led to the language in the letter that made the PBOT project manager uncomfortable.
The original version of the PAC’s letter stated, in bold in its third sentence, “We call on PBOT to withdraw support of the Hybrid 3 concept,” and then continued without emphasis, “which would introduce a highway off-ramp into an area with heavy foot traffic, remove crosswalks, and generally worsen conditions for active modes.” They repeated this call to withdraw support in the final sentence of the three-page letter.
According to an email shared among committee members, Daleo said the call for PBOT to withdraw support was her “biggest concern” and she urged the committee to change that sentence. She said she hoped, “[the PAC] can adjust the wording to have more alignment and less inflammatory [language].”
As we reported in a story back in November, Daleo has already been working to tamp down concerns from constituents who are fearful of what ODOT might do to bicycling and walking conditions around the freeway. She tried to reassure PAC members of the value of PBOT’s continued involvement. “The only way we get these concerns resolved is if the City remains engaged in the project,” Daleo wrote in an exchange shared with the committee.
Daleo’s feedback on the letter sent committee members scrambling. One of them told me all but one of the members on the email exchange expressed frustration and concern about both the process and the timeline.
Reached for comment, PBOT Communications Director Hannah Schafer said she didn’t feel like it was problematic for a staff person to attempt to influence an advisory committee’s letter. Isn’t this like putting a thumb of the lever? I asked, “I don’t think it was putting a thumb on the lever,” Schafer replied. “It was staff trying to do their job of advising community members. I don’t think it was trying to silence anyone. We are not in the business of silencing committee members — that goes against fabric of our organization.”
Schafer said when the manager of a controversial project told volunteer committee members to change the wording of a specific passage in a letter that would be read by their partners at ODOT, “It was mean in the spirit of advice, which is the way we try to work with our committee members.” “We don’t decide what goes in that letter,” she continued. “We just advise.”
In the end, Daleo’s feedback did in fact help decide what went in the letter. Instead of a clear call for PBOT to withdraw its support of the project, the opening of the final letter states: “We call on PBOT to oppose the relocation of the I-5 SB off-ramp, closure of crosswalks, and other components of Hybrid 3 that will worsen conditions for active modes.” And instead of the final line saying, “We urge PBOT to withdraw its support of the Hybrid 3 concept,” it now says: “We urge PBOT to withdraw its support of the components of the Hybrid 3 concept that will worsen conditions for pedestrians and anyone else not in an automobile.”
Regardless of PBOT’s intent here, the episode has left a bad taste in the mouth of many committee members.
“PAC members are pissed and the chairs of the committee have requested a debrief with Sharon to air our frustrations,” one of them wrote in an email to BikePortland.
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I hope those who laughably interpreted this incident as some rogue staffer going off message *** moderator: substituted “off message” for insensitive phrasing *** now understand that PBOT management was simply “influencing” the advisory committee. Who exactly is advising who in this relationship? It’s also instructive that the committee caved in to PBOT’s demands for a re-write. This rubber stamp dynamic rooted in PBOT’s lack of accountability in creating committees (and in outreach) is part of the reason why this city has made so little progress on its mode share goals.
Thanks for that correction for my really shitty phrasing.
You’re welcome. Actually another reader brought it to my attention, it’s really nice when folks do that in an email rather than as a comment. Makes it less of a callout.
I had never heard the phrase before, when I read it I assumed it was an auto-correct word substitution. Lol
I regret using a phrase that was disrespectful to native people and think the reasons for the moderation should be publicly noted:
Hannah is completely right. PBOT does not try and silence folks…they just ignore them completely.
I truly can’t understand why anyone would trust or put stock in a single think that comes from PBOT. It’s a failed agency in a failed city. The whole city government should be dissolved.
PBOT’s one and only focus is people behind the wheel of a vehicle. Everything else is performative nonsense.
But hey, congrats to Hannah and the rest of the team for setting a new record for deaths on the streets #ZeroVision
I used to have such high hopes for PBOT. Doesn’t it seem like they used to have higher regard for people outside cars than they do now?
The reason PBOT and the city are not meeting mode share goals start at the top with Mayor Wheeler and other members of City Council. They are the ones who approve the budget for the future. Director Warner should be submitting a better budget to the Transportation Commissioner. PBOT Bureau & Budget Advisory Committee only has one bicycle representative. The city and PBOT are not organized to fight climate change. They are organized to support PBA and fossil fuel burning.
here is the budget that Commissioner Hardesty submitted last year (January 2022). https://www.portland.gov/cbo/documents/fy-2022-23-bureau-requested-budget-transportation/download
And your point is …??
The PBOT budget is available for review and public comment. People on the PAC, BAC, BBAC have some, but also limited, power. We should be finding and electing people like Sam Adams, Earl Blumenauer and others who want Portland to be more bike, walk and transit friendly so letter writing isn’t needed. There are lots of good bicycle projects that have been built, are being built, and are under design. But there is still so much more that needs to be done. Portland will become a better city if it invests or spends appropriately and the people of Portland are ever vigilant..
Sounds like at least some members of the PAC have no concept of compromise and collaboration , which is a necessary element of making our society a better place for all. Sort of reminds me of the far right Republicans in Congress right now.
Compromise and collaboration aren’t relevant or admirable in a situation like this. The committee’s job is to advise PBOT. And it did.
If a doctor tells their patient to lose weight and stop smoking, and the patient says, “How about just one of those?” the doctor shouldn’t be commended for compromising and collaborating by agreeing to change their advice.
That sounds a lot like something Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida would say. In my opinion rigidity and absolutism are not going to get us to a better place.
So you’re saying the patient is better off if the doctor withdraws the advice that they believe will keep the patient alive and healthy? That’s literally what my example was.
Here’s another. If the bridge project goes ahead, and ODOT wants to save money on construction, and tells the structural engineers to revise the plans to eliminate half the code-required reinforcing steel, do you want the engineers to agree to that, or maybe to compromise and remove 25%, to “move the project along”? I’d want them to refuse with rigidity and absolutism.
When the project is getting built, and the inspector notices that the contractor has substituted 20″ deep steel beams when the plans call for 24″ deep ones, do you want the inspector to compromise? Or do you want them–as I would–to order the contractor to tear them out and build things per the plans?
Many of the major structural collapses of bridges and buildings have happened when someone has compromised, leading to deaths. Obviously (to me, and to virtually everyone involved in those projects) those compromises to structural design were wrong.
So why would you think that compromising on other aspects of the design is a positive thing? In this case the advisory committee was commenting on design aspects that are critical to function and safety.
How do you imagine this all works? The mighty PAC has to make concessions, so that ODOT can function?
What kind of power are you imagining The PAC has?
That is a laugher of a bad faith comment from “Mauri Rocco”. Wow — if I were Jonathan I’d be hitting the permanent delete button on trolls like this.
What a shame that they agreed to soften the language. I’m surprised that they folded. Is there any way we can get a guest piece here from BAC members so we can get a deeper understanding of the backstory? I’m curious if they have done this previously. Also, does anyone know if Roger Geller is still alive? I’d love to see a guest piece here by him as well (or see him interviewed by Taylor) so we can get his views on things like the freeway project, the role of the BAC, the ossification of PBOT, the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises, and the state of bicycling in PDX in general.
This is the PAC, not the BAC.
Oops, my bad, thanks for the correction.
There is a lot here. The story is not as it seems, as the emphasis should be elsewhere because there is a compelling story in this article. Being asked to make a change here or there in a letter by PBOT staff isn’t earthshattering. What is more surprising is that in spite of initial guidance the PAC went ahead and opposed the project anyway. With both this and IBR there has been more of a push to add conditions and point out deficiencies rather than try to shut it down as that is something advisory committees are better suited to do. That this project is so poorly designed that the PAC did not see a way forward with the build option is striking and quite the indictment of ODOT’s performance and competence.
PBOT including these letters in their official packet is something newer and presents its own challenges. Hannah is correct that PBOT doesn’t so any silencing, and advice is just that and can be declined by the committee. However what isn’t mentioned here is that if a committee sends a letter directly to an outside body it has to go through the Office of Government Relations, which very much can perform the silencing if a letter is not aligned with the city’s position on a project or issue.
ODOT has washed this project in so many colors that it should be embarrassing to anyone working on it from their side. However here they are with a new website, new committees hand-picked by them, new lids that were shoved down their throats, all so they could maintain the freeway expansion they so desperately wanted. The street level elements are terrible for every single mode, even drivers, and that ODOT won’t let any of this go shows how incapable they are of meaningful change.
Finally, Hardesty was and is correct that PBOT needs to be at the table, the atrocious designs are what happens when ODOT is allowed to design an urban project without intervention. However as a Portlander I would like to see Commissioner Mapps take a stance where it is abundantly clear that participation is not to be conflated with support. ODOT loves listing out all of the participating governments/community partners when sharing projects and PBOT/City of Portland should not be nonchalantly added to that list.
I actually did a previous story about the bigger story here – which is how both the PAC and BAC have so strongly opposed the project.
Thanks for your comment.
That’s a great point you made about how this is what happens when PBOT is not at the table. This whole new interchange design, which is clearly inferior to the one that PBOT and ODOT previously developed together, was created by ODOT during the time when PBOT had pulled out of the project. So ultimately it is a good thing for PBOT to be involved. Time will tell if some of the damage can be undone.
Ultimately I think the letter landed in a good spot. It makes the most important points that needed to be said. I can understand the PAC’s frustration, though.
Did want to give a big “KUDOS!“ to the members of the PAC willing to be collaborative and alter the their requests to be more approachable. Extremism is getting us nowhere in trying to improve our communities.
Spending $1 to $1.5 billion to widen an urban freeway is an extreme act by a government agency. As a taxpayer, you should be outraged.
A few things:
Claiming that what happened is rare is incorrect. Staff often work with the advisory committees to make sure advisory committee feedback (to the bureau, to city council, to partner agencies) lands most effectively. This is in alignment with the comments Daleo made to the PAC and the changes the PAC made to the letter; the PAC went from saying “this concept should be abandoned” to “the parts of the concept that don’t work for pedestrian safety, convenience, and conveyance should be abandoned”. Saying the agreements that have taken years to get to should be abandoned is likely to get you ignored, as Daleo well knows.
Some are conflating the ask by PBOT’s Daleo as pressuring the PAC to green-light the project; this misapprehension isn’t helped by erroneous reporting in this article, quoted below.
This characterization of the changes made to the letter is factually incorrect. The PAC letter was not asking PBOT to withdraw its support from the project. Reporting earlier in this article states it was asking PBOT to withdraw its support for a specific design concept (Hybrid 3) that has been developed as a solution to the project’s purpose and need. The PAC would be within its rights to pen a letter asking PBOT to withdraw its support for the project, but that’s not what any version of this letter was.
This project and the process are both highly disturbing, but this isn’t the instance of PBOT trying to grease ODOT’s wheels that people are imagining and that this article seems to suggest.
Give me a break, AFT. The hybrid 3 concept was a last chance compromise by Brown and Kotek to rescue this boondoggle from rapidly approaching failure. By asking the city to reject the hybrid3 concept, the PAC was clearly communicating their disapproval of this last ditch attempt to save this disastrous project.
If by boondoggle and failure you mean the quality and efficacy of the design, then I agree with you. ODOT doesn’t seem to principally care how things work (e.g. tolling is a much more effective means to address their stated problems at this location), just that they can continue to use a particular toolbox to support a particular (fallacious) worldview. That boondoggle and failure was also the easy route to getting the folks on board ODOT needed to politically green-light the project. As for the project’s political and technical viability, by the project’s reckoning they will be starting construction on the peripheral elements this year, those elements that don’t depend on the current discussions. I’m not seeing the desperation or snatching victory from the jaws of defeat that you are.
You have a clear idea of what Hybrid 3 means in your head, but there’s not “clearly” the indication it means the same thing to the writers of the letter. The PAC is full of smart people; if they/it thinks PBOT should entirely oppose the project (and remove itself as a result? Because that worked well), it would have, could have, and should have written exactly that.
I think David Stein’s suggestion that the city oppose the project while still being involved in its shaping is a good one. Basically “the city thinks building this makes achieving all our aims more difficult, but if you are going to do this, it’s going to happen at least somewhat on city terms, because without the city’s participation it’s going to be even worse”. It’s a tough balance to strike—making clear that city participation is not a legitimization of the values and outcomes driving the project. But it is logically consistent and maximally effective. That is the leadership I would like to see here.
With growing skepticism from Hardesty, Metro, and the AVT the writing was on the wall for this project — at least until Brown saved the day by negotiating a compromise that promised buildable caps.
Bike Portland coverage:
Without local government buy in this project is unlikely to get Federal funds and this kills it, ATMO.
I disagree AFT.
I’ve followed PBOT modal committees for many years and cannot recall an instance where a non-committee staff person so clearly changed a letter in a project context like this. And context matters here. If this were just some random project, this story would not be here. But given the political dynamic around this project, the exchange between Daleo and the committee is a bigger deal IMO. And I’m not arguing for either side here. I’m just pointing out what happened. That 1) the PAC members agreed to a letter 2) PBOT staff said the language was too strong 3) PAC members were frustrated and 4) PAC members significantly changed the letter.
City rules allow two or members of any city committee to write a “minority report” or letter that differs from the main one that is delivered through the same means as the main report or letter. In some instances, the minority report has eventually become the main report. If members feel so strongly about this rewording, are they contemplating a “minority report”?
Now you are qualifying and changing the goal posts.
You’ve got your experiences and I’ve got mine; given our different fact sets we can disagree about whether this is rare or not.
While this is a significant project, I’ve already tried to illustrate that the change to the letter is not significant: going from “PBOT should reject this concept because we don’t like things A, B, and C” to “PBOT should reject A, B, and C” is focusing your ask to what you actually want; a worrying and significant change would be going from “reject this concept because there is no acceptable way to make it compatible with active transportation safety and movement” to “optimize this concept to improve active transportation safety and movement”. You and others are free to continue characterizing this as a concession and compromising.
To me, a letter that says, “We want you to withdraw support” is much different than one that says “we don’t like x,y,z components.” If it wasn’t that different, the PBOT staffer would not have reacted like they did.
Also, IMO what you and I think about this isn’t important. What is important is how PAC members felt. And my reporting clearly shows that they were frustrated and surprised by the interaction.
Again a mischaracterization. Spell out the full abstracted version you’re using as an example: “We want you to withdraw support because we don’t like x,y,z components” vs “we want you to oppose x,y,z components”. Both seek to fix x,y,z. The difference is tactical, something a person working on the project for a living is eminently capable of providing quality guidance on.
What you think and write and how you contextualize these events is important, especially for newer members of the PAC that may not understand how the committees have historically functioned. So yes, feelings matter. And feelings are fed by information and you can choose to an extent what kind of information informs those feelings. This isn’t just about who is right or wrong but how a person with a platform (yourself) uses it.
You are completely wrong that the staff person’s reaction and that kind of PBOT-Committee wrangling is unusual. You just don’t have the perspective to be aware of that. It is perhaps unusual that you’ve heard about it. That is all.
OK AFT. I respect that. I really appreciate your feedback and expertise on this and am taking it to heart. Thanks.
I don’t doubt that PBOT “wrangles” ACs often. However, what’s the point of a resident advisory committee if PBOT tends to wrangle their feedback into something that is acceptable to PBOT management?
Soto voce: The point is to create the “appearance” of accountability.
Community involvement theater.
What is wrong with compromise? It’s how we move forward.
That depends on the “we” that is moving forward and if that “we” should move forward. In another comment you point to the “far right” in congress. I’d argue that compromising with those folks doesn’t move the correct “we” forward. Nothing is wrong with compromise as an idea. But the compromise has to move the folks that are a part of it in a direction they want to go at least a little bit. I think it’s easy to make a sound argument that this project won’t do that.
Plus ODOT’s idea of “compromise” is to call a freeway-widening project “adding auxiliary lanes.” It’s pretty clear to everyone that you can’t compromise with ODOT – they will always find a way to do exactly what they want.
Compromise is often wrong.
No, that’s not the meaning or purpose of compromise. Compromise only means to make concessions in order to settle a dispute. In this case, ODOT’s plan is still very disputable, and no one wants to settle yet. Another meaning of compromise is to accept standards that are lower than desirable. So, accepting the undesirable is exactly the problem with this compromise.
This story just confirms my longstanding reasons for avoiding any gov’t-sponsored committee work of any kind. My hat is off to those of you who still do it, but I’ve done it and I’ve been humiliated by gov’t staffers in exactly the way the PAC members were.
If you want to get into this kind of work, you have to understand that staffers are going to stage-manage your work and try to make it as palatable as possible for the people they work for. That’s really the key: they work for the organization and its bosses, not for you – the public. I’ve had my words and thoughts twisted into knots and sanitized for the consumption of people WHO JUST WANT TO MOVE A PROJECT FORWARD. They are just checking the “public involvement” box.
Was it Andrew Sullivan who said that a snafu is when a politician or gov’t official accidentally tells the truth? For me that happened some years ago when an ODOT official said, at a public meeting, “We’re not going to do x b/c we’re not required to.” Excellent! Remember that the only reason they allow you on these committees is cuz they have to. But they don’t have to listen and usually they won’t.
So I say: Write letters. Organize with like-minded people. Protest. Raise money if you have the energy to do so. Campaign for candidates who support your views. But don’t waste your time on committees. You will be disappointed when your time and involvement are abused, as they inevitably will be.
This incident ought to give every single (transportation) advocate/activist in Portland, Oregon great pause; I mean that literally! Stop! Stop all advocacy work for a week or two and see what happens.
This city relies heavily on its “progressive” aura. Yet, when it comes down to it, Portland is a pretty darn conservative place where folks in power and folks with privilege just want to hang on to their power; retention of the status quo for those holding power is the foundation of conservative politics.
All the amazing advocates doing work in this city bolster the image of Portland as a progressive stalwart. PBOT especially benefits from setting a narrative that looks as though all the committees it installs provide citizen feedback which it ostensibly uses to carry on policy decided on by Portlanders. As we can see (and have seen), that is not the case.
Advocates – at least those in the transportation sphere – ought to organize a high-profile strike against a city government that is derelict in this duty to protect and serve its people.
Here is a look back at 2022:
There are a lot of things to be proud of, but there were some awful things too.
And there is still a bunch more to work on between now and 2030. Let’s keep the pressure on, Let’s take the fight to ODOT, Metro, Multnomah County, PBOT, PBA, and all others who are not following Portland’s modal hierarchy.
Addressing PBOT first. I am amazed that the gas tax provides so much money to local governments in this arena. PBOT now has 1,000 employees. PBOT wants these projects to go forward so the 95 engineers and engineering techs, and the people who support them, can have their jobs and seem to be doing something, even when they are not.
Politicians like having bureaus reporting to them with 1,000 employees. it makes them feel powerful.
The momentum for bad projects (this one and the $7.5 billion new Columbia River bridge project with all its interchanges and ramps in a time of climate change) are examples whereof I speak. ODOT only has 4,700 employees, incidentally, and you can multiply the momentum for bad projects times 4.7 as a result. I can hardly count the bad ODOT projects I have seen. Portland stopped the Mt. Hood Freeway and the region and a Governor stopped the West Side Bypass, And we built 60 miles of light rail and created a significant TriMet bus system too. But those times are past. We have no leadership from our elected officials. Tina is changing that on social services and housing and homelessness, but I doubt she will get there on transportation. She shows no inclination to do so, and Ted Wheeler provides minus zero for leadership on anything. We have a population in Portland that elected Kotek Governor with 70% of their votes. We have passed police reform, clean energy and a measure to limit campaign contributions, all with overwhelming votes. We only voted 18% in favor of Trump. We have a population that is so much better than our politicians here. Even our good people like Mapps and Ryan and Rubio try to move to the middle, providing insufficient change. JVP and Lynn Peterson want to try to keep everyone happy. That’s not leadership.
“A staff member, PBOT Rose Quarter Project Manager Sharon Daleo…”
Is it Daleo’s job to represent PBOT in contacts with the Rose Quarter F.W.P., or to promote that project within the bureau?