Sunday, June 9, 2013

Op-Ed: Portland’s Pothole Problem

This week, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales unveiled a plan involving paving and repairing over 100 miles of Portland’s roads.  During last November’s election, Charlie Hales was elected mayor of Portland on a platform, partially, of refocusing the job of the Portland Bureau of Transportation from creating a multimodal system to one of maintenance.  The change, according to Hales, would not be to eliminate bicycle spending, but to repair and pave streets first and foremost.  Hales told reporters after the election: “we do still want to keep building choices for people to move around the city, but job one has to be maintaining the streets that we have better than we have been doing” (Heye, 2012).

My question is: why maintain a system you’re trying to wean the public off of?

An independent audit late last year determined that PBOT needed to spend $75 million a year in order to start fixing their backlog of street maintenance within 10 years (“Street Pavement”, 2013).  It seems like, yes, the right thing to do would have been to protect Portland’s $5 billion in street assets by repairing them as needed.  Now that the repairs have been neglected for years, is it worth it to get these streets to standards that are any better than poor to fair?  Everyone hates potholes, so let’s use that to the benefit of the city.  I believe that the money would be better spent elsewhere, and where it was originally intended in some cases.

Figure from PBOT showing the re-allocation.

Funding for this effort is coming from $7.15 million which was “re-allocated.”  The money comes largely from debt service payment savings from the Sellwood Bridge which was originally supposed to be put into the city’s general fund.  Other programs affected include ADA ramp construction and maintenance and the Downtown Marketing Initiative.  The money goes towards repaving efforts, mostly, with some 25 employees being hired by the transportation bureau for maintenance and repair (Maus, “Proposals,” 2013).

Shortly after a five-year-old was struck and killed after a traffic collision on SE 136th Ave., the same area that would have benefitted from the cut program, Hales and several other state representatives found funding to re-implement to project (Maus, “Mayor”, 2013).
This reallocation promotes driving instead of alternate transportation modes.  It takes a big swipe at bicycling and walking as methods of getting around and says that because cars are not able to navigate past giant potholes, no one will be getting their projects accomplished.  I have little quarrel with paving the 60 miles of unpaved roads in Portland, which is – incidentally, more unpaved street than Nashville, Boise, Seattle, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, Austin and San Francisco combined (Pitkin, 2011).  Unpaved roads are a health hazard and regularly flood over.

Another argument I have against this new model of transportation spending is the fact that it breaks several agreements that were made interagency and between PBOT and the Portland Business Alliance.  The Portland Business Alliance agreed to higher rates for downtown parking in exchange for a reinvestment in downtown through the Downtown Marketing Initiative (PBA Letter, 2011).  This is the second time that downtown retailers have faced a cut to this program, facing non-cooperation from the city.  In addition, funds that were meant to go to the general fund after Sellwood Bridge loans being delayed created savings in debt service payments, are being co-opted to street repair (Slovic, 2012). 

The county agreed to lessen the amount the City of Portland needed to pay towards the Sellwood Bridge project after voters approved the $65 million library taxing district.  The creation of the library district would impact the general fund by up to $10 million a year, reducing the amount available for the Bridge project (Slovic, 2012).

Instead of fighting for the popular opinion and fixing potholes, Hales should be investing in ways to encourage bicycling, walking, and transit riding.  Only through spending on projects which encourage a multimodal system will automobile traffic be reduced.   It is even possible that the nature of streets in disrepair: cracked, bumpy, holey, will create more desire among people to not drive on those routes.  We shouldn’t be taking from programs that will have a definite impact on creating a multimodal system in order to smooth commuter’s rides through neighborhoods.  Hales especially shouldn’t be repurposing money that was supposed to have been given to other programs as part of prior agreements.

If a lack of funds are the problem, create new sources of revenue.  I believe that mass repair of streets will not only cause a traffic flow problem as these streets are closed, but will likely lead citizens to clamor for more street improvements in the future, further driving on and utilizing the freshly paved streets.

Thanks to Gabe Rousseau for checking this post!

Works Cited

"Back to Basics: Street maintenance projects for 2013-14." City of Portland, Oregon. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 June 2013. <>.

Griffin-Valade, LaVonne, Drummond Kahn, and Beth Woodward. "STREET PAVEMENT: Condition shows need for better stewardship." Audit Report. N.p., 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 June 2013. <>.

Heye, Bob. "Hales plans to shift focus of city transportation budget." N.p., 12 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 June 2013. <>.

"MEDIA ADVISORY: Hales and Novick to announce 100 miles of planned street maintenance." City of Portland, Oregon. City of Portland, Oregon, n.d. Web. 9 June 2013. <>.

Maus, Jonathon. "Proposal looks to ‘realign’ $7.15 million in PBOT budget for paving, maintenance." . N.p., 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 June 2013.

Maus, Jonathon. "Mayor Hales restores sidewalk funding for SE 136th Ave." . 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 8 June 2013. <>.

"PBA Letter on Downtown Marketing Initiative funding, 2/12." City of Portland, Oregon. 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 June 2013. <>.

Pitkin, James. "Dirt Roads, Dead Ends." Willamette Week. 11 May 2011. Web. 8 June 2013. <>.

Slovic, Beth. "Multnomah County officials agree to defer and lower Portland's Sellwood Bridge payments to offset library district hit." 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 June 2013. <>.

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