David Bragdon’s talk to the Portland City Club on Oregon’s inability to make mobility improvements
What Bragdon failed to point out is that the root cause of the problem is Oregon’s century-old Constitutional dedication of gas tax revenue to “highway purposes” only. This foolish commitment of revenue to serve only one form of travel creates a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” problem in the United States that has led to dominance of the automobile and the destruction of much of what made American cities productive and wealthy. It’s not enough to fix funding allocation models if the ultimate use of the funding is still restricted because of how it was raised, no matter who spends it,
Oregon’s gas tax was the first in the nation; Oregon needs to be first in the nation to abolish the foolish dedication of gas tax revenue to supporting only more of the same paving.
Greg Macpherson: On a range of innovative transportation strategies Portland is recognized as a national leader from public transit investments to bicycle infrastructure to pedestrian first design. But other cities and regions are moving ahead deploying innovative strategies and accessing new funding sources. Portland may no longer deserve its reputation for being out front on transportation.
Our speaker today on this topic is David Bragdon who has spent a long career in transportation including a year spent driving a taxi cab. From 2003 to 2010 he served as president of Metro, the Portland areas elected regional government.
He subsequently served as director of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Long‑term Planning and Sustainability. David Bragdon is currently executive director of Transit Center, a nonprofit organization based in New York working to improve public transportation across the country.
He will speak first and then have a conversation with our moderator Mirk Mirk. She is the online editor at Bitch Media and hosts the feminist podcast, Popaganda. Please join me in welcoming David Bragdon and Mirk Mirk to City Club.
David Bragdon: Coming back to Portland is always fun. For me it’s familiar and fresh at the same time with a little bit distance you get a little perspective as well. I think about somebody I knew in college who won a fellowship to go study in New Zealand afterwards and I asked, “What are you going to be studying?” and he said, “I’m going to study American government”.
I said, “Why would you go to New Zealand to study American government?” He said, “You can’t study that in America, no perspective. A fish would be the last to discover water.” The perspective on Portland from far away I think is really helpful.
I’m lucky now to be working for a civic foundation or foundation we’re committed to improving urban mobility across the country. This is a time of a lot of change in that field after four or five decades of pretty much stasis, where transportation was provided by large bureaucracies, slow moving.
There’s a tremendous amount of dynamism in the world right now, a lot of it in the private sector but a lot of it in the public sector as well. We fund studies, we commission work directly, we do grant making to universities and civic groups around the country.
There’s a couple of pieces of work that I really want to draw on today. One is on the topic of governance which sounds really boring, and I apologize for that, but it counts for a lot. It’s not government which is a thing, it’s governance which is how institutions relate to each other, how decisions get made, where there is cooperation, where there is not.
This came up in part because of a dilemma they were facing in Chicago among many other things that they were facing that the vast job growth scattered around the suburbs and the people needing jobs in the South Side of Chicago and the inability of them to connect on transit.
This was originally framed as, “This is an operations problem.” The think tank that we commissioned to do this work did a few interviews and quickly concluded this is actually not an operations problem the operations people could fix this in one meeting or maybe two meetings. It’s really a problem of the fact that the CTA is controlled by the mayor and PACE [suburban Chicago area bus service] in the suburbs is controlled by the collar counties and those individuals weren’t talking to each other, there wasn’t cooperation.
The operations people couldn’t actually do their job because of this governance issue. We found a lot of different governing structures around the country on how they work to have some perspective, on how Oregon functions in that way too and how it compares to other places.
The other work that I’m really drawing on is one that does feature Portland, it’s called “A People’s History of Recent Transportation Innovation” in which we looked at this phenomena that’s happening around the country and Ted’s quite right, so much of this started here in terms of taking back the streets for people pedestrian plazas, biking, green infrastructure for storm water management, the idea that streets are for more than just moving cars as quickly as possible.
We were asked a question: Given that transportation is generally a fairly routinized bureaucratized undertaking, how did these changes occur? We’re really interested in change and how change can come about in that type of circumstance. We profiled six cities, Portland, Chicago, New York, Charlotte, Denver, Pittsburgh. What we found is despite the diversity of those cities, very different cases in each type, geographically demographics, something they had in common, entirely in common is that in every case change originated outside the conventional institutions of the transportation establishment. It started with citizens and that case was most stark here in Portland.
Portland is the first chapter in the book and rightfully so. With the civic activists, whether it’s AIA [American Institute of Architects] chapter, downtown eventually became the downtown plan. The people in Southeast Portland trying to preserve their neighborhoods and fighting the Mount Hood Freeway and taking back the city in that sense, long before the elected officials had caught on and long before the agencies had also caught on.
What we find is it takes an elected leader to actually grasp those things and actually make them happen and that’s certainly the case here. Quite rightly Portland is the first chapter in that book chronologically because it happened here first. There’s a lot of momentum from the good things that have happened here in the past. Just last month the Orange Line opened. There’s good celebrations around that and there should be.
Just give you a national perspective on that. TriMet is a national model in terms of project delivery, in terms of design, the workforce here is also a national model. I was talking to a federal official last week who covers the Southwest and Texas and so on and he tells to the agencies in his part of the country, “If you want to understand project delivery, you have to go see how TriMet does it.”
When you think about this just by comparison you have Gresham 86, the Hillsboro in 98 interstate, the airport, Clackamas, and now Milwaukie. Every one, with the exception of the tunnel under the hill, which is a geologic factor nobody could have seen, without exception they’ve delivered each of those on time and under budget. That’s very rare in the industry.
TriMet is also a leader in open data involving people in the operations in terms of opening their data and fare payment. There’s a lot for Portland to be proud of in all this and you should take pride in it. But don’t be complacent about it. Because as I said a lot of places are emulating it. And here comes the tough love part, there are some places that are actually outpacing Portland right now and doing a lot.
Let me tell you a little bit about those. Denver, Colorado, in the last 10 years has invested $5.5 billion in transit. That’s a Milwaukie line every other year or so. They have multiple lines under construction at the same time. Every year they’ve been improving the bus service, doing more of that.
Last month, Mayor Hancock proposed an 18 percent increase in the transportation budget to improve streets for biking, walking, to speed up transit. This is part of their economic competitiveness strategy to attract people.
They’re also leveraging the investment they made in flood controls along the creeks to create a regional trail network pretty quickly. When Mike Winter started the intertwine, he did that whole calculation about, “We have a plan here in the Portland area about our trail network.” He did the calculation of how long will it take to build it out at the current rate. I think the estimate at that time was 190 years, so not very fast. That was five years ago, so now it’s 185 but still.
Los Angeles, a place that often we lampoon, where car is king, Mayor Garcetti is reclaiming those big arterials. He’s created a great streets program. He’s got a skunkworks of architects and designers in his own office independent of the city DOT, because they weren’t moving fast enough. He created a little unit in his own group to redesign those streets.
They’ve rezoned areas and put things in the zoning code to reduce parking requirements, all types of things that would have been unheard of in Los Angeles just five years ago. On the transit side, they have a capital plan of 45 billion, that’s billion with a B, in terms of their transit system.
This is happening everywhere. It’s not red, blue state. It’s happening everywhere. The place that has built more rail than any place else in this country over the last 15 years is Salt Lake City, of course, in the most conservative state in the country by many measures. Houston, just this summer, overhauled their bus network to make it more frequent, increasing the number of people who have access to it.
Here’s the side story on that. That was actually done by a Portland consultant, Jarrett Walker, who really learned his trade when Portland did the same thing in 1984. Portland did it in 1984, Houston’s doing it in 2015. That’s a 31‑year’s difference. The point is, they’re catching up.
The interesting thing to me, too, is encountering Portland people like Jarrett working elsewhere around the country and taking these lessons around the country. There’s a little bit of bittersweetness to it, though. I ran into somebody I know who works for another construction company. We were at a national conference in some other place. I said, “How’s it going?” He said “It’s going great. I am busier than ever. It’s really, really terrific. Business has never been better.”
I said. “What are you working on?” and he said, “It’s kind of funny. We’re closing up our work on the Orange Line now. When we do that, it’s going to be the first time in 20 years that I haven’t had work in Portland. Every Monday morning, I’m at PDX getting on a plane to Los Angeles and I come home on Friday afternoon. I’m really busy, but I’m in another city.”
I ran into somebody this week I used to work with, here at Metro. Specializes in environmental impact statements for transit projects and she’s doing that now in Seattle. Let me finish the Seattle story because this one sticks in my craw, and I know it’s really good Randy Miller is not here, because he’d have an aneurysm, knowing how Randy Miller feels about Seattle.
We always used to make fun of it. They would never get their act together on transportation. They could have Major League Baseball and they could have . . . Mount Rainier could a little bigger than Mount Hood, that’s OK, but transportation, we had that locked down. They’re going to open the line that now goes from the airport to downtown. They’re going to extend that to the University of Washington in Capitol Hill in March. Those two stations, that will double their ridership because of those destinations.
University of Washington, which is now 25 minutes to an hour from downtown, will suddenly be 11 minutes from downtown. They’re going to start construction on the line from Bellevue across the lake. They have on the ballot for next fall, a Sound Transit expansion measure of $15 billion more. Now this is the governance piece of this and this is what’s happening up there. It’s not just that regional level, as important as that is. There’s also coordinated activity happening at the county and the city level where they’re all on the same page.
Seattle Metro is run by King County, one unit of government. The biggest user of it is people who live in Seattle, different entity. Now, the City of Seattle passed their own measure to supplement the budget of King County Metro by $50 million a year to improve the transit service in the city. They’re in fact buying service. There’s an element of competition in that they could maybe procure those services someplace else.
They’re using really sophisticated metrics to decide what it is they want to buy. One of those metrics is they’re going to keep measuring what percentage of the population is within a quarter‑mile of a bus that runs at least every 10 minutes. That’s a very user‑based type of metric as opposed to the type of metric that we’ve sometimes used that are about our own operations as opposed to our benefits to the public.
City of Seattle next month will have a measure on the ballot for city streets, improving those for biking and walking. That’s to the tune of $930 million over 10 years, $93 million a year over the next 10 years. Tremendous amount happening there. To top it off, there’s also the state government up there. This summer, they increased their gas tax 11.9 cents a gallon. That is a 30 percent increase in their gas tax, just 175 miles up the road here.
This is also happening in other places. Again, it’s not Red, it’s not Blue. States like Vermont also increased their gas tax. Pretty liberal place, but so did the state of Wyoming. Wherever there’s a value of proposition, people believe in these investments. They’re improving them. There’s this wave of investment going across the country.
People are figuring out that Dwight Eisenhower is not going to be reincarnated and even if he were, he wouldn’t win the Republican primary. The federal government is not likely to be the partner that it’s been over the last 40 or 50 years, and places are having to figure this out on their own.
Portland used to be leading the parade on figuring this stuff, going against the grain, and doing things before everybody else. Now, in some senses ‑ and this is again the tough love part. Take it that way, please – [Portland] is doing a little bit of watching the parade go by while there’s some wheel-spinning here. You have to ask, “Why?” You have to ask why, in a governance sense, there’s systemic reasons for that.
In City Hall here, it’s been gripped for the last two or three years, about a debate about whether or not there’s going to be a street fee to maintain the streets in good condition. Now, think about that. In comparison, the people in Seattle, people in Denver, people in Los Angeles, they’re actually planning how they’re going to improve streets. They’re figuring which one is going to go first. Is it going to be Arapahoe? Is it going to be Colfax? Is it going to be Crenshaw Boulevard in LA?
The debate here is not about improving. It’s about can we keep things from getting worse. Even that is an open question. I know there’s a lot of optics around that and reasons for it and we can get into that, but it’s a sad thing.
In Salem, while up the road in Olympia, they were raising the gas tax by 30 percent, the legislature here chose not to fund transportation. Again, there are a lot of reasons. I’m 3,000 miles away. I can’t speak to exactly why that is. Certainly it didn’t help that at the last minute it came out that the state transportation department had been promoting figures about greenhouse gas emissions that were wildly exaggerated and had no credibility at all.
It’s Oregon, so everybody is polite. It’s chalked up to, “Well, it’s a mistake.” Everybody does make mistakes, and that’s certainly understandable, but you have to ask, when mistakes become chronic, when inaccuracy in forecasts become chronic, is there some systemic reason for that? Is there some institutional reason that needs to be fixed? It’s probably not just a matter of lack of facility with mathematics if these forecasts are continually off.
That was the same agency [that] in 2010, a blue ribbon committee of experts from around the country said that the finance plan for the Columbia River Crossing was implausible, and [found] a series of other data errors around that project. Again, if it becomes a pattern of inaccuracy, you really need to look behind. It’s not simply accidents that are happening.
I know these things are in the background and history is history. People remember there have been recent city audits, that in some senses the city hasn’t been perfect with money in terms of the parking meter situation and the findings that in the past money had been promised for maintenance. Those are holes that we need to dig out of politically, as well as the literal ones. This is all part of the backdrop I think, as the continuing sense that there’s a crisis in transportation.
The last time that was said, and this is probably also some of the history of it in Salem, the last increases to the gas tax in 2001, ‘04, and 2009 prompted a huge run up in debt such that ODOT’s debt service, in terms of the state highway fund, is now 35 percent. [35 percent] of it is going to debt service to bond‑holders, rather than to projects. That’s 35 percent today. It was two percent in 2001.
If you think about what that means in a management sense or in a sense of accounting, it means that when more revenue was provided, the agency became less likely to live within its means. There’s a little bit of perversity there. It makes you wonder, “Well, do we want more money to go there when they’re not living within their means?”
It means the request of the legislature or the voters are, “You gave me a nice allowance last time and I used it to run up a big credit card bill. I didn’t take care of stuff and now I’d like more money.” It’s not a very persuasive case to most parents of teenagers and it’s not very persuasive to voters.
This question of performance, is it a persistent thing? Is it something structural? I think it is. I think there are structural things that you could fix that would solve many of these things. The statement that Oregon has a transportation finance problem . . . . I don’t know. I don’t know how anybody would know. The agencies are so opaque, it’s hard to know whether there’s truly a finance crisis here or transportation finance problem.
What there definitely is is a transportation governance and management problem, and that’s the thing that needs to be fixed first. Unless that gets fixed first, the crisis will persist. There’s some lessons from other places and how places are reforming their transportation organization to make them more accountable.
Again, this is systemic. Most of the folks involved in this situation here are good people, hardworking people. The Portland City Council today if you could get them to sit down and take [a test], probably, the aggregate IQ on that city council’s higher than it’s ever been.
The leaders of both houses [in the Legislature], really talented, smart, dedicated people, and public minded people. Remember, this is coming from somebody who lives in New York, where if you follow this, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President in New York are actually under indictment and awaiting trial. No kidding.
Count your blessings here in Oregon, you have public servants who really want to do the right thing. Nobody is on the take. The opportunities are there. Smart people. You just need the right system.
Same for the Portland Department of Transportation, whatever the sins of the past, of a few bad apples in the parking meter company, it’s in the past. 99 percent of them are doing a great job and they’re nationally known for doing it. But again, if good people can’t make the system work, then you have to say there must be something wrong with the system.
Here’s how some of the reforms are looking.
First of all, let me describe how decisions have been made in the last 50 years in the world of transportation plan, which is primarily for cars. It’s been very top down, very mysterious, very much for the oracles of the agencies. There’s a technical part to it, and then there’s a political part to it.
The technical part was [that] the priority is the flow of cars, how many cars can we get to move and how fast can we get them, based on forecasts that invariably show traffic going up in the forecast. Even though our experience over the last 10 years that it’s actually going down, it’s always shown to be going up, and with the assumption that cost is no object.
We’ve been conditioned by an era in which 90 percent of the money was coming from the federal government. In fact, a planner at ODOT said, “Well, we’re not allowed to consider costs because the federal government won’t allow us.” It’s not actually true. They are supposed to consider that, but that’s been the conditioning.
The drawbacks to that approach, hone in on the capacity issue. It doesn’t account for induced demand that as you build more space, it fills up with more cars. The forecasts – the drawback with those is that they tend to be overstated almost every time, and the fact is, funds are limited.
That’s the technical part of the flaws there. There’s the political part too that we all know, which is legislators who are on particular committees. They have rank . . . Well, you might get an interchange in your district. That’s the unscientific part.
How are other states dealing with this?
Let me tell you about Massachusetts. Massachusetts in 2013 raised the gas tax. They raised $600 million a year for transportation. Deval Patrick, the governor at the time, really went to bat for that. The only way he could get the legislature to agree to that in 2013, is he started in 2009 and said, “I need to shake up the transportation agencies. In fact, I need to blow it up.” They had been dug by the Big Dig. There were costs overruns, forecasting errors, all kinds of things. Public credibility, very, very low.
He cleaned house, brought in new management, but then he also changed the structure. He and the legislature went to statute and changed the structure. There were three key reforms.
One was instead of having project selection done strictly on the basis of alleviating traffic congestion ‑ which is a fool’s errand ‑ they were going to evaluate projects in terms of economic impact, social impact, environmental impact.
Secondly, they were going to have an independent board. An independent board not in the transportation department, but an independent board charged with the fiduciary integrity of the state to evaluate all of those claims.
Third, they also recognized, “You know what? Western Massachusetts is different. The rural area is different. We’re not going to have a statewide package that suits Beacon Hill or Back Bay in Boston and also Pittsfield.” They separated that way.
Pennsylvania, that same year, Republican governor, Pennsylvania, $2.3 billion a year increase. Really significant thing here in terms of governance again. Transit in the state of Pennsylvania is a local concern. [As] it is in Oregon. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, they’ve been on their own in terms of generating their own revenue for transit.
In this bill in 2013, for the first time, state money went to those transit agencies in
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, because the state legislature recognized, “You know, I am a state legislator, but my job is not only to the state government, it’s to the people in the state and in my district,” so the money went to transit. It was just a calculation that said, “The state that has an income tax, and if Philadelphia and Pittsburgh aren’t mobile, the state is Appalachia. That’s what they have,” and that’s why they invested in mobility for those cities.
They also increased the money going to local streets, recognized that’s where most the trips are, but they conditioned some of it on competitive grants that localities had to apply and not just say, “Well, we’re going to alleviate traffic.”
California is probably the best case where delegating authority to metropolitan regions, a large slug of money was taken that had been spent by the California Department of Transportation, was delegated to the metropolitan planning organizations in the large districts of the state, the Bay Areas, Southern California, and so on. It came with strings from the state. The state set high standards for spending it in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help the economy, connect people with jobs, other types of performance measures.
In summary, all of these places, none of them just put money into the same old formula, the same old system, the same old agencies. All of them delegated more money to the local level. All of them recognized that the urban and rural are different. All of them got a lot more careful about project selection and evaluation and using this clear criteria in out standards.
While they’re implementing reforms ‑‑ frankly, I haven’t seen this much of that here at the state level ‑‑ Oregon is not a leader in that. The bill that didn’t pass in the 2015 legislature was actually pretty much old school. A lot of big road widening at the edge of town, shortchanging local maintenance, no really institutional reform, no performance measures to speak of, some key projects for key legislators if they vote in the right way.
That’s the way things used to be done, but it’s not the way it should be done anymore. These things have a cost. They really do have a cost. Flawed governance leads to poor decision-making. It leads to irrational priority setting and wastes money. Let me just give you a few examples.
The Ross Island Bridge was renovated early 2000s because it’s owned by the state government. The Sellwood Bridge, far worse condition, languished for years because it happens to be owned by a local government. Even when that local government … bless their hearts. I mean, imagine you’re elected to the county commission and you think you’re going to deal with jails and health clinics; and suddenly you have this big engineering and planning problem.
Bless them for doing it, but the solution requires that people in Troutdale, who are 25 miles away, very unlikely to use the bridge, are going to be paying for it for 20 years. People in Milwaukee and Lake Oswego who use it every day won’t pay at all. There’s these inequities in the system. There’s also this inability for the people to know who is responsible for what.
There’s a growing tendency toward more accountability in a system to build. The
pinnacle of that is probably Transport for London where they created an agency in 2000 that manages the transit as well 9,200 miles of arterials, as well as the bike share, as well as the car share, the bus lines, some which they’re competitively contracting out.
They were doing all these competitive things. They’ve had tremendous real estate growth as a result of transit investments, places like King’s Cross. If you have a bad experience on the tube, you know who’s responsible, the Transport for London. That’s the mayor. If you have a bad experience with the taxi, you complain to Transport for London. It’s the mayor’s responsibility. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for him next time. If the bus is late, that’s his fault too. If you come across a pothole, no question who’s responsible for that. It’s Transport for London. It’s the mayor. People know who they call.
Imagine this pothole here where I’m driving across the [Sellwood] bridge. I guess it’s the county who, like I say, they’re busy running the jails. It’s probably the mayor, though, because I remember he ran a campaign about potholes. Actually, no, it’s the commissioner, who doesn’t even work for him, who didn’t campaign about potholes. The accountability is a little fuzzy there.
Now, maybe I drove for three blocks on Barbur Boulevard or on Powell. That’s owned by the state, so that must be the governor’s pothole. You think, “Well, now, why would the governor of the state – he’s got a whole state to worry about — care about a pothole on the local street. Is that really the right official to be responsible for that?” A lack of clarity.
The basic problems in Oregon that I think need to be fixed in terms of government are pretty simple. One is this mash‑up of ownerships where cities, counties and the state all own pieces of road in the metropolitan area. That’s one.
The second is the totally random allocation of funding.
As you know, the primary funding of the gas tax and related [is] 50 percent to the state, 30 percent to counties, 20 percent to cities. You think, “Well, but Oregon benchmarks everything. There must be some reason for that.” Actually, there really isn’t. It has nothing to do with mileage. It has nothing to do with need. It has nothing to do with return and investment. It’s just always been that way.
The two simple thing that need to be happening to fix that, one is deciding who’s going to be responsible for what. Secondly, then just holding them responsible to do it, and award the funding accordingly. It sounds simple, I know. I know organizational change is really, really hard. Reorganizing the Solid Waste Department at Metro is like rewriting the Treaty of Ghent or something.
It’s not to be taken lightly. Ask Governor Patrick in Massachusetts. It’s not easy. On deciding who’s going to do what, there’s some basic principles. Jarrett Walker, the transit consultant [notes] it’s never going to be a seamless system, but you can figure out where the seams are, where they make sense. We do that in other systems that are multi-layered.
The insanity of Oregon’s transportation governance system can be illustrated by another [one] — an opposite, but very similar. Oregon’s criminal justice system. Pretty complex topic, but it’s crystal clear who does what. The state sets statutes, murder in Baker City, murder in Bedford, murder in Portland. It’s all the same. There’s a certain standard.
If you have a sentence of more than a year, you’re going to the state penitentiary. Counties run jails. If you’re sentenced up to a year, you’re going to be in a county jail. Cities run police departments. They each have their own specialty. They each reinforce each other. None of them are better than the other. They’re all indispensable.
The point is they’re solving the problem at the level where it’s most competently solved based on geography, based on the resources, based on the accountability. That’s a watchword called subsidiarity that the European Union uses to decide what will be done by the EU and what will be done by the member states.
Erase the boundaries on all this ownership. Drove me nuts when I hear staff say, “Oh, that’s an ODOT road. That’s a [Portland] DOT road.” It’s all our roads. It’s taxpayers’ roads and we ought to say that.
The second piece of that, then, is to spend the money on the things that really count. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but that’s going to be some kind of merit-based, competitive type of process rather than an annuity or guarantee based on 50 percent, something based on the value that the public is getting.
These sound like really wonky things. These are complicated intergovernmental things, but they’re really important.
Unless you get the governance right, the decisions won’t be right, and the money won’t be well‑spent. The real benefits of these include the value for money, but there are other benefits too because there are very few of us that actually like transportation just for the sake of transportation. For the rest of us, it’s actually a means to something else.
It’s a means for people to get to work. It’s a means for more people in our society to get to more work. It’s about the air that we breathe. It’s about the neighborhoods that we want to have. It’s about all the things that those activists and mayors that we’ve talked about cared about and worked for.
Oregon has been a leading innovator on all of those things, great track record of that. The evidence is all around you. Take a look. Pioneer Courthouse Square. There’s Cooper Mountain. It’s 260 acres on the south slope of Cooper Mountain near Beaverton, preserved by Metro and the voters.
On a day like this, you can see across the Tualatin River to the coast range. All you’ll hear is the hawks. That’s pretty special. The waterfront that could still be at Brownfield and in some other cities, it might’ve been turned into a football stadium to be used 8 times a year and empty 357. Instead, there’s world-class scientists doing cancer research, and a neighborhood that has some of the most expensive housing and some of the most affordable housing right there in that neighborhood.
The buildings along Division and the new shops.
Does that cause some heartache about parking and change? You bet. Of course, it does, but these are all choices. Isn’t that scene out there, whether you don’t like fedoras, or hipsters, or the baby strollers, isn’t that better than the empty grocery store or the porno theater that used to be there?
More to the point, what we’re talking about today, isn’t it better than the six-lane trench highway that was once proposed to be there? These things are all choices. They’re not just places. They’re choices. Oregon’s got a great record of making the right choices.
Look at those things. Don’t take them for granted. They didn’t happen by accident. They happened because people cared. They happened because people like you and me stood up, said, “We think things could be different. We care about this place.” People agitated. Other people invested. Other people proposed ideas that seemed crazy at the time, and are now being emulated nationally. Ultimately, that’s the edge here. It’s the people.
Some of the people who did that are in this room today. There are others who passed away, who are not here, but we remember. There are others who are in this room that are probably grandchildren of people who did those things. That’s really the legacy I want you to grasp. I expect a lot from you. Don’t let me down.
Sarah Mirk: If you’re just tuning in on OPB, I’m Mirk Mirk. I’m here with David Bragdon. We’re at the City Club Friday Forum, and we’re talking about transportation. Hi, David, it’s good to have you back in Portland.
David Bragdon: Good to be here.
Mirk: I want to talk about the human impact of transportation spending. You talked about how other cities are taking the streets back for people versus Oregon’s totally random allocation of money on transportation spending. That’s what you said. I’m wondering, how should we change the way that we value transportation projects?
How should we change the way that we decide what transportation projects are worth spending money on so that we prioritize those projects that people actually want and need now versus what people decided we needed 50 years ago, which were mostly car-centric freeway projects?
Bragdon: There’s a lot of discipline going into this now. There’s no right answer to it. In fact, we’re funding some research that a couple of organizations are really looking at. How do you make decisions based on the performance and the life cycle of the asset? I think the important part is expanding the criteria that you’re using.
The sole measure is not how many cars you can move. Literally that was the measure. It’s called level of service, volume over capacity, V/C. Adopting other measures in terms of economic impact, freight mobility, environmental impacts, I think California is probably is in the lead of figuring that out. It definitely is more subjective, but it’s the right types of value judgments the policy makers ought to be making, as opposed to horse-trading or just letting a formula run on decade after decade.
Mirk: Instead of determining the value of a transportation project based on expanding car capacity, looking at other things like the environmental impact?
Bragdon: Right. Right. They’ve been doing that in the Bay Area. It actually really changed the list of [projects], including transit projects. To tell you the truth, because not all transit projects [are worthy]. This same type of discipline, it’s not all about ending road projects. It’s about getting better road project but also better transit projects.
Mirk: How do you think that would change life for the average Oregonian? How does it change a city or state to invest more heavily in public transit, biking and walking than the old freeway models?
Bragdon: Economic change is happening in the country, and what’s happening with household budgets. For most people, transportation is the second biggest part of their household budget. If you are devoting a large share of that to automobile ownership, first of all, you’re owning an asset that depreciates the minute you buy it. Then you’re paying to insure it, and a lot of people, you’re having it sit 22, 23 hours a day. That can be a pretty big hit.
Some of this have been quantified by Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, that if you’re not burdened with car ownership, you have more disposable income for other things. Certainly, that’s an economic benefit. I think the ability to have the freedom to move around and get to more potential employers, that’s an economic benefit.
The ability of people who, for reasons of age, young or old, don’t drive or shouldn’t be driving, the ability for them to have freedom of movement around the city and really explore the city, and for parents of those young people to not be sentenced to life as a chauffeur for their children’s childhood.
I think there are a number of benefits and that’s all quantified by the fact that the real estate market across the country, including in Portland, is saying people want the types of neighborhood that are walkable and have transit. There’s clearly a market for it.
This is like a lot of other things where the people and the market is way ahead of the policy maker, particularly at the federal level, in the sense that transit ridership is up, the demand for new projects is up, and Congress is cutting those funds. The experience on the ground, the demographic changes ‑ and we documented some of this in public opinion research ‑ it’s really moving that way.
Mirk: It sounds like those economic benefits that you just mentioned that are all super important for the average person are not always factored into our transportation planning or our understanding of the economic impact of transportation projects.
Bragdon: Right. They haven’t been, but they are increasingly in some places.
Mirk: As somebody who used to live here in Portland, you grew up here and now live in New York, also sort of grew up there. [laughs] When you lived here, did you have to own a car? Do you have to own a car now in New York?
Bragdon: Well, I think one of the interesting things that’s happening is this emergence of other forms of shared mobility that are not transit, but that are not privately operated and owned. I’ll answer to your personal question. Yeah, some of the time here I owned a car but sat at the garage a lot of time.
Those drove me a little crazy because just writing the check for insurance. I’m paying $700 a year, or whatever it was, just to insure something that was sitting six days a week, but I needed that to be able to go do grocery shopping, or there might be something I’d be going out at night, and use it once or twice a week.
The emergence of network companies like Lyft, which are really just taxis, but enabled by the demand response of bike sharing, car sharing, and just the rise of biking on your own, I think the net effect of a lot of those things is it enables one to live a life free of car ownership. I was one. I think there are many people who own a car but only for certain types of trips because there is no other way to accomplish those trips, like going to the grocery store once a week or something.
With the availability of some of these services, being able to not own a car becomes a lot more practical. That’s why we think things like Lyft are actually a supplement and a good extender to a transit system rather than a competitor.
Mirk: You talked about two messages that feel like they’re at odds with each other, but they work together and that we need both. That there’s a fallacy around just needing to put more money into our transportation system.
While other cities are putting in more money into exciting projects like Denver, Seattle, Los Angles are all putting in more money in public transit systems. You’re saying that in Oregon, we both need to better use our money and better figure out where our current existing money goes. Once we figure out those better systems, we can invest more into public transit.
Bragdon: Yeah. State funds are a little more strict because of the gas tax restrictions. There are federal funds that are more flexible. If there was more competition around those and they weren’t automatically kept by the state, that would be an opportunity for communities around the state to be able to compete for those. What I’m saying is that there shouldn’t be annuity or a guarantee, an entitlement based on jurisdictional ownership of the past.
Again, I’ll try to relate this to another field. The criminal justice system, we went and asked the head of the corrections department, “How should we spend money?”
I assume he’s going to go to bat for his aid. He ought to. He’s going to say, “Well, we should have 50 percent spent on penitentiaries, 30 percent sent to county jails, and 20 percent sent to police departments.”
That’s the formula for transport. You got to make sense for criminal justice too. Right? Not logical?
Oregon has overhauled higher education. If there were still a higher education department, and you went to the board and you went, “How should we spend money on education?” They’d say, “Well, 50 percent to universities, 30 percent to community colleges, 20 percent to K‑12. That’s how transportation does it, got to make sense.
We’d say that’s crazy. It’s the schizophrenic and conflicted role that the state government plays. Again, this is a systemic comment. It has nothing to do with personalities. It’s that a state can be a regulator of local government, it can be a conduit of funds to local government, and in some senses it can compete with, but it can’t do all three legitimately. You can’t be a contestant and a judge at the same time.
Think of the sewage system, that DEQ regulates local government’s discharge. Now imagine if DEQ was also running a few random sewage treatment plants in competition.
That’s what’s crazy about this patchwork, that the state government owns 82nd Avenue or Powell Boulevard. There’s really no state interest in that. It needs to be managed cohesively.
Mirk: When you say, entitlements based on jurisdictional priorities of the past, do you mean basically making decisions based on the status quo, but just because we’ve been funding these things this way, doesn’t mean we need to keep funding things this way. We need to figure out better systems of funding those or what we should be funding?
Bragdon: Right. It’s all our money. I think that these things get treated as if they’re etched in stone, or it’s a product of history.
The City of Milwaukie can’t have a stoplight on Mcloughlin Boulevard so that people can get from downtown, to Milwaukie, to the park across the street. After all, that’s actually not McLoughlin Boulevard, that’s Highway 99. Before I‑5 was built in 1965, that was the way to get to Salem. Because people took that route from Portland to Salem 50 years ago, the City of Milwaukie can’t have a traffic light where that community wants to have a traffic light [today], is just crazy.
Mirk: I just want to briefly ask about TriMet, and then we’ll go to Q and A from the crowd.
You used to be the president of Metro and have a lot of experience with TriMet here in the city. I’m wondering, how have you seen TriMet change over time here? What can we do now to make TriMet more equitable, just on a local level?
Bragdon: I think that Portland gets a lot of notice for the rail system, rightly so. In many cities, including London, London has twice as many bus passengers as Tube passengers, the importance of the bus system shouldn’t be understated. There are ways to speed up buses. We’re doing some work on that around the country, some emphasis on that.
You mentioned equity too. I think having that as a way of making capital investment decisions would actually have changed some decisions in the past.
The Wilsonville to Beaverton Commuter Rail, $160 million, carries 1,500 people a day. Most of them, higher than average income relative to the transit-riding population. Division Street passenger bus, 18,000 people a day. We’re only now starting to think about, “Well, how can we help those 18,000 people?” They are not of the same economic [class].
I think if you looked at those investments, which this is again, it’s history, but it’s a lesson from history, you might say, “You know what? Those 18,000 people deserve real attention.”
Mirk: If you’re just tuning in OPB, I’m Sarah Mirk. I’m here with David Bragdon at City Club’s Friday Forum. We’re talking about transportation. We’re going to take a question from the crowd. Here’s your special reminder. Hang on.
Bragdon: It ends with a question mark.
Kennedy Bertelson: Hi, my name is Kennedy Bertelson. I’m here as one of the civic scholars. I know that the city just spent upwards of a billion dollars on the new MAX Line and just set aside eight million to work on improving 122nd.
While I understand the city’s desire to make large and noticeable changes, to make wide scale transportation easier and more accessible, I’m concerned that the city is spending around all that money, and then specifically around $8 million on a street that is functioning without major problems, when the streets surrounding 122nd don’t even have sidewalks. What are your thoughts on that?
Bragdon: My thoughts are that the transportation field has been dominated by consideration of large projects. They’re considered really dramatic and sexy, and that what’s increasingly the case is that these finer grain changes, when multiplied over the scale of a city or nation, are really very significant.
Those are the type of systemic changes that come about when you think of spending money differently and actually do some analysis of who’s going to be impacted the most. It’s like my earlier comment about the bus system.
I know 122nd is dangerous. I know Commissioner Novick and others have really committed themselves to make that safer. I can’t speak to the exact tradeoff of that street relative to the others that you mentioned, but I know there is a lot that needs to be done there.
Mirk: You mentioned finer grain changes. Can you explain what that means?
Bragdon: I mean that, for example, while we’re going to do more with crosswalks, we going to do them all over the place. I think a small intervention repeated over and over, systemically across the landscape, can be very significant.
Mirk: Investing a little bit of money in things, in small project cycles. A few crosswalks, a few sidewalks, versus big sexy projects.
Bragdon: Yeah, and not confusing jurisdictional size with importance. There is another fallacy around in the world of transport about, what’s of statewide significance? There is an assumption that has to do with length or size.
Bend to Vale, across eastern Oregon, that that’s of statewide significance because it’s very long. In terms of actual demand and number of people…I’m not saying this to slight the need for there to be a good highway there. I’m just saying that that alone may not be as economically significant as 18,000 people who each ride the bus two miles along Division Street, because the 18,000 people even though they’re going two miles, that’s an enormous impact in terms of demand on the system and greenhouse gas conservation, and those sorts of things.
I think taking this more systemic view and saying, “Well, even though bus service seems so prosaic and local, collectively it has a huge impact.”
Mirk: Cool, let’s take another question.
Audience Member: You gave about us 5 or 10 seconds on the Columbia Crossing, but I wanted to ask you a comment on that. You’ve been gone five years.
During that time, that whole issue arose and was decided ‑ at least temporarily decided, we think ‑ but using all the examples you’ve used and the perspective that you got, and you’ve been around the block, so to speak, we were going to spend about three to four billion dollars, 90 percent of which was going to be federally funded. It was going to be the huge project, sexy as you say, tremendous number of jobs in the midst of a depression, almost, and we couldn’t do it. What does that say about our system and our governance?
Bragdon: It is exactly a governance issue. It’s interesting, I wondered if that would come up, because everybody’s so polite. It’s such a huge issue, and I think ignoring it is to risk repeating similar mistakes.
When you have $200 million spent, and a failure of that magnitude, it really does behoove us to actually look at what happened. There were certainly a lot of engineering mistakes, a lot of forecasting mistakes, a lot of permitting mistakes. The list goes on. All of those are on ODOT. ODOT, the director popped himself up and said, “This is ours. This is ours. This is ours. We’re in charge.”
Then everything falls apart. Suddenly it’s everybody else’s responsibility. The current spin on it, and there was such much spin about this, that again, some real serious analysis ought to be done. The current spin is, three or four right-wingers in the Washington legislature killed this thing that otherwise was nirvana and beautiful.
Dexter Fowler on the [Chicago] Cubs the other night, he struck out to make the last out, was the last that ended the Cubs season. To say three right-wingers in Olympia killed the Columbia crossing is like saying Dexter Fowler destroyed the Cubs season. There were 26 outs before that. There were 162 games before that.
The Columbia Crossing died because of a series of errors, and inaccuracies, and half-truths, at best, at the highest levels in Salem. That’s the story of it. It was a zombie.
Say the Washington legislature had done something. Fact is this also part of the spin. The Oregon legislature didn’t actually appropriate a dime. That was more clever optics. They passed a bill saying they would. You’ve mentioned 90 percent federal [funding]. Are you living in the 1950s? There’s no 90 percent federal [funding], especially when the Republican member of Congress from the district is opposed, so you think the Republican [majority] Congress is going to give 90 percent to a project that the Member of Congress from that district didn’t want?
There was always mythology around it.
Now, where do you go from here? I think it is a failure of governance. I think the thing was doomed when it got assigned unilaterally to the [state] highway divisions. When you took urban, complex, multi-modal project and give it to agencies that are not urban, not locally accountable, uni-modal, they’ve built overpasses here and there, but…
That expertise does exist in the region. I think that’s the solution. Between TriMet which has delivered projects, in terms of community relations. They worked with downtown Gresham, Hillsboro, Milwaukie. They dealt with difficult community, but they did it in an inclusive way that — ODOT and WSDOT, it’s just not in their DNA, partly because they are more distant. They’re not accountable to us.
If you had a working group of the transit agencies at the cities, there was actually a real good working relationship among the local officials. If you could leverage that, make the two Port Authorities, again, the port of Portland, my God, more than 100 years of project delivery. Anybody knows about freight mobility, they know it, in terms of engineering projects that are delivered. In terms of dealing with — they wouldn’t have neglected to talk to the Coast Guard about building a bridge across the second longest navigable waterway in the United States. Like, “Oh, we forgot to talk to the…”
There is a lot of competence is this region, that competence was not put in play on that project. Instead it was done in this top-down command and control from Salem and Olympia. That is what doomed it.
Audience Member: A follow up on that . . . what if despite all that we’d have built the damn thing? When it’s all built and we spent all that money, it turned out, like so many people pointed out that, we may have done a lot about the bridge and immediately on the bridge, but, Jesus, it’s problem done by the Rose Garden or what’s it called now, Moda Center. He wouldn’t have done anything about it. You have a comment about how that might have turned out?
Bragdon: That’s one of many technical flaws that they continually stonewalled, either through incompetence or dishonesty at the highest levels of ODOT, just refused to acknowledge. You say, well what if the right-wingers in the legislature and Olympia had let it happen, and the spin, “Oh well, now it would be under construction.” Well, the finance plan did not add up.
The EIS had holes in it. Where you’d be right now is probably in federal court actually, seriously. Again, TriMet’s never had a successful appeal against them. These things can be done. There is expertise in the region to do it. I think where you’d actually be right now is ODOT and WSDOT would be back at their Legislature saying, “Oh you know what? We miscalculated. It’s going to be a little bit more. I know we told you that the federal government is going to pay, but . . . .”
Because you know what’s actually happening in Washington [D.C.] They have not actually passed a meaningful transportation Bill since ‘07 or ‘08, something like that. I think if, for some reason it continued lurching up, it would not be under construction today. It didn’t add up.
Mirk: We’ve only two more minutes left and it’s only fair to read a question from the card. This is going to be the last question. The subject of higher speed rail seems to have fallen off the radar screen. Will it or should it ever come back?
Bragdon: Yeah, I think that is also is another illustration of the governance issue, in that, the Obama administration made a big commitment to that, eight million dollars. A lot of it has gone to California. They channel a lot of that through the state governments, but a lot of these corridors, particularly in the mid-west, they run through multiple states.
When you heard what was going on in Ohio, and Wisconsin, with Republicans taking over and turning them in – same, more in New Jersey. If you’re trying to do something between New York and Philadelphia and Chris Christie is the governor of the intervening state, it’s really hard to do things.
I think that’s a real challenge in this country is that the corridors other than California and Texas really aren’t encompassed in any one state. I think incrementally is the way to go. I think that was the other mistake the administration made is shooting for the moon and saying, “We need to 160 miles an hour.”
I think more reliability, but at a more moderate speeds, but having the reliability, I think really can work. It has been shown to work. The [Amtrak] Cascades is testimony to that, Washington State was very successful on that. They got about 800 million dollars. Oregon got three [million] or something to put a roof on the Union Station because the application wasn’t very compelling.
Again, it’s a competence issue there.