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November 7th, 2012 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

Choo-Choo Changes

The new head of City Hall will be a “transportation mayor”—whether he wants that title or not.

news1_3901ILLUSTRATION: Jonathan Hill
The next Portland mayor wakes up this morning in charge of a City Hall filled with potholes.

The city’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over police mistreatment of the mentally ill will cost $5.8 million to start a crisis intervention team. The city’s budget is so tight City Commissioner Dan Saltzman is calling for an immediate spending cut across all bureaus of up to 1.5 percent. And commissioners, resentful of outgoing Mayor Sam Adams’ budget secrecy, are trying to wrest more financial control from the mayor’s office.

But the most intractable problem facing the new mayor may be something beyond his jurisdiction: the future of regional transportation, including mass transit.

TriMet was barely debated during the mayor’s race. The city has no direct sway over TriMet, but its public transit service is crucial to the issues of equity and urban planning that dominated the campaign. 

“It’s a big problem,” Steve Gutmann, a longtime Portland car-sharing advocate, says of TriMet. “It just seems like there’s no end in sight. It seems like a slow-motion train wreck.”

The most immediate problem, however, is the city’s own transportation budget. 

As wweek.com first reported this week, the Portland Bureau of Transportation faces a $4.5 million hole in a 2013 budget expected to be $264 million. Bureau spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck says factors in the shortfall—following a $16 million gap last year—include increased pensions and health-care costs.

The city’s transportation budget is funded in large part through the state gas tax, hiked by 6 cents a gallon last year. But gas tax proceeds aren’t meeting projections. 

A study released in August by the Seattle-based energy think tank Sightline Institute showed per-capita gas purchases in Oregon hit an all-time low in 2011.

“It’s been great news that we’re getting people to drive less,” says Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar. “And then, oh my God, we aren’t getting any revenue here.”

Under Adams and director Tom Miller, the Transportation Bureau has left neighborhood streets unpaved while favoring bicycle projects critics deride as frivolous. The city has also committed to big construction projects, adding $116.5 million in new debt this year—including $45 million for the Milwaukie light-rail extension and $70 million to help rebuild the Sellwood Bridge. 

And the budget gap doesn’t include the estimated $7.4 million the city will need to raise to push the Portland Streetcar’s eastside line beyond its current terminus at OMSI to the Milwaukie light-rail bridge. The City Council will vote in December on a resolution to issue $5.4 million in bonds to be paid for by city building-development fees. TriMet has requested a $2 million federal grant.

Peter Finley Fry, an urban planner who serves on the Portland Streetcar citizen advisory committee, says the new mayor will have to confront growing resentment toward rail projects. “It’s not just about building high-rises in the Pearl,” Fry says. “It’s about getting people to work when gas is $5 or $6 a gallon.”

But the biggest transportation problem the city faces is in the financial morass at TriMet. The agency hiked fares and cut service this past summer to make up a $12 million shortfall caused by falling payroll tax proceeds.

TriMet’s Board of Directors answers to the governor, not City Hall, and Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office says TriMet is becoming a larger worry. “The governor is concerned about TriMet’s financial situation,” says Kitzhaber spokesman Tim Raphael. “The board and general manager need to get the agency on steady footing and restore its credibility.”

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, who serves on Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, says the new mayor needs to advocate for TriMet more than Adams has.

“They have become a whipping post,” Kafoury says. “Nobody has been willing to sit down with them and help them on a path to sustainability.”

This summer, Adams threatened to raise city fees on the transit agency’s bus shelters by $2 million after TriMet general manager Neal McFarlane broke a promise to protect free bus and train rides for high-school students in the Portland Public Schools. McFarlane agreed to split the costs with the city and the school district.

Adams didn’t fight TriMet’s other service cuts. If the next mayor wants to accomplish his agenda, one new voice on the City Council says, the city needs to grapple the transit agency.

“The city needs to be heavily engaged with TriMet,” says City Commissioner-elect Steve Novick. “What they do, and what they pay for. 

 
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