When Tom Hughes took over as Metro president three years ago, he promised to put the regional government to work creating jobs for the Portland area.
Hughes also wants Metro to help focus the rebuilding of the region's road, bridges and sewers—a role Hughes himself calls a "stretch" for his agency.
Metro has pursued a four-year project, called the Community Investment Initiative, to figure out how the region can cover a $10 billion gap needed to repair its infrastructure in the next three decades.
To answer that question, Metro has organized a 40-member committee, held 16 public meetings and published five reports—at a cost of $1.45 million over the past three years to pay for staff and consultants.
Its proposal: The region needs yet another committee.
Metro wants to create a panel of business leaders that will give its blessing—and lend political weight—to public works projects seeking tax money and private investment.
In the long, expensive effort to reach this conclusion, Metro still hasn't met its goals for getting local mayors on board for a new "super-committee" to review public works projects.
Noah Siegel, a policy adviser Metro hired last month to focus the project, says the process has taken longer than many expected. "It's been a little bit of a roundabout route to get here," Siegel says.
As Hughes prepares to run for a second term in 2014, the output of his agency's Community Investment Initiative shows both the promise and the pitfalls of cross-jurisdictional, regional government.
Hughes argues Metro is uniquely positioned to tackle the region's infrastructure problems because it can cross political boundaries. "There is virtually no major project in this region that's accomplished single-handedly," he says.
Critics say such endeavors demonstrate the agency's lack of focus and practicality.
"This is the kind of self-referential, inbred, money- and time-wasting we've come to expect from this Metro Council," says Tom Cox, a Republican business consultant who has run—and lost—for Metro Council and state treasurer. "They're masters of doing nothing to address problems."
Metro covers the Portland area's three counties. The agency runs the Oregon Zoo, the Expo Center and Portland's Center for the Arts, oversees solid-waste disposal and draws the region's urban-growth boundary. Metro is overseen by a seven-member council—six elected from districts, and Hughes, the president, who is elected at large.
Metro's functions also include transportation planning and distributing federal transportation dollars. Former Metro Chief Operating Officer Michael Jordan initiated a 2008 study of infrastructure needs that called the region's decaying roads, bridges and sewers a "crisis."
In the past, cities and counties have disagreed about which transportation projects should get funded first. At the same time, larger projects that involve a number of jurisdictions have stumbled, such as plans for a westside bypass freeway corridor, because no one seemed to lead the charge.
In 2010, Metro steered money from an affordable housing program to launch the Community Investment Initiative and named a 40-member "leadership council," including Port of Portland director of public affairs Tom Imeson, Portland State University President Wim Wiewel and Mayor Charlie Hales, then a vice president at HDR Inc., a light-rail consulting firm.
The group's answer? Create something called the Regional Infrastructure Enterprise, run primarily by business leaders who would decide which infrastructure projects should get the region's political blessing. This new committee, which would operate under the Port of Portland, is intended to add clout to projects that win its approval.
Siegel, who recently moved from Hales' office, says the new regional approach might have helped smooth conflicts between Multnomah and Clackamas counties over financing the Sellwood Bridge replacement.
"Do we wish we had a better process to do that?" Siegel says. "Is there a way we can look at infrastructure from a regional perspective instead of a competitive perspective?"
Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden says he fears the proposal being pushed by Metro—with its mission to regulate growth—won't include enough public oversight.
"Metro is not the agency to be making these decisions; their focus is too narrow," Ogden says. "I have the same concerns about Metro's appointments to its board of private-sector people."
The Metro Council, which approved spending another $323,000 for the Community Investment Initiative this year, has yet to sign off on the idea.
Hughes acknowledges that when he ran for Metro president in 2010, he touted the need for such a project but didn't anticipate how long it would take.
âI expected speedier results,â he says. âBut these problems are incredibly complex and take a long time to figure out.â