Former Metro Council President David Bragdon is back in town today, speaking at Portland City Club's Friday Forum at the Sentinel Hotel at 12:15.
Bragdon, who led Metro from 2003 to 2010 before taking a job in then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, now serves as executive director of TransitCenter, a New York City non-profit that focuses on transportation.
TransitCenter recently published a new book called a People's History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation.
The book, which Bragdon edited, focuses on six cities including Portland, and Bragdon will discuss its findings at City Club today.
We sat down with Bragdon for a quick catch-up on how Portland fits into the national picture and how it compares to its former self.
What's the premise of TransitCenter's new book?
Bragdon: The premise is that reform in the world of transportation often comes from outside the conventional agencies. It often originates with people who are active in their community. We kind of knew that was the history in Portland from the 1970s. The neighborhood activists who really started re-envisioning what downtown could be like, who fought against the Mt. Hood Freeway, [fought for] Pioneer Courthouse Square—they originated with people like the local AIA chapter or civic activists.
What is interesting is when we started looking at what's in Pittsburgh now, 40 years later, it's a similar dynamic. It's people who care about their neighborhood, who want to reinvent things.
They initially have to push against the power structure.
The chapter about Portland seems to suggest we've lost whatever made this place a national transportation leader in the '70s. Did I read it correctly?
I think that what you're referring to is both good and bad. We said that there are a lot of things that are institutionalized here that are good things, that biking is now part of the culture. It's not questioned, it's not controversial. It is controversial in Charlotte or Pittsburgh.
The institutionalization of these reforms helps them be perpetuated. Our researcher found that said things are also sort of stuck and not moving fast enough and maybe it's time for new ideas. I think there's definitely a critique of complacency.
What are we not doing in Portland in transportation that we could be doing?
There's a lot going on with regard to street redesign that is more capital-intensive than what Portland has been able to do. And particularly in terms of expediting buses and the improved flow of transit vehicles.
Portland is known for the streetcar, and yet the streetcar is stuck in traffic, and it's extremely slow and really doesn't have the transportation utility that people deserve in terms of getting from A to B quickly.
So that's something that we definitely see around the country—cities are being very conscious about trying to give some advantage to transit and the streetscape.
It's partly, I think, because the city has been consumed by a debate—for years now—about whether or not there's going to be a fee just to maintain the streets. Compare that to Los Angeles, and Seattle has a levy that's on next month for $930 million. Denver. They're not debating whether or not they're going to maintain the things they have. They're debating how they're going to improve them. And they have the funding to do it.
Why are other cities able to fund projects Portland cannot?
Part of the reason they have the funding is because they have credibility with the voters, and I think that's been part of the issue here. The government can't just cry "poverty—oh well we don't have enough money" unless the government has shown it's been doing a good job with money it's had. That's been a real problem here.
The city auditor had a series of audits specifically about street maintenance, saying that arterials had been prioritized and local streets had been minimized, streetcar ridership figures were a little suspect. The contract administration, things like the parking meters.
Also people look at the whole transportation system. It may be something the state did—so the state spends $200 million planning a bridge—[the Columbia River Crossing project] and doesn't, you know, build one centimeter of a bridge. And then they can't find $9 million to run a train to Eugene.
You're talking about the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Right. To the average person out there, they don't think, "Well it's the state" or "it's the city." They just see this mismanagement of money, so they're less willing to want to put more of their own money into it. I think you have to establish some credibility. That's what they're trying to do.
So how does Portland's approach today differ from the early '70s?
First of all, Portland is one of six cities in this book that we did, which, almost by definition, means it's better than 95 percent of cities in the country. And in certain respects, it definitely is still the leader. TriMet, in terms of project delivery, really is a national model. That the Orange Line, just like Yellow, Red, Blue, Green—those have all come in on time [and] under budget.
I think what we write about there is that there's a confluence, in the 1970s, of civic activism, municipal leadership, including a mayor [Neil Goldschmidt] who—for whatever else we now know about him—did have political skills in terms of marshaling the council, tapping federal money, articulating a vision. So you have all three levels sort of clicking at once—the activists, charismatic elected leadership and then agency heads and people willing to do things differently in the agencies.
Which cities are national models today?
Denver is coming on really strong. They've spent $5 1/2 billion on transit in the last ten years, and they've leveraged the flood control in some of the creeks in terms of trails and are now starting to get serious about bicycling. For them it's an economic development issue in trying to attract talent. And Denver also has a really coherent regional vision around these things, and they've had a series of effective mayors. There's also a lot of strong private sector leadership there. It's the biggest city for 1,000 miles around, so it's got a certain amount of heft to it. Denver is doing a lot of interesting things right now.
Salt Lake City actually has also done a lot with transit in the last fifteen years that I think would really surprise people.
Is it possible that we'll never recapture the magic that happened here in the '70s?
I think that you have to constantly be staying on top of the game. You know, whoever you are. At the turn of the last century, Buffalo, N.Y. was one of the richest places on the planet…by the middle of the century it was a basket case. Just because you're a hero now doesn't mean you have a lock on the first place.
Because these urban trends are really catching on all over the place, people are learning from Portland, but they're also surpassing Portland. Seattle is going to have a streetcar, but part of it they're going to put on its own right-of-way so it's not going 3 miles an hour stuck behind the UPS truck. There sometimes is an advantage to being first. There sometimes is an advantage to being second.