Stuck in the Ruts

Hales' pledge to pave streets has no plan—and no money.

Laura Young says it's about time someone at City Hall gets serious about paving Portland's dirt roads. She lives in the Cully neighborhood, where 10 percent of city streets look like mud wallows and cow paths.

Young was happy to hear Mayor Charlie Hales' recent pledge to find a way to pave the city's 59 miles of dirt roads—and finish them with sidewalks, storm sewers and street trees—within 20 years.

"It's a step in the right direction," she says. "The city needs to find resources to make it happen."

The mayor's pledge poses a stubborn challenge to an age-old problem in Portland ("Dirt Roads, Dead Ends," WW, May 11, 2011), so WW went looking for details of Hales' plan. It turns out there is no plan, and city officials say they have no idea what it would cost to fulfill Hales' pledge.

"We don't have enough to go on," says Dylan Rivera, spokesman for the Bureau of Transportation, who hadn't heard of the pledge, which Hales made June 5. "We haven't been asked to scope something like this."

Hales has also promised to start maintenance work on 100 miles of roads, including residential streets. The $11.3 million plan calls for applying a "fog coat" sealant or performing a so-called "grind and pave" that would only resurface already-paved streets.

It's a short-term fix that got plenty of media attention when the mayor posed for TV cameras while wearing an orange hardhat atop a paving machine.

But his bigger promise has received little attention. "I pledge to you that I and the council will identify new revenue that will allow us to turn every street in Portland into a 'complete street,'" Hales said.

About 170 miles of city streets don't have sidewalks. It's a big problem in East Portland, where a 5-year-old girl was struck and killed by a car in February, one week after the city cut sidewalk funding. In April, Hales restored the sidewalk project along Southeast 136th Avenue, where Morgan Maynard-Cook died.

So what would it cost for Hales to fulfill his pledge? Rivera came back to WW with a rough estimate: at least $100 million to pave 45 miles of streets—not including sidewalks. He says the city has no estimate for the total cost of paving 59 miles and adding storm sewers, sidewalks and trees.

It's not clear how Hales would pay for it all. "There are traditional methods—a gas tax—and there are some more creative methods," says Hales spokesman Dana Haynes. "We don't want to get ahead of what has to be a community dialogue."

The combined state and county gas tax is 33 cents a gallon, of which the city gets 4 cents. Most of the city's gas tax revenues on a 20-year bond have already been dedicated to transportation projects, especially the Sellwood Bridge.

"The gas tax is a dinosaur," he says. "The costs of asphalt and concrete for building anything have been increasing in double-digit increments."

It's likely residents along these muddy streets will feel pressure to pay for the improvements themselves. The city already pursues local improvement districts for such repairs, with property owners shouldering most of the costs.

Young says the city should pay a bigger share. And Young says Hales' pledge is hardly bold—other city leaders have made similar promises in the past. She only wishes the mayor had a plan.

"The fact that our tax dollars have been used to maintain the rest of the city's streets," Young says, "while ours have been left unimproved and dilapidated for the last 30 years doesn’t seem to register with public officials.” 

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