Road Worriers

City officials are pitching a new street fee by claiming Portland's roads are getting more dangerous. Numbers show otherwise.

ADDITION BY DIVISION: This intersection, where Southeast Division Street meets 122nd Avenue, had 175 car crashes between 2007 and 2010, according to city figures. Portland transportation officials say they would dedicate money raised from a street fee to improving safety on "high-crash corridors" like outer Division.

To hear Mayor Charlie Hales and other city officials tell it, the streets of Portland are getting deadlier every day.

Driving is more dangerous. Pedestrians face bigger risks. Bicyclists have to summon courage to start pedaling. Kids heading to school are better off walking through the woods than braving the patchy sidewalks.

Hales has gone so far as to describe the safety of Portland's roads as a "crisis." Transportation Bureau director Leah Treat has gone further, calling Portland's streets "a growing health crisis. This public health crisis is called 'traffic.' Last year, twice as many people died in traffic than in murders in our city."

Hales and City Commissioner Steve Novick are trying to drum up public support for a new "street fee" that would raise as much as $53 million a year to fund city transportation projects.

"Our concern about safety reflects the concern of the community as a whole," Novick says. "We're responding to public demand. We're not whipping people into a frenzy by exaggerating the problem."

But records tell a more complicated story.

There's no clear evidence that driving, walking or bicycling in Portland is growing more dangerous. State numbers show traffic deaths in the city haven't changed dramatically over the past decade. In fact, Portland is rated as one of the nation's safest cities for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Without question, the city has miles of streets without sidewalks and scores of intersections without adequate crosswalks—many in East Portland, where some neighborhoods have gone decades without basic pedestrian improvements.

The Transportation Bureau is set to spend $316 million next year. City officials tell WW if they get a new street fee, $23 million a year will go to safety improvements.

Records show the Transportation Bureau last year only spent $18 million—6.7 percent of its $265 million budget—on projects that Hales and Novick say will save lives. City officials increased that number this year to $45.6 million, or 14 percent of its proposed budget.

"We are funding safety improvements now," Novick says. "Just not enough of them."

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, says he's seen city officials shift their message from road repairs to public safety.

"They're not asking people to support some vague program," Moore says. "They're asking people to support a tax. So they have to ratchet the rhetoric up. Safety sells."

Meanwhile, Hales has shortchanged traffic safety in his current budget.

One of the best and cheapest ways to reduce fatalities is not new construction but simply lowering speed limits and enforcing drunken-driving laws. Records kept by the Oregon Department of Transportation show that alcohol was a factor in nearly half of the city's traffic fatalities in 2012—and speeding played a role in one-quarter of deaths.

But Hales in his proposed 2014-15 budget released last week rejected a request from the Portland Police Bureau to restore four traffic enforcement officers to its night shift, at a cost of $287,000.

And Hales also rejected a request for $1 million sought by Novick to build flashing beacons at 15 crosswalks at intersections already identified as some of the most dangerous for pedestrians.

The mayor's reasoning: He wants to create urgency for the street fee by holding out on projects Hales acknowledges will save lives. 

"If we spent a few hundred thousand dollars," Hales said at a May 1 press conference, "it would give people false hope. We're saying to our citizens: 'Don't kid yourself.'"

The city of Portland says it has a backlog of needed repairs and updates to its streets and sidewalks that totals $1.5 billion. The Transportation Bureau says it's in a cash crunch—thanks to its big spending on capital projects like Portland-Milwaukie light rail, and declining proceeds from state and federal gas taxes. Transportation officials say the city can no longer keep up with its needs.

“We have a dwindling transportation infrastructure,”  Treat says, “and we’re not going to be saved by the federal government. We have got to start making a dent.”

Hales and Novick began crafting the street fee last fall as a solution. 

The current proposal: Charge every household a monthly fee—either $8 or $12. Businesses would be charged based on how much traffic they generate. According to a proposed fee scale, a nursing home, for example, would pay up to $77 a month, while a large brewpub would pay up to $604 a month.

Polls show voters are far more likely to support a new fee if it goes to sidewalks and crosswalks. The deaths of six pedestrians in five months this winter sparked renewed outrage over swaths of the city that don't have safe places to walk—especially in East Portland.

In crafting the street-fee idea, city officials have hewed closely to the results of recent polling.  A January survey of 800 registered voters conducted by Davis Hibbitts & Midghall showed eight of 10 Portlanders want the city to dedicate money to "sidewalks and safety features in places where children need them to get to school and seniors need them to get to transit."

In a March poll, DHM Research tested the idea of a street fee. The $8- and $12-per-home-per-month options both crested at 51 percent support after respondents were told the money could go to safety and maintenance.

The polling—paid for by the city at a combined cost of $56,000—has helped Hales, Novick and other officials shape a plan they think Portlanders will accept.

Novick and Hales have held town halls across the city to ask what people want. "They want exactly what you want in this discussion," Novick says. "They want to know that their streets are going to be safer."

The political emphasis on safety—revealed in the polling data—has been showing up in the rhetoric around the fee proposal.

"The longer we wait, the more it costs," Hales said of transportation maintenance in his March 14 State of the City speech. "And it costs in lives. We lost 16 people to homicidal violence last year. We lost 35 to cars. This is a crisis. And we need to attend to it."

Traffic Deaths in Portland
Despite city officials' efforts to portray a "crisis," traffic-related deaths in Portland have not shown a meaningful increase over the past decade.

The comparison of traffic fatalities to the city's homicides sounds ominous, as if the deaths of drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists are on the rise.

The city's homicide rate has taken a deep dip since the late 1980s, while traffic-related deaths have not changed much at all in the past decade.

Oregon Department of Transportation figures show that the 36 people killed in Portland's 2013 traffic accidents is nearly the same number as the 37 killed in 2004.

PBOT director Treat defends her claim that the problem is growing, by saying deaths have gone up in the past three years. "The fact that they have increased is a really bad sign to me," she says. "They need to be going down."

The numbers have fluctuated during the decade, but the figures show no statistically significant change, even as the city's population has grown (see chart above).

Pedestrian deaths haven't changed much, either. Portland saw 11 in 2013, and 10 a decade before. 

This year, the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking named Portland as the 12th-lowest for pedestrian fatalities among the nation's 52 biggest cities. Portland ranks even better for bicyclists: the fourth-safest in the country.

Novick says Portland's ranking at the top of pedestrian-safe cities doesn't change the need for more sidewalk and crosswalk funding. "We're not holding ourselves up against other cities," Novick says. "We're competing against ourselves and against who we want to be."

Novick says a street fee could send $23 million a year for safety projects, including additional or improved crosswalks at as many as 115 intersections and 400 blocks of new sidewalks over five years.

The bureau says it will first allocate money to "high-crash corridors"—heavy-traffic arterials that account for 66 percent of the city's pedestrian fatalities, such as outer Southeast Division Street and Powell Boulevard.

Yet many of these hot spots have gone without adequate city attention for years, as transportation officials have spent far more on other projects. 

In February 2013, City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade slammed the City Council and the bureau for spending on capital projects, such as light rail and the Sellwood Bridge replacement project, without having the money to pay for road maintenance.

Griffin-Valade released a follow-up audit last month that says the Portland Bureau of Transportation still hasn't ranked the priorities of its projects citywide, despite an audit calling for that basic step last year. Noted Griffin-Valade, "PBOT has yet to create a written strategic plan."

Treat promises that plan is coming this fall. "I can tell you No. 1 is always going to be safety," she says. "We will be monitoring and sharing that progress on our website."

But that could be after the City Council approves the street fee this summer. Hales and Novick are looking for ways to get the fee approved without going to voters. Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman say they oppose going around voters. 

Hales says he's undeterred.

"I'm not interested in mincing words about this issue," he says, "and I'm not interested in token solutions that make people feel better. It's easy to avoid the subject of revenue. I hope to keep running straight at it, and hope it's success and not a brick wall I’m running toward.” 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.