Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." -- Touchstone
One thing to keep in mind as the Portland City Council debates the street fee -- charging residents and businesses a fee to maintain the streets, on the ground that the City's revenues aren't sufficient to pay to maintain the streets -- is that this is not a new problem. The City, its residents, and its muffler shops have known for years that the streets have been decaying faster than the City was maintaining them. Something over two years ago, the City announced that it would stop maintaining most streets at all, reserving its paving dollars for arterials and streets needed for emergencies.
A few months earlier, in late 2011, the City Council created the Office of Equity. The Council allocated it $1.2 million from the budget for fiscal year 2013-2014. While $1.2 million won't patch a lot of potholes, it still represented a new program at a time when the City Council was painfully aware (or should have been painfully aware) that it didn't have the money to fund its existing programs.
Another way to look at it is that the Councilors all agreed two years ago, and again last year, that funding the Office of Equity was more important than patching potholes and repairing the streets.
The aftereffects of my celebration of the demise of the Columbia River Crossing took longer to wear off than I expected. I think I'm back to normal now.
Today's paper Oregonian (the story doesn't appear to be online) reports that the Oregon Department of Transportation is running out of money and likely will not be able to undertake new projects or even maintain the existing highways and bridges. The reasons are threefold. First, Oregonians are driving less and using more efficient cars, so gas tax revenues are down. Second, federal grants for state highways will stop when the federal Highway Trust Fund goes dry next year. (Yuxing Zheng of the Oregonian wrote about that on March 28, here.) Third, ODOT is making massive debt service payments of nearly $200 million/year, maxing out at $210 million/year) on the $2.5 billion in bonds it's issued to finance the road and bridge construction projects under the Oregon Transportation Investment Act of 2001 and its successors.
Declining revenues, large debts, no federal funds: what's an agency to do? The public is reluctant to raise taxes to finance even the best highway spending, and residents of low-tax areas of the state, mainly rural, don't like to contribute to funds that they see as mainly spent to help urbanites.
At the same time it must be conceded by all but the most Teaful of the Party that the state gasoline tax is cheaper now, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it's been for years, possibly since our first gasoline tax of 1c/gallon in 1919. From 1967 to 1981 the tax was 7c/gallon, from 1981 to 1984 it was 8c/gallon, increases in 1984, 1985, and 1986 brought it to 11c/gallon. From 1993 to 2011 it was 24c/gallon. In 2011 it was raised to 30c/gallon, where it is today, standing at about 9% of the pretax retail price of gasoline. In 2004 Oregon's tax of 24c was about 19% of the pretax retail price (24c out of $1.35 or so). In 1972 the 7c tax was nearly 30% of the pretax price of 25c/gallon. (The state and federal taxes brought the retail price of branded gasoline to 36c/gallon then.)
Herewith, therefore, the Laquedem Pay to Pave Gas Tax Plan. Let us vote on raising the gasoline tax to 40c/gallon, with the extra 10c devoted 95% to road and bridge maintenance (no new projects) and 5% to what the planner-types call "active transportation": bike paths, sidewalks, wheelchair ramps, and other aids to unpowered mobility (no light rail). The first Laquedem catch is that we'll tally the vote county by county, and impose the tax only in those counties that approve the measure. If you and your neighbors don't want to pay the tax to maintain your state highways, you don't have to pay it.
"Why would anyone vote for it?" you ask. That's the second Laquedem catch: ODOT will be authorized to spend the money only in those counties that approve the tax. If, for example, Curry County rejects the tax, then ODOT may not spend any money from the fund in Curry County. People who are willing to pay for paved highways can have them; people who don't want to pay for paved roads can enjoy their potholes while they salute Ayn Rand.
Ten Washington legislators wrote to the Oregon Legislature, asking our Solons to kill off the Columbia River Crossing Project, the Oregonianreported yesterday. Observing that Clark County has voted against light rail several times, Rep. Liz Pike of Camas asked the legislature not to give in to "special interests who are attempting to override the will of citizens and locally elected county officials."
The story's author, Jeff Manning, quoted this reaction of Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a prominent supporter of extending light rail across the Columbia: "Individuals like Sen. Ann Rivers, Sen. Don Benton and a couple of local supposed "Republican" Representatives have dismissed the desire of our public. Instead of faithfully representing the will of the representatives of our local community, these individuals are entwined in political expediency, manipulation, and ideological rhetoric."
Did you notice the twist in Mayor Leavitt's statement? The mayor is suggesting that the job of the elected officials is to represent the will "of the representatives of our local community," not actually of the public. In other words, he's implying that Clark County's legislators should be representing Clark County's other elected officials, and not the voters who elected them.
Besides the intriguing descent into meta-representative government that this implies, some facts get in the way of Mayor Leavitt's argument. For instance, on the C-TRAN board, two of the three Clark County commissioners voted against light rail, and two of the three elected representatives of cities other than Vancouver voted against light rail. Rep. Pike is more in touch with the views of the elected officials of Clark County than Mayor Leavitt is giving her credit for.
The erosion of support for the CRC could provide material to update Agatha Christie's famous novel. Ten supporters of the CRC are invited to a conference to plan how to get a funding bill through the legislature. One by one, they withdraw their support and leave, until at the end the host can announce, "And then there were none."
Not quite 50 years ago, but close: it was in 1968 or so that Portland psychiatrist H. Clagett Harding, known to his friends as Larry, taught his dachshund to ski. Dr. Harding and his family lived off NW Cumberland, and no snowy winter in Portland was complete with a photograph in the Oregonian of Dr. Harding and Schmalz skiing down a city street in the Northwest hills.
It occurred to me that the Zoobombers might be able to go in for winter sports: it's a bit of a hike from the TriMet Zoo station up to Fairview Boulevard, but then there's a nice downhill with a few challenging turns. Ski MAX? It would be a very Portlandia way to market mass transit.
As the Columbia River Crossing debacle deepens its groundward face plant, its supporters' rush to the exits continues. The latest is Senate president Peter Courtney, who states that the CRC project doesn't have the 16 votes that it would need for the Oregon Senate to resuscitate it. Even Governor Kitzhaber's support for the CRC is sounding tepid; by giving the legislative assembly a fixed deadline to act or to shift the focus to other highway projects, he's given them his implicit approval to put an end to the CRC, yet maintained the ability to plausibly deny that he's no longer a fervent supporter. The end is near.
Not to throw too much manure into the CRC pigpen, but in doing the research for yesterday's autopsy of the Columbia River Crossing, I came across this juicy bit, reported by Joseph Rose in the Oregonian of August 10, 2010. Mr. Rose reported on a recent vote about the proposed bridge, in question-and-answer format, including this question and answer:
What ever happened to the eight-lane option? That pretty much disappeared from the rearview mirror this summer when a Portland-funded independent study by URS Consultants found that an eight-lane option would work only if 37 percent of commuters took public transit or bicycled over the new span. Currently, those commuters make up only 3 percent of the traffic over the six-lane Interstate Bridge. Officials saw a disastrous scenario that wouldn’t be able to handle the first year of traffic, much less the demand by 2030.
Think about that for a bit. In 2010 Portland hired a reputable consultant who reported that an eight-lane bridge wouldn't be big enough to handle the first year of traffic after it opened. In 2013 the bridgemeisters were asserting that six lanes would be enough. Somewhere in there is a logical disconnect.
I am not implying that the CRC proponents lied about the six-lane bridge, but I do think that in this Age of Google they shouldn't have expected a study from four years ago to be unfindable.
As the supporters of the Columbia River Crossing boondoggle start to edge toward the exits (State Senator Lee Beyer, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is the latest, reportsWillamette Week), it's time to reflect on why this project failed -- or, more exactly, why the expensive planning, networking, and lobbying effort to build this project failed. I have some thoughts.
1. The planners set out on their trip without having a destination in mind. Along the way they fell into detours to look for an iconic bridge design, arguments about whether the replacement bridge would have twelve lanes, or ten lanes, or eight lanes, or six, and an eleventh-hour realization that the bridge as designed would be too short for three major users of the river and the federal government.
2. Portland's insistence that the bridge include light rail, and refusal to compromise even as the highway component shrank from 12 lanes to a bridge no larger than the current bridges, turned Vancouver's and Olympia's mild support into active opposition, and persuaded the Washington legislature to direct its funds somewhere else.
3. The overblown propaganda in support of the bridge ("The current bridge is the only stoplight between Canada and Mexico," for example) eventually backfired, and brought the public around to doubt the more sober statements from the CRC backers.
4. As the bridge backers, under fire, shrank the bridge from 12 lanes to 6, and continued to argue that the current bridge doesn't have enough capacity to serve demand, the public rightly noted that it doesn't make sense to spend $3.5 billion to replace two functional three-lane bridges with one functional six-lane bridge.
5. And finally, the reason for the title of this post, is that the political insiders on the Oregon side who were pushing for the CRC listened only to the views of the elected officials in Vancouver, and took them as representative of the views of the Clark County public, in much the same way that the United States in 1977 assumed that because the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Pahlavi, was friendly to the United States, the Iranian people were also.
I think that the public would have supported, and even possibly been willing to pay for, an 8-lane fixed bridge with 135-foot high water river clearance that passed over Hayden Island without direct access and did not include light rail tracks. Alternatively, I think the public would have chipped in to rebuild the railroad bridge to raise it about 30 feet, which would cut out 90% of the lifts of the freeway bridges, and put light rail tracks on the railroad bridge. I also think that the more sensible of our local politicos will be happy to wait 8 or 10 years before they touch this issue again.
New Jersey has achieved an unexpected level of political scandal, the result of an incident in which officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency, blocked several lanes leading from Fort Lee, New Jersey to tollbooths at the George Washington Bridge, which crosses the Hudson River to connect New Jersey to the north end of Manhattan. (The bridge is the north end of the New Jersey Turnpike, but is operated by the Port Authority.)
It has transpired that aides to Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, told the Port Authority to block the lanes in order to create traffic snarls in Fort Lee and punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Governor Christie's re-election bid. Still unknown to the public is whether Governor Christie (a) proposed the plan, (b) approved the plan when his aides thought it up, or (c) did not know about it in advance, but was pleasantly surprised after the fact by how well it worked.
This scandal includes many of the elements that scandalologists love to study: hundreds of e-mails, a second-rate explanation (the lanes were blocked, the governor's aides said, for a traffic study that the Port Authority didn't know about), a pugnacious press conference, a few fired aides, and a legislative investigation. But the scandal is significant for another reason: it may hint at New Jersey's emergence into the realm of cleaner politics.
Why? Consider this. In all the kerfluffle over the governor's aides ordering the Port Authority to block the lanes, no one's suggested that they did anything illegal. This scandal lacks any suggestion of money, sex, drugs, corruption, organized crime, violence, or graft. It's actually a scandal that would fit well with Portland's laid-back character, the only difference being that here we block lanes with concrete barriers and leafy trees instead of with orange plastic cones. And when our government blocks traffic lanes, they stay blocked.