5 Surprising Things our Low-car Voter Guide Taught Me About the Local Elections

This guest post is by Michael Andersen, editor of Portland Afoot, PDX’s 10-minute newsmagazine about buses, bikes & low-car life.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of a handful of volunteers for Bike Walk Vote, there’s been quite a bit of attention in this election season to local candidates’ positions on bicycling and walking. But the contenders in the May 15 primary haven’t had as many chances to go on the record about transit issues.

Inspired by Bike Walk Vote’s work, my friend Aaron Brown and I decided to do something about that.

Aaron, a local transportation advocate working at The Intertwine Alliance, rounded up the leading candidates in each council and Metro race and put to each of them a series of questions that we thought would matter to transit riders. Earlier this week, I summarized his findings on Portland Afoot’s blog. But we saw a few interesting trends running through all the races, too – and those are what I want to share with Portland Transport.

Streetcar might be in trouble.

Portland StreetcarOf the three top mayoral candidates, only one is enthusiastic about Streetcar’s citywide growth plan. (Guess who.) Presumptive Councilman Steve Novick is downright bearish. Amanda Fritz and Mary Nolan have satisfyingly opposite views: Nolan thinks Streetcar is mostly about transportation, and should expand Lloydward; Fritz thinks it’s mostly about densification, and should, if it goes anywhere, leap 80 blocks east to Lents.

TriMet board reform has surprisingly broad support.

TriMet boardPortland Transport host Chris Smith isn’t the only guy who wants TriMet leadership appointments moved somehow to the Metro level. Charlie Hales, Amanda Fritz, Jonathan Levine, Steve Novick, Mark White, and Jeri Williams all endorsed the notion.

The most interesting argument against such a change was Mary Nolan‘s. Nolan said (persuasively, since she was a major transit ally in the state House) that such a move would make the legislature less willing to subsidize TriMet’s capital projects.

Everybody says they love YouthPass, though it’s not clear that they all understand it.

a PPS student ID with YouthPass stickerWe asked eight City Council candidates what the city should do about 10,000 PPS high schoolers losing free TriMet passes after this school year. Seven of them answered with a variation on "whatever it takes." (Jefferson Smith even cited YouthPass as a way to make transit more cost-effective, which seemed odd.) Only one council candidate suggested dialing it back: Steve Novick, who said it should be offered only to low-income students.

Two important things it wasn’t clear the candidates understood about YouthPass:

  • The state requires PPS to give free transportation to about 3,000 of its 13,000 YouthPass-eligible students: the ones who are on free or reduced lunch; who attend their neighborhood high school; and who live more than 1.5 miles from it. When we talk about saving YouthPass, we’re already talking mostly about kids in middle-class homes.
  • PPS taxpayers are paying for school buses throughout the state, but suburban and rural taxpayers aren’t paying for school passes in the PPS district — even though under the deal negotiated for YouthPass, TriMet is both cheaper and better than yellow buses. This inequity comes from the state level, and stems from the fact that people outside dense urban areas think YouthPass is a handout for PPS. It’s not. It’s a reflection of the fact that living in a dense urban area is extremely efficient.

The local left may be near consensus around a ‘utility model’ for road funding.

a PPS student ID with YouthPass sticker Bob Stacey and Jefferson Smith, two of Portland’s most progressive and wonkiest politicos, both alluded to ditching Oregon’s gas tax for a three-part system: a universal road maintenance fee (presumably paid by person or by household); congestion-based tolling, to reduce peak-hour congestion; and a usage fee (presumably paid by the mile or mile-ton).

BRT has some unexpected bedfellows.

EmX bus rapid transit in Eugene I wouldn’t have pegged either Stacey or Nolan as politicians who’d give up on light rail to Vancouver. But the Columbia River Crossing might tip their scales.

Both said they’d be willing to accept bus rapid transit as part of a compromise that could scale back the planned expansion of I-5 across the Columbia River.

One last thing.

Finally, I can’t resist sharing my favorite moment: Stacey’s confession that he sometimes uses the Internet to look at subway porn — that is, at photos that make Washington Park MAX station look like part of an imaginary Portland subway system.

If I’ve learned anything from helping assemble this fun, hopefully useful project, it’s that every viable local candidate this year is a strong supporter of low-car transportation.

That’s because in the Portland we’ve built, it’d be politically suicidal not to be. In other words, we are the change Ray Polani was waiting for.

The May issue of Portland Afoot is a guide to good places in Portland to fix your bike.

Creative Commons I-205 photo by Doug Kerr, and EmX photo by Gary Cziko.

19 Comments

19 Responses to 5 Surprising Things our Low-car Voter Guide Taught Me About the Local Elections

  1. Stan
    April 27, 2012 at 8:51 am Link

    Great post! Not so sure about streetcar to Lents as a development tool, Lloyd Dist. makes more sense.

  2. Jim Lee
    April 27, 2012 at 9:12 am Link

    PT on my browser bar is represented as “RAYPOL.”

    Ray is a good friend, but we do not meet much any more.

  3. Michael, Portland Afoot
    April 27, 2012 at 9:49 am Link

    Realized I was remiss in not also crediting BikePortland for keeping voters well-informed about candidates’ positions on biking; our guide links to his interviews and coverage of the races. As usual, Jonathan’s work is so good that it’s easy to take for granted.

  4. Cora Potter
    April 27, 2012 at 11:25 am Link

    Stan, I’m curious about your reasons for not being sure about streetcar to Lents as a development tool? Are there any specific barriers you see?

  5. Steve B
    April 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm Link

    This has been an important and informative effort, thanks Portland Afoot and Aaron B!

  6. Alexis
    April 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm Link

    Seconding Steve! This definitely helped me assess some candidates I need to decide between.

    Also, that’s cute about Stacey. :)

    Does Nolan know that the Eastside streetcar already goes to the Lloyd District? It’s not centered there, but it does touch it.

  7. AL M
    April 27, 2012 at 2:48 pm Link

    The post presents a somewhat positive indicator from my point of view.

    Of course they are all running for office and they are politicians so what they say and what they do are usually not aligned.

  8. Hmm, this post does back up why I’m still leaning towards good ole’ Charlie Hales for the mayoral spot… I think that an intelligently-phased buildout of the streetcar system is a critical part of Portland’s plan for long-term success, and I think he has the best handle on how to make it happen, hands down.

  9. AL M
    April 27, 2012 at 3:08 pm Link

    Isn’t Hales the guy that actually lives in Washington?

  10. Chris Smith
    April 27, 2012 at 3:35 pm Link

    Let’s stay away from the ‘vote for’ discussion. That’s not appropriate for this 501(c)(3) blog.

    Thanks.

  11. Aaron
    April 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm Link

    People can’t discuss in the comment section which candidates they personally think would be better for transit and will be voting for, just because Portland Transport is a 501(c)(3)? Even if we’re just visitors unaffiliated with the organization?

  12. Chris Smith
    April 27, 2012 at 9:06 pm Link

    It’s a gray area. But since we really like our tax-deductible status, we’d rather not get too gray. And it’s not central to our mission anyway.

  13. al m
    April 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm Link

    Chris I think the intent of 501(c)(3) is that THE BLOG OWNERS can not endorse or otherwise be involved in campaigning.

    Commentators are not part of that equation.

  14. zefwagner
    April 29, 2012 at 5:48 pm Link

    I don’t think it would be worth the enormous expense of building a streetcar all the way out to Lents just on the assumption that it will jumpstart development. As much as people like to claim that the streetcar single-handedly created the Pearl, the fact that the Pearl is close to downtown had a lot to do with it, not to mention that it had one dominant property owner and lots of cool buildings. Developers aren’t going to magically invest in Lents just because a streetcar goes there.

    Streetcar really makes more sense in the center city where it is already dense, but we want it to get even denser through infill development. That is how the original streetcar worked. The eastside streetcar may get there eventually, but it will be tougher because only a narrow strip of land along MLK/Grand is zoned for employment/residential, with the rest left industrial. It also suffers from the highway-like conditions on MLK and Grand. I think if streetcar is going to be expanded at all, send it east on Broadway/Weidler to Hollywood. Then it could act as a connector on one of the longer gaps between MAX stations. Plus Hollywood is one of the commercial districts most in need of redevelopment.

    Lents would get more benefit from higher frequencies on the 10, 14, 71, and 72. Lents will also be pretty close to the future Powell BRT Line if that goes forward. Any of those would be preferable to a long streetcar line running in mixed traffic that would be even more prone to reliability problems than current bus lines.

    In general, I would just like to throw this handy guideline out there, to help explain my growing antipathy toward streetcar: Rail Should Never Mix With Traffic. We understand that light rail should have exclusive lanes–why do we treat streetcar differently? A bus can go around obstacles and traffic backups, and a streetcar can’t. So if you’re not willing to grant exclusive lanes, do us transit riders a favor and stick with the bus. The only reason the current streetcar works at all is that the total distance is so short that delays aren’t a big deal. A streetcar out to Lents would be a disaster.

  15. Chris Smith
    April 29, 2012 at 5:56 pm Link

    FYI – the idea being promoted by myself and others is not that a streetcar should go from downtown to Lents (well, maybe someday), but that a local streetcar loop anchored at one or more of the Green Line MAX stations in Lents could help create a ‘there there’ in Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert.

  16. EngineerScotty
    April 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm Link

    One of the best things to help with development in the Lents area would be ways to further connect the parts of the neighborhoods severed by I-205. In Lents, where the freeway was built on fill (and it was easier to put streets underneath), connectivity is a bit better, but as you head north and the freeway goes into a trench, neighborhood connections become infrequent. And the ROW of I-205, including the Green Line transitway, is far bigger than the ROW consumed by, say, I-405 as it runs between PSU and the Fremont Bridge.

  17. I’m pretty lukewarm on streetcar to Lents; perhaps if the Hawthorne/Foster streetcar makes it out that far, sure, it would make a nice loop at the end of the line, but until then? It’s gonna take more than streetcar to make it bloom…

    Meanwhile, I think Foster may be exactly the sort of corridor (along with Sandy) that the streetcar can really excel on.

    Zef has a point, though, to which I wonder: What if on Foster and Sandy, streetcar were to run in an exclusive ROW, perhaps using the green trackways that Paris pioneered (and which were creatively re-interpreted into green BRT-ways by Eugene)? Plenty of ROW in those corridors…

  18. zefwagner
    May 1, 2012 at 5:55 pm Link

    Sandy easily has enough right-of-way to put exclusive transit lanes in the middle, travel lanes on the outside, and cycletracks on the edge. Alternatively, travel lanes in the middle, transit lanes on the outside, and cycletracks on the edge. Probably same with Foster. At some point we need to make these two streets (the most direct paths due to their diagonal nature) multimodal, it will just take a big shift in political will.

  19. stan
    May 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm Link

    I’m against streetcar to Lents for pretty much the reasons Zef lays out above. 1)It doesn’t have the density 2) Not likely to get density even with streetcar. 205 really does a number on Lents but not sure how a streetcar could heal those wounds. 3)Not sure where the money would come from. I can’t see enough ridership demand to get Federal funding.

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