Reviewing the Portland Freight Master Plan

We noted in passing a few weeks ago that the discussion draft (PDF, 5.5MB) of the Portland Freight Master Plan had been released.

It’s taken a few weeks to really absorb and internalize the contents of the plan. What’s the conclusion of the alternative transportation advocates? It doesn’t do any harm. Some neighborhood leaders were concerned that they would find freight routes barrelling through their communities. That’s not the case. The plan actually does a good job of identifying and classifying those streets and highways needed to move freight through our city.

And the plan also does a good job of articulating the difference between designing streets for 53 foot trailers, and ‘accommodating’ them for less frequent local deliveries (having watched some of those trailers try to turn off NW 23rd onto neighborhood streets – accommodating is something of a euphemism). What it does not do well – at least yet – is apply those distinct approaches to different classifications of streets and create design guidelines to actually implement them. Neighborhood leaders would do well to continue monitoring those developments – which are not likely until after this iteration of the plan has been adopted.

Perhaps the more important question is whether it really does anything to help the movement of goods and services? And even alternative transportation advocates understand that this movement is critical to our economy.

But I’m not sure this plan does much to help in the long term. Lack of investment in freight rail infrastructure pushes growth in goods movement to trucks, and trucks run into congestion primarily generated by passenger cars. Strategies to either give freight preferential treatment at keep points in the road network, or to reduce SOV travel in critical corridors, are not prominent in this plan.

Commissioner Sam Adams is contemplating a trip to Amsterdam this fall to understand how they do goods and services movement in a dense urban environment (and get ideas for how to make Portland the first Platinum Bicycle City in North America). Perhaps he’ll come back with some new thinking that can jump start creativity on this problem.

Meanwhile, we do see one likely long-term conflict that this plan highlights. Barbur and Powell Boulevards are both quite reasonably defined as important corridors in the freight network. But we know that TriMet has designs on these streets as future MAX routes. The freight community is still bristling over what they perceive as the ruining of Interstate Avenue for freight with the Yellow Line. Can we figure out how to make Barbur and Powell work for both freight and high capacity transit, or will we have to decide in the future which of these uses is more important?

2 responses to “Reviewing the Portland Freight Master Plan”

  1. Chris, you’ve identified what is to my mind an important problem with the freight policy debate in Oregon. [WARNING: Many question marks follow.]

    Although many in the alternative transportation community understand and acknowledge that freight movement is important, the leadership of the freight community continues to deny the importance of alternative modes. While we advocate for a balanced system, they continue to advocate for more general purpose lane capacity everywhere. It seems to me that we are “negotiating” from a distinctly weak position, recognizing and working towards the other side’s interests as they steadfastly deny the legitimacy of ours.

    Case in point: Interstate MAX. The design of the stations and allocation of right-of-way were both (significantly) modified to accomodate the movement of large trucks. Yet, as you say, many in the freight community characterize the project as having “ruined” the street. Is it fair to call a project a failure after your concerns have significantly impacted its design? Does that mean that any project other than expansion of general purpose lanes would have “ruined” the street?

    If transit advocates complained that split stations “ruined” the project, would anyone care?

    If pedestrian advocates complained that the significant reduction in safe crossing opportunities and the inconvenience of some of the new pedestrian crossings “ruined” the street, would they be taken seriously or dismissed as marginal curmudgeons who can never be satisfied?

    If you don’t just get everything that you want but also everything that is important to everyone else, is that reasonable or fair?

    Case in point #2: A few years ago, 1000 Friends of Oregon and the Oregon Transit Association seriously proposed looking at innovative ways to accomodate peak hour freight movement, such as preferential treatment and capacity reservation, to the Oregon Transportation Commission. The freight community’s response: Nothing but an expansion in general purpose lanes on the state’s highways would help freight movement.

    A side note: this was right around the same time that the freight community successfully got the law changed so that no project on designated state freight routes can “reduce capacity” for freight. No more curb extensions on main street, no more bike lanes; we can only widen the road now.

    What other stakeholder could suggest with a straight face that setting aside lanes at rush hour exclusively for them won’t help their traffic and still not just be taken seriously, but dominate the policy debate? How is this a fair fight? At what point do we ask if the “other side” is negotiating from a resonable position, or even in good faith?

    More importantly, when will policymakers acknowledge that one community is asking for a more balanced system where motor vehicles still dominate, while the other community is actively and openly opposed to the very idea of balance?

    To borrow a hackneyed expression from contemporary politics, we are bending over backwards strengthening their frame (“anyone opposed to freight movement is anti-economy”) and they are successfully using that frame to marginalize us out of the debate. We make good points that don’t really communicate a strong message about why we should be taken seriously on our own terms (“reducing SOV travel benefits everyone, especially freight”), and they stay relentlessly on message (“we want everything and if we don’t get it then you’re opposing economic recovery and growth”) and demand that our interests be dismissed.

    I sometimes fear that we are falling into a trap that progressives are often criticized for. Are we being too earnest and accomodating, trying to be reasonable and fair, when there is a powerful hegemonist who won’t be satisfied until everyone else is completely out of the picture? Are we getting even getting credit for being reasonable when others can be openly unreasonable and still dominate the debate?

    How can we be (a small) part of the right-of-way when the freight community wants to be the only one on the street?

  2. I guess I’m a cock-eyed optimist. I keep hoping the freight folks will wake up and realize the SOV is our common problem.

    Meanwhile, on a more realistic basis, I’m thinking that constrained resources are forcing balanced solutions. There isn’t enough money to build the lane capacity they think they need.

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