Asphalt isn’t sexy

That’s from an editorial in Friday’s Tribune that both celebrates the success of transit advocates while banging the drum for more dollars for roads. It’s a companion to a front page article (“Money comes for rail, but not roads“) that contrasts funding for the I-205/Mall Light Rail with the quest for maintenance dollars for roads.

On the same day, the Oregonian has an article commenting on the apparent lack of opposition to a local improvement district for the Streetcar Loop:

So far, property owners in its path don’t seem overly worked up about paying for the ride.

So what’s going on here? I’d like to think it’s a great enlightenment about the need to build out non-auto transportation networks, but I think it’s a little different than that. The Trib editorial gets one aspect right:

It’s time for partnerships. Light-rail and streetcar supporters have learned to expand their ranks. Road advocates haven’t and sometimes don’t even agree among themselves.

The first part is clearly true. The Streetcar LID will go forward because we’ve spent more than three years working with the local community to define the benefits and get the design right. As a result, the person paying the largest assessment for the Streetcar is also chairing the committee advocating for it. In fact, the Lloyd District has in some ways led the City in alternative transportation. First it taxed itself through a Business Improvement District to found a Transportation Management Association that help shift people from cars to other modes (and saved money by not building parking structures in the process). Now it will tax itself again to bring Streetcar to the district.

By striking contrast, the 2nd biggest freeway bottleneck in the I-5 corridor (after the Columbia Crossing) is also in the Lloyd District: the I-84/I-5 interchange. Has anyone seen a business or community committee organizing for years to solve and fund that one? Nope. (I’m not discounting the efforts of the “Loop Group” study effort, but I would not call them a community group, they are part of a top-down planning process.)

Why is that? I would suggest that one key reason is that the benefits of rail, while having system-wide benefits, are also profoundly local. If you get a Streetcar line or LRT station in your vicinity, your property values go up. In contrast, a freeway in your neighborhood is likely to depress property values. The benefits of a new I-84 interchange would not go to the local neighborhood, but to users of the larger system (many from outside Portland or even outside the state).

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about what that means, but I will add the thought that I don’t think our lack of enthusiasm for funding roads should extend to failing to maintain the system we have – even if asphalt isn’t sexy.

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