A Challenge for Our New PBOT Director

The intertubes lit up with the news on Friday that Mayor Adams’ chief of staff, Tom Miller, would be the new director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. And it was the topic of gossip in at least one transportation meeting I attended.

My immediate reaction was in two parts:

1) Cool – somebody with very similar policy views to mine is going to be running the agency!

2) Interesting – Tom’s a smart guy, but he has no experience running a large organization – how is he going to managing a 750-person enterprise?

I’m not going to speculate on #2 other than to wish Tom much success and suggest that he makes sure that on his staff he does have someone who is a consummate bureaucrat (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) to keep the wheels turning. Hopefully he’ll take advice on that from the departing Sue Keil who is a premier example of an outstanding agency director. She brought much-appreciated management discipline to PBOT during her six-year tenure.

But I am going to throw out a challenge for Mr. Miller. PBOT exerts influence in a lot of ways (including a major seat at the regional planning table), but I’m going to focus on how it spends GTR – General Transportation Revenue – the funding the City gets from state gas taxes and parking revenues – the discretionary part of PBOT’s budget.

The major focus for this revenue is maintaining arterial streets in the City – and this is a theme the Mayor expounded in his Safe, Sound and Green initiative. But I’m going to challenge Tom to see if he can bring a ‘least cost’ paradigm shift to this process.

There’s no question that we need to keep our major streets in order. If we allow pavement condition to deteriorate too far, costs go up by several multiples to rebuild rather than resurface streets.

But… the lowest cost way to move people around the City is on bicycles. If we can continue to build out our bicycle infrastructure, we’ll be rewarded with lower maintenance costs in the long run, because bikes cause much less wear and tear than other vehicles. And we’ll realize other economic benefits like improved health (and decreased health care costs) from a more physically active population.

So here’s your challenge, Tom – spend JUST BARELY ENOUGH to keep arterials from deteriorating to the point where it costs more to rebuild them, and funnel every other available penny into bike facilities, sidewalks and safety improvements.

That’s the formula for getting the maximum return on every transportation dollar.

Sharpen that pencil, my friend!

(And don’t forget to develop some new revenue sources as well.)


14 responses to “A Challenge for Our New PBOT Director”

  1. I love bikes, bicycling, and pushing for Portland to continue its bike transportation leadership. However there are far too many under-improved streets in Portland’s outer neighborhoods- think, dirt roads, no sidewalks, massive potholes. As an equity issue, these neighborhoods need to have their streets built out which is very costly. Luckily, building out unimproved streets to a functional standard does, by de facto, positively affect bike infrastructure; and I think that minimum standards for improving local streets has room to be tweaked some that could ensure bikes will be comfortable and safe.
    Bikes have great funding opportunities at the state level- however local streets only have local discretionary budgets. I have to disagree with you and say keep the focus on improving local streets.

  2. While I agree that there are many unimproved local streets, current policy says the adjoining property owners must pay to get them up to standards before the City will assume maintenance. That may possibly be a bad policy, but this cost is not currently a GTR expense.

    Interestingly, at the Planning and Sustainability Commission meeting tomorrow we’re getting a briefing on potential alternative approaches to unimproved streets that results from a student project at PSU. I think they have some great ideas and I’m looking forward to it.

  3. If a neighborhood wished it, could they put up the money for improved sidewalks and bike lanes, while leaving an unimproved street for automobiles? One problem with the current policy is questions about equity–streetbuilding is expensive, and many neighborhoods simply lack the money to pay for the improvements. (Similar issues affect other types of infrastructure, noticeably water and sewer.)

    But sidewalks and/or bike lanes require a whole lot less concrete (and a much less robust roadbed) than do streets. Could a neighborhood, if it wished to, choose to install just the lowest-cost types of mobility infrastructure, or does City policy require that the whole enchilada be built?

  4. Ha! I am way ahead of you guys!

    Years ago, when Sam was a mere commissioner, I deposited my beloved copy of Robert Hurst’s “The Art of Urban Cycling” in his office for edification of all therein, including, I hoped, TM. It was a “lend,” but I never got it back–which is just fine!

    I have heard that Tom too rides fixed, which is doubly excellent! With cyclocross tires we fixers easily negotiate the unpaved outback streets of Southeast Portland, with their gigantic potholes, hillocks, puddles. It’s fun, fun, fun!

    Be really artful, Tom! And don’t mess with my potholes!

    P. S.: I bought another copy.

  5. EScotty , I love that idea , and am reminded of the new bike street improvement in the Pearl on Marshall in front of Bridgeport , where they cut 2 bike lane strips out of the cobblestone and put in concrete. the rest of the ROW is as is. That must be a great savings over putting in 30 some feet of car lane.

  6. A bit off topic, but I really want to see Portland take another stab at the “road fee” method of funding our streets, with this caveat: most of the money raised (say, 75%-80%) should be kept in the neighborhood that raises it, and spent according to priorities set by community surveys or the neighborhood organization. From an equity standpoint, I think that could help a lot of poorer neighborhoods get their streets fixed, and maybe even improved the unimproved streets.

    And I agree with Julie – improving bad streets provides better bike infrastructure as long as there’s room to ride safely, particularly for those who commute on road bikes (which I did for many years before buying my current hybrid).

  7. hopefully this will mean the end of the insane one-way streets binge that portland has been on recently. lovejoy/northrup and east burnside/couch are the biggest street design clusterfux I’ve seen in a long time.

  8. The new east Burnside/Couch couplet is an improvement for all road uesrs — a moderate improvement for cars, and a significant improvement for bikes, and a vast improvement for pedestrians.

    The Lovejoy/Northrup couplet (and Marshall Bikeway) represents a modest improvement but is flawed because it doesn’t go as far as it can… I think it would make logical sense to take it all the way to 23rd.

    Let’s stay away from words like “insane” and “clusterfux” to proffer subjective opinions on projects we don’t like. Thanks.

  9. I’m going to differ from my respected co-contributor. If the Lovejoy/Northrup couplet went all the to 23rd, it could be a very short slippery slope to the new Cornell Highway from Washington County to Lloyd District.

    The very short Lovejoy/Northrup couplet provides much-needed east/west capacity where it is needed, in the very dense and active core of the Pearl District.

  10. Ahh, but that’s the beautiful thing about transportation planning: The further away I live from your neighborhood, the easier it is for me to imagine a more rapid route through it. :-)

  11. Don’t worry, Chris–far too many wealthy people live up in Kings Heights to build a highway there. Were Cornell turned into a highway, it would probably follow Balch Creek up into the NW Industrial District. :)

  12. Chris:

    Could you quantify the increase of capacity due to the short Lovejoy/Northrup couplet? Perhaps the speed at which cars traverse Lovejoy eastbound increases, but the cars westbound must drive nearly double the distance they did before.

    Couplets are tricky things. They may increase throughput, usually at the expense of local access. Always they increase the distance traveled, and so the amount of traffic.

  13. Jim, I don’t have the numbers, but fundamentally traffic trying to cross the Broadway Bridge eastbound would back up to 16th and sometimes 18th.

    With anticipated future development North of Lovejoy, it could only get worse.

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