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.)

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