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.

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