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Why the Proposed Portland Street Fee is Good for Active Transportation

Tomorrow I’ll be testifying at City Council in favor of the “Transportation User Fee”.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz in the last day or two that this fee is unfair because it charges all households the same fee, and gives no credit for reducing auto-dependence. Some have even said it perpetuates an auto-dependent system.

In other forums, a preference has been expressed for increasing fuel taxes instead.

I strongly disagree with those perspectives.

But first, let’s deal with the valid criticism that’s also being widely discussed. This fee is regressive. That’s absolutely true. I’d much prefer a progressive, income-based tax for this purpose. Commissioner Novick has indicated the same preference. But it’s a political non-starter. And to their credit, the Mayor and the Commissioner have created a break for lower-income households, making this less regressive. I hope they’ll do more, and I will testify to that tomorrow.

Despite its regressiveness, I think this is a clear win for active transportation. Here’s why:

We desperately need the revenue, and it’s not going to come from a fuel tax

First, the gas tax is not going to solve the problem. The Portland Plan makes this clear:

In 2012 the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s largest single source of revenue remains the state gas tax. State gas tax revenue is increasingly volatile and unsustainable due to economic fluctuations and and increasing use of electric vehicles. In addition, the goals of this plan to encourage more resilient, human-scale travel choices (walking, use of mobility devices, biking and the use of transit) will put additional pressure on this revenue source.

Do you get it? The more we succeed at moving people to walking, biking and using transit, the less money we have to maintain the transportation system! Even if we could garner the political will to keep raising the gas tax, we eventually get to the place where the last driver of a gasoline-powered car has to fund the entire street system. Should we continue to have gas taxes? Yes! Should we continue to raise them? Yes! Will that fund our needs by itself? No!

The Portland Plan also identifies that we need to spend about $300M more per year on maintaining the City’s infrastructure than we do today, and the City Auditor has identified the need to spend $75M per year specifically on transportation just to catch up on street maintenance. The simple matter is that without substantially more revenue, the City will never be able to address our needs for sidewalks, bikeways and safety improvements. They’ll simply be pouring all their resources into an ever declining sea of potholes.

This is not about perpetuating an auto-dependent system

As the explanatory materials make clear, this revenue will be spent on two sets of priorities: maintenance and safety. There are no buckets of cash in here for expanding auto capacity.

As every cyclist knows, Portland’s streets are getting bumpier and bumpier. We can’t walk, bike or take transit around the city if the streets are in a total state of disrepair, and they are definitely headed there. Letting the streets turn to gravel is not an effective strategy for reducing VMT. It will simply hurt the livability and economy of our City.

And the safety agenda in this package is all about the things we value:  dealing with high-crash corridors, safe routes to school, sidewalks, crossing treatments, and even protected bikeways. Not enough, to be sure. But way more than we are getting today.

We have skin in the game

As virtuous as we may feel for reducing (or eliminating) our driving, we still benefit tremendously from the transportation system. We should pay for those benefits. Users of fossil-fuel vehicles should pay more, and they will – they’ll pay both the user fee and gas taxes. But because I walk and bike, that does not exempt me from a responsibility to pay for the system.

I will happily pay my family’s $11.56 each month and will feel good about the things it will pay for. I hope other active transportation advocates will feel the same way and join me in supporting this fee.

In Support of a Street Improvement Fee

On Thursday, I’ll be joining what I hope will be a large group of transportation enthusiasts and activists in attending PBOT’s Our Streets Town Hall. Motivated by a series of missed opportunities that have made our 2030 bicycle plan look more like a naïve aspiration than a realistic, achievable goal, and appalled by a recent spate of pedestrian deaths, I’ll offer this argument in support of the street fee.

Winston Churchill once described democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Similarly, a per-household fee may be the worst way of funding our transportation priorities except for all of the other ways that we’ve tried. I say this mindful that I’m fortunate enough to be able to pay the fee without it being too burdensome. For many Portlanders, this fee will hurt, and I hope we can find a way to soften the blow to them while preserving the idea that we all have ‘skin in the game.’ I also would have preferred to see us first take the step of charging fair market rates to those who store their private belongings on our streets by reforming parking throughout the city.  But it is defensible, I suppose, to ask all Portlanders to contribute something before asking those who demand more to contribute more, so long as it’s certain that the latter step will follow.

There’s no doubt that implementing this fee constitutes an improvement to our current funding system. What we’re trying to do at present—fund a multi-modal transportation system with revenues generated largely by motor vehicle travel—is equivalent to trying to fund a methadone clinic with a tax on heroin. It’s a Catch-22 where our ability to provide a solution depends upon the continuing severity of the problem. This new fee is an opportunity to reshape that vicious circle. As such, I expect to see it immediately and drastically change our funding priorities, placing much less emphasis on preserving access and capacity for motor vehicles, and much more on projects that focus on safety, particularly for the most vulnerable road users.

Make no mistake: With regard to demonstrating a commitment to active transportation, we are stagnating. We are stagnating. We have no bike sharing program, nor any concrete plans to deliver one nearly three years after Council voted to do so. And as I write, we are squandering a chance to improve bicycle access on 28th Avenue—a key component of the 2030 bicycle plan. It joins too long a list of recent missed opportunities that includes SW 12th Avenue, NE Holladay Street, and the NW Park Blocks, to name just a few. The news of plans to improve crosswalks along some of our most treacherous roads is welcome, but it’s a modest step. Portland’s walking and bicycling networks remain frustratingly—and often dangerously—incomplete.

I support this new revenue stream because it presents our best opportunity yet to end the stagnation. However the name that seems to have taken hold—“street maintenance fee”—misses the point. The goal here must be to improve our streets. The name of the fee should reflect that. I understand that the finances around street maintenance appear daunting at this moment. But if we were to invest in making our streets excellent public spaces—by holding safety paramount; by prioritizing walking, bicycling, and transit in practice as well as we preach it; and by recognizing that our streets are, as Jane Jacobs so eloquently stated, the setting of an intricate ballet that “never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations”—I’d bet that those numbers would start to look a lot more manageable in a hurry.

In fact, I’d bet twelve bucks a month on it.

Updated Again: Sharpening Our Game on Bicycle Advocacy

Updated 11/14/13:

BTA may be squirming a bit on their infographic, but the advocacy continues – they’re holding an Advocacy 101 training on November 19 (5:30pm), pizza by Old Town Pizza.

Updated 11/13/13:

BTA has updated the graphic with revised numbers. You can see the new graphic and the explanation of the changes at their site.

Original Post 11/12/13:

Portland has the highest bicycle commute mode share in the country, so you might think that the entire populace must embrace our progressive posture on all things cycling.

Not quite.

Here and around the country members of our communities don’t always share our understanding of the benefits of cycling, which extend even to those who don’t get on a bicycle. Locally, Steve Novick, our newest City Commissioner, likes to talk about how people who bike lower health insurance costs for all of us.

Nationally, the Green Lane Project is trying to get smarter on how to talk about cycling. An example: “cycle track” doesn’t resonate with most people. But “protected bike lane” has more positive associations.

Back on the local level, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance has taken on the debunking of an old canard, that cyclists freeload on our streets and roads. The infographic below that BTA released today makes the case plain that those of us who bike are more than paying our share.

I’m looking forward to continuing to up our game and make our case!

Road_Cost_Infographic_PNG

Click here for a printable version of the infographic.

23 Years and Counting

Autumn weekends are generally reserved for admiring the changing colors, but at about 9:30 AM this past Saturday, a band of over 15 students climbed into a tour bus to behold the wonders of local Portland traffic calming projects.

16th & Tillamook

A visit to NE 16th & Tillamook, where a traffic diverter installed by concerned neighbors was eventually adopted and improved by the City.

Continue Reading →

Eleven Reasons Portland Transport readers should come to the 2013 Weston Awards.

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Hey, folks! My name is Aaron Brown, and I’m currently serving as Board President of Oregon Walks, the state’s pedestrian advocacy organization that’s been busy working to make streets safer for walking in the state since 1991. I’ll ask you to please excuse my remarkably obnoxious, buzzfeedesque title and format of this article, but I really wanted to extend a personal invitation to readers of Portland’s wonkiest, most wonderful blog to attend our third annual Weston Awards, to be held this October 26, 2013. I thought this enumerated list of reasons might convince you to swing by the North Star Ballroom next Saturday. Here we go!

  1. Every transit trip begins and ends with a walk. I’d imagine many readers of this blog are brought to the table of livable communities advocacy by their interest in transit options in the Portland region. The previous successes and ongoing advocacy of Oregon Walks are an often-overlooked but enormously crucial component of making transit a more effective, more viable, and more desirable option for getting around town. TriMet recently conducted a Pedestrian Network Analysis report highlighting the need for more safety, sidewalks and places to walk, and support of our organization helps us work with TriMet, Metro, and local jurisdictions to stand up for that all-important last-mile, or even last-block.OrWalkLogo_RGB[1]
  2. Making conditions safe for walking is a social justice issue. Thanks to the work of some remarkable, inspiring advocates and community organizers, the topic of safe streets in low-income and communities of color in East Portland has gained tremendous traction in recent years. This was reflected most recently in the unconscionable traffic fatality of 5-year old Morgan Maynard-Cook, who was walking on a stretch of SE 136th without sidewalks. Our organization is steadfastly working to make streets safer for all road users, and our initiative to do so implicitly helps communities that are less-likely to own automobiles, live on safer streets.
  3. Our work for empowerment and advocacy broadens the livable communities tent. As I presented the Oregon Walks letter to City Hall regarding SW Barbur last week, I noticed that I and the other twelve folks who testified were white men. This obviously points to some larger systemic issues about participation in our democracy, especially as it relates to transportation and planning decisions, and I’m proud to say that Oregon Walks is uniquely poised to help bring more folks to the table to stand up for livable, walkable communities. As an example of our work to promote social empowerment be sure to check out…
  4. PhotovoicePIC1-500x352[1]…our Photovoice Project, which will be on display, because it’s seriously rad. Thanks to a grant from the Kaiser Permanente Community Fund,  Oregon Walks has hired the wonderful Casey Ogden to implement a project in partnership with Adelante Mujures, in which Latina Women in Washington County are empowered to take photos of their unsafe streets and present them to elected officials.  The project, titled “Walking: paravida, familia, y comunidad,” represents the epitome of the next generation of walking advocacy, and I couldn’t be more excited to show their work to our Weston Awards audience.
  5. We’re all getting older. When I say that Oregon Walks is bringing new partners to the table, I’m proud to say our organization is partnering with some newer allies who are increasingly concerned with community design, access and mobility. Amongst our Weston Awards winners this year are Donna Green, who ran the City of Portland’s Senior Strolls program, and Bandana Shresthra, the Community Engagement Director with AARP Oregon. With these groups and others such as Elders in Action on board, Oregon Walks is eager to help us design and advocate for communities that will be ready for our region’s ever-shifting demographics.
  6. What better way to celebrate Walktober! We’re in our second year of celebrating Walktober, our monthlong collection of walking. Did you see our recent article in the Oregonian? Why not spend your Saturday evening walking to the Weston Awards? Go ahead and get off the bus a few stops early to enjoy a couple blocks of walking through North Portland.
  7. Did you ever feel so strongly about traffic laws you’ve felt like you practically wear them on your sleeves? If you swing by the Weston Awards, you’ll have a chance to pick up a limited edition, MUTCD-compliant Crosswalk Stop tshirt, as put together by our friends at Lancaster Engineering.
  8. Good Grub! We’ll have food from a handful of restaurants located on Mississsippi Avenue and beer from Thunder Island Brewing, the Cascade Locks-based brewery recently profiled by Michael Andersen over on BikePortland.
  9. We Need a New Executive Director. And your attendance (especially when you bring your checkbook, *cough*) will help us bring new staff on board. If you’ll excuse the pun, we’ve got some mighty big shoes to fill as we look to hire the next Executive Director to succeed the indefatigable, voraciously talented Steph Routh. We’re really excited to begin the recruiting process for our next hired staff, and we won’t be able to bring in the best and the brightest without your help.
  10. 22127a[1]The opportunity to thank a living legend in person. Ray Polani is the wonkiest, most wonderful nonagenarian you could be so lucky as to meet, and Oregon Walks is giving him a lifetime achievement award for his incredible work to support walking-friendly neighborhoods in the region. Check out this August 2013 interview in the Catholic Sentinel, where he calls the Columbia River Crossing “a disaster” and mentions the importance of designing communities for walking. Chris Smith called him “the dean of transit advocates in Portland,” and next Saturday is your chance to thank him in person for a tremendous career of advocacy. We should all be so lucky as to be thinking about transportation in Portland at age ninety.
  11. Biggest reason you should attend? The Westons are fun. Look, I’ve been to my share of gala dinners and events. Last year’s 2012 Weston Awards was, by far, the most enjoyable fundraiser I’ve ever attended. We’re a nimble, scrappy organization doing everything from sitting on planning committees, holding walking events, empowering new communities and supporting legislation all the way up to the state and national levels, and we know how to have a good time. And what better way to celebrate Halloween, the Sidewalk Holiday, than to attend a fundraiser for our state’s pedestrian advocacy organization?

Please buy a ticket! The Early Bird Price is in effect through the end of the weekend. If you’re unable to attend the event next Saturday but you’ve found any of this piece persuasive or enjoyable, consider making a donation, from $500 t0 $5. Any help at all is appreciated.

The Weston Awards
Saturday, October 26th, 2013
6:00 – 9:00pm
North Star Ballroom
635 N. Killingsworth Ct., Portland