Fiddling while Portland crumbles
Don't think I missed the news story on the audit of the City of Portland's transportation maintenance policies. The news is that the city has now given up on preventive maintenance, and sends out the street crews only when something has deteriorated to a nonfunctonal condition. Penny-wise in the short run, pound-foolish in the long run, according to the audit. And to common sense. Tune-ups are cheaper than valve jobs, or new engines.
But it's actually worse than that. The latest budget for the city's Transportation Office has some sobering observations in it, including these:
Aging InfrastructureSo what's the solution? Surprise, more money seems to be the city's answer:
The condition and trends in the City's transportation infrastructure have a direct bearing on the long-term financial health of the transportation fund. The City's transportation infrastructure is deteriorating due to age and heavy use. Much of the transportation infrastructure is past its original useful life. Moreover, inventories have increased dramatically in the last 20 years due to annexation and development. Budgets have not kept up with inflation, leading to cutbacks and an increasing backlog of replacement and repair.
Transportation manages 30 groups of assets worth a total of $5.8 billion. The five most critical elements of the infrastructure are streets, streetlight system, traffic signals, bridges, and sidewalks. Each of these areas presents pressing needs requiring significantly greater resources to protect the public's investment. For example:
. The street paving backlog has reached 597 miles, more than twice the target of 250 miles needed for efficient paving program management.
. The condition of streetlights has declined significantly: 94% of streetlights were rated "good" in 1994 and only 2% "poor"; in 2005, only 22% were rated "good" and 10% "poor."
. Condition of signal hardware has declined from 69% "good" in 1986 to 28% in 2005.
. As of July 2005, 22% of bridges were in poor condition, with 31 bridges listed as weight-restricted.
. 26,324 sidewalk comers need ramps to comply with ADA standards.
PDOT estimates that additional investment of $19 to $26 million per year are required to halt the decline in system condition. An estimated investments of $28 to $36 million would be required annually to maintain the system at sustainable levels.For example, more, and more expensive, parking meters, in operation in more neighorhoods, for ever-longer times of the day. How about a gizmo that would go into your car and charge you by the mile driven? If the city could, it would put a turnstile on your front door and charge you every time you left the house.
Cutting existing programs is another bureaucrat favorite. The practice of replacing broken curbs is on the chopping block, for example, and that popular leaf removal service that some neighborhoods get is about to come with a shiny new user fee.
Left out of the current conversation are priorities -- the things that the city is currently burning money on that make no sense.
Take the streetcar, for example. The city's subsidy of this ridiculously unnecessary toy has somehow drifted off the pages of your local paper, but it was at $1.1 million a year (and rising) when last reported. And that was before it was extended down to the vast nothingness in SoWhat, and the talk is of sending it down MLK and all the way to Lake Oswego. Plus we'll pay 15% or so of whatever it takes to operate the OHSU Health Club aerial tram [rim shot] -- and believe me, that will be a jaw-dropper of a number if and when it finally comes to light.
Even if one puts aside the obscene cost of building the toys -- part of which comes from the federal government -- the annual cost to operate them is what sucks the life out of the city in the long run.
Then there's the pure foolishness. Over in my neck of the woods, inner northeast, the city's on a major kick to get people not to drive their cars. They want you to walk or ride a bike -- take Tri-Met if you have to, even rent a Flexcar! But please, please, don't get in your own car and drive! They call it the "HUB" project, which I think stands for Hurl it Under a Bus.
Anyway, I'm willing to go along with the getting-out-of-the-car thing. In the summertime, I try to drive as little as possible, running, walking, and biking for any short hops that don't involving hauling large packages or objects. It feels great, and it's good for you. And I think it's noble for the city to show people how a healthier way of getting around is feasible in our pedestrian-friendly part of town.
But how much should we spend on that? Imagine my amusement when I got from the city in the mail recently not one but two different invitations to have the city hand out to me a free "transportation alternatives kit" that contains all sorts of maps, brochures, coupons and the like -- including a pedometer and a mini-"computer" to attach to my bike wheel to show speed, distance, time, etc. The second solicitation practically begged me to write in and get one of these care packages.
I figured, "Hey, I paid for it with my property taxes -- might as well get something back," and once I sent in my order, within a few days a city minion came out on a bike and delivered it to my doorstep:
Now how much did all of that cost? And aren't there curbs out there somewhere that could have, should have, been fixed with that money?
Bottom line: It's a crying shame what's happened to transportation maintenance in Portland. It's gone the way of park maintenance, school ground maintenance, and other wonderful features of a bygone era. But let's not kid ourselves about why it's happening. It's largely because the city has decided to spend the money elsewhere -- mostly on shinola. (Illustration idea via Cousin Jim.)