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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

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 Infrastructure

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.

So what's the solution? Surprise, more money seems to be the city's answer:

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.)

Comments (1)

Don't forget accoding to the Funding document found at

You have to download it you can't read it on the site.

in addition to the $1.1 million the City kicks in, Trimet kicks in $2.4 million, annually, but be of good cheer, they collect $150,000 a year from fares/sponsorships/promotions to offset that $3.5 million in annual operating costs, it is not clear whether that includes the deprecition or replacement cost of the system. If it doesn't thats another couple of million a year that should be banked for when the thing wears out.

Opps I forgot the Transportations Maintenance policy, you just so artfully explained above. How silly of me to think about irrelevant things like that.

Posted by: Swimmer at July 25, 2006 03:27 PM

That's a lovely little package, gonna have to get my own.
Perhaps, PDOT thinks it can convince enough people to make the switch to bikes and mass transit; the resulting less traffic will slow the deterioration enough that current funding is sufficient? Sounds fanciful, but considering the OTHER projects they've considered sound business investments ...

Posted by: Chris at July 25, 2006 03:40 PM

Who knows what they're thinking? The individual people who work in government are sound, rational beings. But the organization as a whole is a basket case.

Posted by: Jack Bog at July 25, 2006 03:44 PM

y'know, it's people like you what cause unrest...

(apologies to the Pythons)

Posted by: rickyragg at July 25, 2006 04:02 PM

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.

To Lake Oswego? holy cow! How long will that take? I hope it moves faster than the one downtown. I have walked faster...

Posted by: Jon at July 25, 2006 04:13 PM

On a good day, you can get some places faster on the streetcar than by walking.

Some places. On a good day.

Posted by: Jack Bog at July 25, 2006 04:18 PM

so much
from so many
for so few

A "good day" is any day I don't encounter that rolling Czech suppository. It never ceases to amaze me that Pilsner Urquell and that thing come from the same city.

Posted by: rickyragg at July 25, 2006 04:47 PM

The city of Portland should get out of the street maintenance business and hand the whole operation off to the county. It makes no sense to have two, or more government agencies doing the same work in this small geographical area.
As for this streetcar it is going to cost significantly more as the dollar erodes in value against the Euro, so we will see how anxious people are about buying it in the future.

Posted by: Michael Wilson at July 25, 2006 04:49 PM

The reason PDOT, ODOT, METRO, and all related government agencies neglect the roads is that they feel the improvements will not be necessary within the next few years.

Despite the fact that the use of personal motorized transport has grown exponentially since the invention of the automobile, these city planners are counting on an event known as “peak oil” … the day that roads will become obsolete.

It is theorized that when “peak oil” happens, all forms of motorized transportation (except for busses), suburbs, Wal-Mart’s, strip-malls and conservatives will all magically disappear from the face of the earth… leaving only an enlightened class of artistic “progressives” who commute only by tram, shop at whole foods, live in condos, and hate George Bush behind.

Posted by: Anthony at July 25, 2006 07:43 PM

Dont worry, 30 yrs from now when George Bush the 4th becomes president and sues the CoP and Randy Leonard Jr says it is retribution for not joining JTTF IV, then they will have to fix the streets.

By then we should almost have the sewer paid down and only have to raise parking from $8/hr then to $128/hr to pay for this. Of course, RL Jr will hasten to remind us the air above the parking space is the cheapest in the country.

Posted by: Steve at July 25, 2006 07:47 PM

Oh this is nonsense.
PDOT has plenty of money.
Why else would they hand over $3 million to SoWa?

SoWa is broke, TIF money is way short of projections and the massive public improvement projects budget overruns.
Rather than come clean with the fiscal mess they raid PDOT and Parks budgets to cover up the failure of their Urban Renewal plan to actually fund SoWa.

The whole enchilada is official maleficence and a house of cards.

The perpetual and worsening lack of fundamental maintenance in all quadrants is the tip of the iceberg.
Or rather the Titanic.

We can only hope some of the scoundrels eventually face some consequences for what they have caused.

Posted by: Steve Schopp at July 25, 2006 09:22 PM

Lets GPS Chip them buggers so we can find'em later!

Posted by: Abe at July 25, 2006 09:30 PM

My people tell me parking tickets have jumped from 18 to 24 bucks downtown. I can hear the speech now: "We did it to help businesses by giving people more of an incentive to leave the spots on time...."
Meanwhile it smells like financial problems to me.

Posted by: Bill McDonald at July 25, 2006 10:21 PM

And don't forget that the cost of a parking ticket could include any time and energy lost should you be unfortunate enough to become entangled in a conversation with a meter maid. Helpful hint: if you are returning to your car and you spot one of these semi-literate dummies recording your license plate number, just hang back and wait until they're finished. Pretend that there is a stray cow on the sidewalk and behave as you would in close proximity to any large, stupid animal: stay away. Wait for them to leave, take the ticket, and then be on your way. They have to live their lives and you have to live yours.

Posted by: skyview satellite at July 25, 2006 11:19 PM

Excellent analysis/summary, Jack. Transportation is at a critical point in Portland's future. We have too many politicians saying so but not doing anything about it.

Today's Tribune in its "ReThinking Portland" in several of its article keeps coming back to a central point-transportation.

Several articles in Seattle Times and PI in the recent past reflected on how Boeing's move to Chicago was instigated in large part to poor transportation infrastructure. And they weren't talking about mass transit only. From inside sources, crippling freight, employee movement was intrumental to their move. This is happening in Portland. This message has been out for several years but the politicians are not listening/acting, just talking.

Consider Sam Adam's staff member Roland (see"Time-Out for Large Scale Development on Hayden Island"-scroll down to bottom and click) and his responses to transportation issues. He innocently sees North Macadams traffic issues unlike Hayden Island. He hasn't answered a blog that refutes his contention that demonstrates that NM is an island like Hayden Island, and has serious transportation problems with no funding.

If you've read Sam's Blog and his staff comments on his many posts on transportation issues, you begin to see why we are in this transportation dilemma in all its aspect. And Sam is our commissioner on transportation and has been at city hall for over 14 years.

Maintenance is essentially non-existent: Burnside (east and west); Front Avenue; Macadam Avenue; Hawthorne; SE 32nd; SE Belmont; NW 23rd; NW 21st; Lombard; side streets everywhere; continue.

Citing "lack of funding" is not the answer, it is "priority".

Posted by: Jerry at July 25, 2006 11:22 PM

My people tell me parking tickets have jumped from 18 to 24 bucks downtown. I can hear the speech now: "We did it to help businesses by giving people more of an incentive to leave the spots on time...."
Meanwhile it smells like financial problems to me.

Thats nothing....Tri-Met nailed me $40 for a parking ticket at the Sunset TC. And it said it doubles to $80 if you dont pay it within 30 days.

Posted by: Jon at July 26, 2006 08:01 AM

Has anyone reported on all the heat-related delays the MAX has suffered in the last week? First it was snow, now heat. I mean, I take public transportation almost every day and love that I don't have to drive, but Trimet should spend the money fixing what they have before building another streetcar line...


Posted by: Mateu at July 26, 2006 01:33 PM

My street just got "slurried," where they come and spread goo on all the little cracks to keep it from degrading in the future. I can't really figure out why, though. I mean, that's the kind of forward-thinking maintenance I would expect, but our street is in very good shape, while others I drive down on a regular basis are completely ignored. Not to mention those streets that are concrete up here in NoPo. Those will never get addressed. They need to MOW those streets there's so many weeds coming through.

$14MM initial bid for 8 blocks. Is that for real?

Posted by: Don Smith at July 26, 2006 03:01 PM

Portland's citizens need to get the city out of the street maintenance business entirely by establishing a seperate "Street Maintenace District", or by establishing a non-profit utility to handle the needs of street maintenance.

Posted by: Michael Wilson at July 26, 2006 06:14 PM

No, I think the City of Portland should get out of the business of "social engineering" and back into the business of street maintenance-something that has always been a primary responsibility of why cities are incorporated.

Posted by: Lee at July 26, 2006 09:39 PM

Michael Wilson: Portland's citizens need to get the city out of the street maintenance business entirely by establishing a seperate "Street Maintenace District", or by establishing a non-profit utility to handle the needs of street maintenance.
Lee: No, I think the City of Portland should get out of the business of "social engineering" and back into the business of street maintenance-something that has always been a primary responsibility of why cities are incorporated.

JK: How about we form a series of service districts, each with the responsibility to provide ONE civic service? On for roads, another water, another police etc. We would vote on the heads of each AND its budget. Basically make each city bureau head into an elected position along with its budget. Then we could mostly close down city hall.

Lets start with PDC, instead of making it a city bureau to dish out favors to high donor developers, lets elect its boss and vote on its budget! How many would vote for a PDC head and the budget to give Homer’s hole $200 million?


Posted by: jim karlock at July 28, 2006 06:57 AM

Out here in Linnton I've been collecting a few questionable projects. The newest supposedly went to bid yesterday. $550,000* for new/better traffic signals and 3 new cross walks. We have few pedestrians out here so, why? And one new cross walk is going in at 105th and St Helens. There's no sidewalk on one side of the street. No businesses or residences on either side. Why? Then there's the 6 bus shelters that were badly needed. But TriMet's date shows that 5 of the shelters get only 0-2 boardings per day. The 6th bus shelter at NW 107th and St.Helens Rd gets less than 20. (*only $50,000 from Portland, $500,000 from the Feds--but Mr Blumenauer doesn't care.) This is just a partial list.

Posted by: Don at July 28, 2006 11:08 PM

[Posted as indicated; restored later.]


As a lawyer/blogger, I get
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