Sam the Tram jerks your chain
Have you heard? There's a major ongoing crisis in the condition of the streets, bridges, and traffic signals of Portland, Oregon.
Well, if you live here, of course you've heard. How can you not have heard, when the city's transportation bureaucrats have begun harping on this issue at every turn, as of a few weeks ago? Here's a mailer that's been sent out to every postal customer in the city. Our copy of this 8½-by-5½-inch two-color document arrived on Friday:
As if that weren't enough, on Saturday we got a robo-call telling us we needed to attend the meeting on this emergency, Tuesday night in our part of town. A robo-call! Even though we are on the official government no-call list, and even though we pay the phone company a pretty penny to play a recorded announcement to all callers telling them we don't accept solicitations.
All this nattering about the city's transportation "trouble" has the hallmarks of a single politician -- Commissioner Sam "the Tram" Adams -- and it's infuriating on so many different levels that one has to stop and get out a clipboard to count them all.
First and foremost, the nature of the city's fiscal irresponsibility when it comes to transportation is obvious. We're spending entirely too much money on shiny condo marketing toys like streetcars and the aerial tram, and the basics of street, bridge, and traffic light maintenance have been neglected. It's been going on for years, and the cumulative weight of all the toys is starting to make itself felt.
I got a kick out of the Tram-meister's spin on this, as reported by blogger Amanda Fritz last week. "Only $1.6m of City funding goes annually to subsidize Streetcar operations." ONLY! And that's up $600,000 in the last two years. A million six a year would fix a lot of potholes. As would the hundreds of thousands -- we never got a straight answer as to how many, but lets say $300,000 a year -- which make up the city's share of operating the lovely OHSU aerial tram [rim shot]. There's $2 million down the condo developer rat hole. Every year. Forever.
And even if it's too late to stop paying for that now -- we're not going to rip up the streetcars we have or tear down the tram -- we continue to talk about adding more. Streetcars up and down MLK (Joe Weston's already got the accompanying towers lined up), streetcars all along Burnside in the wasteful traffic "couplet" -- streetcars, streetcars, streetcars. Every single extension will cost the city a quarter million a year, forever, once it's built. If we've got so much "trouble," maybe we ought to think twice about making it worse.
Second, the emergency tone of these crisis pronouncements is absurd. The deterioration of Portland's streets has been, and continues to be, gradual. The roads, bridges, and traffic signals have been neglected on a serious basis for around a decade -- back to when then-Mayor Vera Katz agreed with Homer Williams and Neil Goldschmidt that the city needed to invest all its money in promoting condominium tower development. There is simply nothing new in this story that warrants the breathless robo-calls and scary direct mail.
Third, it's outrageous that Sam the Tram is making a big deal out of this issue. He is a prime cause of the problem. The legacy of neglect dates back to Katz, Adams's political godmother, who employed him as her chief of staff for many years. And since his friend Opie pulled the strings and got him elected to the council, Adams has devotedly carried water for the developer moneybags -- the only real beneficiaries of the shiny toy transit that sucks up all the transportation money Portland ever has to spend.
If the system is "in trouble," it's Adams's fault as much as anyone's, and for him to start grandstanding on the sorry state of our streets is the ultimate in gall. He's such a smooth talker, I hear -- he must be, not to be pelted with the rotten tomatoes he deserves at his "town hall" meetings on the subject. (Which, I might add, are conveniently called on short notice in the summer, when no one's around -- a classic Portland City Hall tactic.)
Next, the Adams methodology for raising taxes is nauseatingly cute. "With your help we can save lives." Come on, man, do we look that stupid? You frame the "conversation" you're asking for in terms of choosing among alternatives for new taxes -- gas tax, property tax, car registration tax, whatever. But of course, the word "tax" appears nowhere in any of the red-hot crisis literature. It's all about "transportation priorities and funding options." Uh huh.
Moreover, the timing of this publicity campaign is highly suspicious. It's pretty clear that Tom Potter's going to step down as mayor after one term -- officially, he's playing coy until September, but I'm sure he's already tipped his hand to his colleagues on the council -- and it's no secret that Adams and his supporters think he's going to be the next mayor. Never mind that he lost the primary last time -- he's emboldened enough by his upset win in the general election that he thinks he can become the new Vera.
I'm sure he's figured out, though, that basic transportation needs are a negative for him. Many Portlanders are fed up with the sorry condition of our roads, bridges, and traffic signals, and if any politician is to take the blame for those problems, it's the transportation commissioner -- Sam the Tram. And so the sudden urgency is all a push to make it look as though he's equally outraged, and that somehow he had nothing to do with it. Heck, he might even convince the OSPIRG and Bus Kid sheep that he's the one who discovered there was a problem. And then he'll make hay out of acting as though he's the champion of the public good. (Not to mention that as soon as you say "new taxes," you pick up several thousand public employee votes.)
At the risk of demonstrating what a paranoid old kook I have become, I smell old Mark Wiener here -- the political guru who decides winners and losers around Portland. I'll bet that part of what he and Sam are hoping for is that the tighty righties in town take a break from cleaning their guns and limp up the mike to scream about the tax increase. That way, when Adams comes around with his "progressive, green, sustainable, bike-friendly, labor-friendly, immigrant-friendly, gay (and anyone else I've left out)" thing as part of his mayoral campaign in a few months, he'll have all the Larsies cussing him out. The way will then be clear for him to dismiss anyone who opposes him as part of the Don McIntire crowd.
Finally, there's the issue of blowing quite a chunk of basic transportation budget money for the current publicity blitz -- including the spendy direct mail campaign and robo-calls. The city commissioners get an early start on to their campaign literature, in the guise of carrying out their official duties. Dan Saltzman did it with the glossy Big Pipe project brochure in November of 2004, and Adams is doing it now with the "trouble" mailer. The robo-calls on the bureau budget, though -- wow. Those appear to be a Sam the Tram innovation.
It's difficult for me not to tell the good commissioner to take his phony crisis and stick it where the aerial gondola don't go. When he's cancelled all the proposed streetcar extensions, then maybe he can come see us about a tax increase for roads. But not until then. And when he does, he'd better call it what it is -- none of this "priorities and funding options" double-talk.
Meanwhile, if he'd like to use public funds to run for mayor, he should stop draining the city's transportation budget for it. Rather, he should start collecting his $5 contributions for his "clean money" campaign handout. I'm sure Williams and Weston are dying to spend a big hundred bucks to be the first on his seed money list. It's likely the cheapest paid gratification either of them has had in a long time.