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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Praising with faint damn

Another apparent hit piece in WW today -- this time, on the Portland streetcar. It comes on as a hard-hitting exposé of Earl "the Pearl" Blumenauer's streetcar shenanigans, but in the end he and the condo-selling transit toys both come out smelling fine. It's hard to believe that the author and editors at that publication wanted it any other way.

The "lede" of what they published is deeply buried. At one point way down in the story, somebody calls out the board of the goofy private company that gets to spend all the tax money to build and run the trolleys for an obvious conflict of interest:

Gustafson is not paid for his role as PSI’s director. But the nonprofit has awarded his firm, Shiels Obletz, at least $2.3 million in consulting contracts, according to a May 2007 tally by the city.

Principals at the firm—including Gustafson—have given nearly $27,000 to Blumenauer and his PAC since 1996.

Outsiders might find it odd, and possibly sticky, to have a nonprofit award large contracts to its director’s firm. “It’s a potential conflict of interest,” says Andrew Svitek, a Portland nonprofit lawyer. He adds, “It only becomes a problem if you can show that somebody got preferential treatment.” That’s a difficult thing to show.

Others use stronger language. “It stinks to high heaven,” says Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. She says a nonprofit director’s company benefiting from contracts with the organization is “one of the biggest red flags you can wave.”

“The board has the right to say, ‘We have a bid process,’” Otten says, “but there isn’t a person whose eyebrows aren’t going to be raised.”

So many details about the streetcar are left out. The facts about the proposed east side extension -- which is the big streetcar issue these days -- aren't discussed in the story. For example, the heavy burden on taxpayers, local and citywide, from construction, and especially operating, costs is not covered. The curtailing of existing bus service to pay for the thing is not mentioned. Instead it's all "Look! Federal pork!"

The Double Dub spends most of its ink:

- reminding everyone that Earl (probably the individual with the greatest job security on the planet, and who could run a winning campaign on a quarter) is the person most responsible for the shiny toys, with the first six paragraphs positively glowing with praise;

- "exposing" the fact that he and his congressional buddies have taken a bunch of campaign contributions from the usual suspects who benefit from the thing; and

- quoting vague attacks on the streetcar structure generally (with Jonathan Charles the only local there to make the case against -- I guess Lucifer wasn't available).

In the end, so little dirt is dug up that the targets of the purported hit are actually the winners, much like the Sam Adams intern story two days ago.

The kids who read Willy Week are going to come away from this piece more enamored of the streetcar than ever. All their heroes get their adorable quotes in there -- Chris Smith, Erik Sten, Mike Powell... even Dan Saltzman, another WW hero whose sister is in on the streetcar scam. (As usual, Dan says he's got questions, but he's voting aye.) Meanwhile, the opponents are fronted by Charles and some faceless policy wonks from back east. Whoopee.

In a smart paper like that, rarely are the effects of its articles unintentional. If this story ends up being a net boost for the streetcar -- "See? The opponents, like us, have found nothing credible to complain about" -- one would have to assume that it was meant to be that way.

Comments (10)

Then there is Metro’s Brian Newman’s conflict of interest:

Newman also worked "at the downtown Portland office of the Parsons Brinckerhoff planning firm", which. as one Parsons document describes, "provides systems engineering for every kind of rail and mass transit project". At the same time, Newman also worked "for" Metro.

Of course, at Metro, Newman delivered a "new light-rail line along Interstate 205, the planned light-rail extension between downtown Portland and Milwaukie, and a new line between Portland and Lake Oswego." Worth many Millions to his other employer that just happens to design and build light rail.

I wonder if he got a bonus? (Anything less than $10 million would be an insult, for delivering a potential BILLION in business to his other employer.) - way to go Newman, put a few dollars in your pocket and screw the taxpayer out of Billions and make congestion worse.

Does anyone consider this a conflict of interest?
(At least Cheney had the decency to quit Haliburton.)


I am wondering if there are so few posts to this so far because NO one is surprised by this 'news'.

Well, I'm an opponent, and also a lifetime non-driver, and heavy transit user, so there is no way anyone is going to link me with big auto and oil, etc.

That said, I'm glad that the dirty laundry is finally coming out, because the whole rail operation here has been a big waste of money. I have ridden trains all my life until I moved to Portland, and I can see damn well that this region does not need rail transit operations, given its spatial characteristics and density.

This streetcar is a big joke; go ride it south of Naito Parkway and see it REALLY crawl like a snail down to Bancroft. And they want to extend all the way to Lake Oswego! Boy, but is sure does make the railnuts happy!

Light rail is not my problem so much (unless you count Sam/Earl's patented way of earmarking funds so tehy can never be used to fix streets.)

The trolley has me mystified how they can run this all over downtown, not charge for it and it is sloer than walking. I am constantly amazed at the lack of non-critical thinking in this supposedly well-educated town.

Oh well, Machiavelli again:

"One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived."

Steve, light rail IS a big part of the problem; every time a new MAX line goes into operation, many transit users have their service degraded, usually by longer trip times and additional transferring as I can attest from personal experience.

To repeat, any rail transit in Portland is completely unnecessary and a waste of money, unless you are one of the crony contractors, Euro-wannabe planner, crony politician or hobbyist railfan.

On more than one occassion I have either written to or spoke to almost every politician in Portland about the inadequate transportation services for low income people and how improving those services would help reduce poverty and the social problems that are linked to poverty. Do they care? No! Have they done anything to improve the situation? Hell No!

Unfortunatley I also believe in opening the market to other providers. Especially since the government doesn't give a damn. And these people have the audacity to call themselves progressives. Shameful!

I spent some time in San Francisco recently and have to say that Tri-Met service, bus, MAX or even streetcar, is way superior to MUNI. On the other hand, I did get a lot of exercise walking around Baghdad by the Bay as Herb Caen used to call it. Guess you can't call it that anymore.

Guys like John Charles keep touting jitneys, which are illegal in Portland. They are sort of like a car service, or a big van, that runs a limited route, perhaps on demand. Sounds pretty boring to me.

But if private enterprise were allowed in the transit sector, I think it could be done with companies like Starbucks or McMennamins. Finding locations for new coffee houses or pubs must be getting more difficult. Why not order some 38-foot Pace-Arrows and retrofit them to resemble the interior of a Starbucks and set them on the road picking up passengers? They wouldn't even have to charge a fare. Just sell the coffee. Starbucks could take care of morning commuters and McMennamins could drive them home.

Jack, good analysis. It is interesting that in the past year the "conflict of interest" issue has caused some changes at PDC, with strong citizen complaints. And it seems some members of the City Council recognize the problems associated with "conflict of interests". But I too wonder why this absolute "conflict of interest" concerning the Transit Mafia isn't causing major citizen disgust. It may be the fact that the Mafia connections permeates so many public agencies, like the WW article somewhat points out. There is a lot of back scratching going on. Planners, engineers, architects, construction companies, as well as numerous politicians are all benefiting, even the media. So the outrage is muted.

Besides the public outrage, we need judges, commissions that are responsible in enforcing the "conflict of interest" statutes to enforce.

The loss of good bus service in the Pearl/NW Portland, in SoWhat, and now (to come) in the inner southeast because of trolley systems taking the available funds is reprehensible. Public transit is actually being degraded by the Trolley/Light Rail Mafia.


You and I had a very different experience in San Fran. I went there with my daughter a few weeks ago and we bought a three day pass. We used Muni, buses, and cable car extensively, and I came back convinced that a multi-mode transportation system like San Frans is the way to go. I thought the system was a fantastic way to get around town.

The problems I have with Portland's system are:

1) Our Max is not like the Muni--we have no "cross town" routes (like the N line)

2) Our street car is nothing like the "historic" part of Muni (the lines that go to Castro, Wharf). The streetcar is just damn slow, while even the "historic" cars are quite fast, far faster than walking and even driving.

3) Our whole system seems far less integrated than the San Fran system. We are too locked into a hub/spoke system.

4) We need a LOT more express buses along major arteries like 39th, 82nd, Broadway

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