Adams paints dismal street picture, pitches repair taxes in outer East Portland

Although it seems city government has put off dealing with crumbling roads and traffic safety issues for years, see what PDOT’s Commissioner, Sam Adams, is doing to start moving the city toward improving our transportation infrastructure‚

Judy Welch, Lents Neighborhood resident, and Alicia Reese, Chair of the Woodland Park Neighborhood, sign in at the outer East Portland transportation meeting.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Pay now for road maintenance‚ or pay a lot more, later on‚ was Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams’ theme at a series of town hall meeting held across Portland in late June and early July. We took in the meetings in inner Southeast Portland on June 20, and the town hall at Central Northeast Neighbors on NE Sandy Boulevard on July 2.

“Portland’s streets and roads are deteriorating rapidly,” Adams told us before he addressed citizens attending SE Portland “Transportation Priorities and Funding Options” town hall sessions.

“We have to make the tough decision to get on top of transportation system repairs. If we don’t start now, it will cost all of us much more if we delay,” Adams said.

“Our transportation system is in trouble,” says Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, as he begins his PDOT town hall tour by documenting the problems with Portland’s roads.

The purpose of these public sessions was to explore the options regarding Portland’s street maintenance and safety backlog, the Commissioner said.

“We are here to learn about the street safety and maintenance concerns of the people who live here. We’re here to ask for their feedback. We’re asking them to prioritize the work that should be done, if we had more money. And, we’re discussing the various funding options that might meet those priorities,” said Adams.

Transportation troubles defined
In his opening remarks at both well-attended town hall meetings, Adams spelled out why the Portland Office of Transportation (PDOT) says our transportation system is in trouble:

  • 3,941 miles of streets, or 32%, of arterials are in poor condition;
  • 157 bridges, (22% of them) are in poor condition;
  • 992 traffic signals, (43%) are in poor condition;
  • Too many Portlanders are being injured and killed in traffic crashes; and,
  • Deferred maintenance adds an estimated $9 million annually to future costs.

Low vehicle fuel tax rates to blame
The reason Portland’s street transportation system is in bad shape, Adams explained, is a lack of funding.

“There hasn’t been an increase in the 24-cent per gallon state gasoline tax since 1993. And, the Portland metro region receives only 46 cents out of each dollar paid in state gas tax and vehicle registration fees,” said Adams.

More than half of the time during the town hall meeting was dedicated to allowing citizens to express their concerns about roads and street safety.

Similar values discussed; except for bicycle transportation
Although the specifics differed, the general theme of questions and comments we heard at the two meetings were similar, with one exception: bicycles.

Many folks attending the inner SE Portland meeting raised their voices in favor of bicycle and pedestrian transportation.

At the meeting in outer East Portland several days later, a different attitude became apparent. When a community member said he objected to the amount of money spent on bike lanes; spontaneous applause broke out.

“How much money is being spent on bike lanes?” the commissioner was asked. Adams stated that 1.35% of the transportation budget was spent for bicycle lanes. “About 3% of people in Portland use bicycles as their primary mode of transportation,” Adams added.

Other questions; and answers
Adams was peppered with queries such as: “Did the Tram take money that could have used for road maintenance?”

Adams replied that PDC tax-increment-funded dollars can only be used to increase capacity, not to repair or maintain.

Asked if the city spent too much for light rail and streetcar lines, Adams answered, “Transportation funding is complicated. Federal and state light rail funds must be spent only on light rail.” He added that an increase in parking meter and garage fees, along with other undisclosed funds, supports streetcar operation, along with $1.6 million from the city’s budget.

Asked to comment on how “tax abatements on expensive downtown high-rise condos” hurt street maintenance funding, Adams responded, “I voted against the last round of tax abatements. Where I live in Kenton (near St. Johns), we all pay full taxes.”

When questioned why the backlog on inadequate or defective traffic signals was so great, Adams said many of the traffic signals that are failing are old; the city has delayed replacing them.

Sidewalks: the homeowner pays
A question asked in both sessions concerned what agency has the responsibility for building and maintaining sidewalks that run in front of residences.

“In most places,” Adams responded, “sidewalks and curbs are improvements that are, or were, the responsibility of the developer. In some places, the county didn’t require sidewalks, so they weren’t built.”

Questions “wasteful spending”
Quizzed if PDOT could cut “wasteful spending”, Adams answered, “I’m dedicated to improving efficiencies. The number of [PDOT] city employees, per capita, has not increased. As Commissioner [of PDOT] for the last two years, I can say we’ve reoriented the agency, and taken it in a new direction.”

When asked why seemingly-good arterial streets are now being repaved, Adams replied, “The Portland City Auditor has stated the city isn’t doing enough to prevent streets from deterioration.” He explained that shallow grinding and repaving projects prevent much-more-costly later repairs to the street’s foundation.

Several of those in attendance used the meeting as a forum to praise or decry public transit, to point out what they see as the city’s fiscal boondoggles, to speak against tax abatements and infill development, or to complain about poor roads and a lack of sidewalks in their neighborhoods.

Playing “Stump the Commissioner”, one wag opined that charging more for metered parking spaces could help defray road maintenance costs and asked, “Exactly how many parking spaces in the city?” Adams answered, “I don’t know.”

Opinion poll points out problems
“Research shows strong results for road repair, maintenance, and safety,” Adams quoted from public opinion survey taken in January.

When outer East Portland residents were asked for their opinion of the area’s greatest transportation needs, “light rail” and “pothole repair” were the top two topics. Across all four quadrants of the city, “pothole repair” came up most frequently.

Sam Adams states, in dollars and cents, what SE Portland neighbors can expect to pay in increased taxes, to get safer streets and save crumbling roads.

Funding options
“I’m not asking you to sign a blank check for transportation,” Adams stated. “I’m asking you to focus on selecting projects that save the most money, and save the most lives.”

Adams then presented several funding concepts. These included local bond funding options paid by property tax, an increase in the local fuel tax of 12 cents per gallon, Street Maintenance Fees, and employee and business taxes.

Research shows, the commissioner said, public opinion favors a “Street Safety and Maintenance Fee” of just over $30 per residence per year‚ generating about $15 million annually. Those polled were almost evenly split when asked if they would accept a local fuel tax increase.

Commissioner voted “very well prepared”
People we polled after the meetings rated Commissioner Adams as being “very well prepared” for these meetings. “He had an answer for everything,” was a typical comment‚ some said it in a sincere tone of voice, others sounded sarcastic.

Those attending were urged to take a “transportation survey” and “vote” on the importance of issues, and solutions. Several neighbors grumbled that some of the questions appeared “loaded” to favor increasing taxes. “It’s like they’re asking, ‘Do you want to see your roads crumble; and have more people be killed crossing the street‚ or pay a little more in taxes’,” one attendee commented to us.

See you in September
A draft proposal developed from PDOT’s research, and data gathered from the informational surveys taken at the meetings, will be revealed in a series of public meetings scheduled in September.

The outer East Portland meeting will be on September 20, at the Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct Community Room at 737 SE 106th Avenue, across from Floyd Light Middle School.

The inner Southeast Portland meeting is scheduled for September 24 at St. Philip Neri Church, on Division Street at 2408 SE 16th Avenue.

Adams documents maintenance and repair needs that PDOT has uncovered in inner SE Portland.

Update: Study findings
On July 10, Commissioner Adams released information regarding the surveys taken in his round of neighborhood coalition meetings.

“The results are surprising,” Adams wrote. “At each of the town halls, neighbors expressed very strong support for new funding sources to address basic transportation needs.”

According to Adams, the PDOT survey shows:

  • “Transportation is important. Transportation ranks second to schools as Portlanders’ highest priority.
  • “Intersections and school crossings need to be safer. Portlanders want safer crosswalks, especially around schools and at intersections.
  • “Find new funding sources — Portlanders dislike over-reliance on the state gas tax, and strongly encourage funding diversification.
  • “Promote conservation — New funding sources that encourage conservation are most favored; a local gas tax is strongest followed by a ‘gas guzzler’ tax and a fee on parking spaces.
  • “Be clear and accountable — While Portlanders want a full-service package, they also want transparency and accountability. Portlanders support: an independent oversight committee, buy-in from neighborhoods and neighborhood business districts, capped administrative costs, a defined list of projects, and ‘sunsetting’ taxes and fees after 10 years.
  • “Get it done. Town hall attendees support more expansive funding packages than the $23 million proposal Adams presented: eliminating the maintenance backlog in ten years at $45 million annually scored highest, followed by a more comprehensive package at $70 million per annum.”

For complete survey results, see:

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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