Portland is one of the most pedestrian/bike and public transit friendly cities in the country, a fact supported over the last few years by the city consistently ranking high in various top-10 lists (such as Biking Magazine and reports from the Department of Transportation). This makes transportation one of the most important issues in the race to replace outgoing Mayor Sam Adams.
At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, the Lincoln Performance Hall was filled to capacity with citizens eager to hear Portland’s mayoral candidates discuss their views on transportation. The variety of topics at the debate ranged from building sidewalks to expanding bus services to plans for future bike lanes to the Columbia River Crossing project. All three candidates stressed the need to expand transportation services and access through more neighborhoods with regular, frequent bus service and 10–15 miles of new sidewalks in areas near schools and residential areas.
Charlie Hales, relying on his past experience as a city commissioner who helped bring light rail to Portland, seemed confident and relaxed in discussing his area of expertise. Hales cited the success of light rail and bridge projects he helped develop in Portland and other cities. “I’ve shown that I can bring people together and make these projects happen,” Hales said. During the debate, Hales also pressed further bike expansion for commuters and bike tourists, declaring that Portland could become the bike tourism destination of the country.
Eileen Brady emphasized her desire to create jobs and job access via expanded transportation services. Also stressing the importance of fiscal responsibility, Brady proposed consolidating the management of various transportation services under one department, pointing out that Portland must be able to pay for its projects before starting them. Brady highlighted bike boulevards and greenways as being projects that would improve neighborhoods and fall within the city budget, citing the Going Street bike boulevard as an example.
Jefferson Smith emphasized the need for equity in government, pointing out that only 3.3 percent of transportation dollars are spent on neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue, including the area he represents in the Oregon House of Representatives. Smith argued for a city budget “linked to our best values.”
“There are people in our town who would gain a lot by saving $5,000 a year on transportation by not having to own an automobile, and there are people who would gain a lot from not having the kind of traffic accidents we have in my part of town,” Smith said.
Smith also stressed the need for more youth bus passes and safer bike lanes. In regard to PSU students, the majority of whom live off campus and commute, Smith told the Vanguard: “Better, cheaper, more frequent bus service is the most valuable thing we can do. More affordable housing closer to school would also be helpful. We’ve got to think about transportation not as an end in itself but a means to an end.”
All three candidates proposed cheaper bus fair and increased service east of 82nd Avenue, a difficult feat considering TriMet’s $17 million budget shortfall and proposed fare increases. In a phone interview Hales said, “Sometimes TriMet’s board seems to act like it’s running a business, but it’s important to understand—it’s a basic public service, a crucial service. I’m concerned about higher fare. The business has to be balanced with public need. For a lot of people TriMet is their lifeline.”
Drew Blevins, TriMet’s director of marketing, said that in spite of budget problems, TriMet remains dedicated to service as its top priority, citing plans for improving the Blue Line MAX and implementing a rapid-transit bus system in the Division-Powell corridor. However, Blevins also stressed that “TriMet puts service where many people will ride it and expands service when resources are available…By focusing on our customers, enhancing our financial stability and building partnerships we expect to be able to provide more and better service in the future.” By this model, the outer Eastside neighborhoods with lower population density still may not make priority lists.
One point of contention between candidates was the issue of the Columbia River Crossing project, on which Smith and Brady gave opposing views. Smith voiced concern over the cost of removing the existing bridge: “The key question is, what would plan B look like? We have been so committed to a particular idea of what a span across the Columbia would look like and haven’t been able to let go.” Smith was critical of Brady as being “the one person least willing to talk about new revenue to be simultaneously most drum-thumping about the Columbia River Crossing.”
Brady argued that Portland has already spent $140 million on the existing project while having yet to start construction. She warned that it could be 10 years before any progress would be made if the city were to start over and that instead the existing proposal had potential for good ideas. Throughout her campaign, Brady has championed congestion-based tolling on traffic between Portland and Vancouver.
Hales agreed with Smith that the project had to be sized to match available funds but was in favor of constructing a new bridge based on the current proposal, one that included both light rail and pedestrian/bike passage. He seemed optimistic about the project’s future: “I think we’re getting to a common sense point among the people who have been thumping the drum to build it as is and those who say do nothing.”
Upon exiting the debate, students praised all three candidates for an informative debate, and some even cited a favorite candidate’s ability to fulfill visions of Portland’s future. “It was really interesting to hear all their ideas,” said Steven Teegardin, an environmental studies major. “The most important part was hearing about each candidate’s vision for the future for Portland. I think Charlie Hales had the most impressive vision, and it was clear that his knowledge base serves him well.”
The debate was hosted by the PSU Urban Planning Club and sponsored by various transportation and environmental groups such as the PSU Environmental Club, 1,000 Friends of Oregon, Bicycle Transportation Alliance, the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition and others; all of whom generated the questions posed to the candidates.