By Rachel Dawson
Is it possible to spend billions of dollars on transportation to make congestion worse? According to Metro, the answer is “yes.”
More than 75% of residents in the Portland tri-county region commute to work by car. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a similar percentage of voters surveyed by Metro consider traffic congestion a serious problem (73%) and say that improving roads, bridges, and highways to ease traffic should be a regional goal (78%).
Share of respondents who answered each issue is an “extremely” or “very serious” problem.
Next year, Metro wants to raise at least $3 billion in taxes for its transportation package (informally known as “T2020”). That $3 billion is just for what Metro calls its “Tier 1” projects; it still has a long list of “Tier 2” projects that could significantly increase the price. To pay for all that, Metro is considering bonds that would increase property taxes, an additional vehicle registration fee of up to $59, an income tax, or possibly a sales tax. Conservatively, Metro’s transportation package would cost the average household an additional $530 a year in taxes and fees and would be the largest proposed tax increase in Metro’s history.
But, Metro’s T2020 tax package is not the proposal residents in the region want. Close to $2 billion from the plan have been earmarked for transit. Of that amount, nearly $1 billion would go toward a light rail line to Bridgeport Village. Another $50 million would be spent on planning for a MAX light rail tunnel under the Willamette River—planning that most survey respondents did not support. Millions more will be spent devising potential MAX light rail expansions along Powell Blvd to I-205 and 99E from the Orange line’s last stop in Milwaukie to Oregon City.
In contrast, when voters were surveyed regarding the goals for additional transportation funding, more than twice as many people indicated that widening roads and highways to address bottlenecks (31%) was their first choice, compared with only 13% of respondents who preferred providing more frequent and faster bus and MAX service. Widening roads was by far the most popular choice, beating out retrofitting bridges to be earthquake resilient and improving pedestrian safety on streets.
Finally, when asked about specific types of projects that could be funded by a transportation ballot measure, repairing potholes had the highest percentage of support (86%), while upgrading MAX to run underground at a cost of $5 billion dollars was the only potential project mentioned to have support from less than half of respondents (only 44%).
Portland residents were clear about what they want: better roads and less congestion on roadways. They were equally clear about not supporting MAX upgrades.
Instead of crafting a measure that reflects what people want, Metro has chosen to allocate the majority of funds in their 2020 transportation measure to areas that received the lowest amount of support, such as public transportation and biking/walking infrastructure improvements. It is clear these are projects that Metro staff, not voters, want for the region.
Based on respondents’ answers, officials should consider adding auxiliary lanes on freeways and major arterials to address congestion in bottlenecks. For example, a new auxiliary lane on I-5 southbound from OR 217 to I-205 brought congestion levels down from five hours a day to only one; and an auxiliary lane added to 217 between 99W and I-5 S improved congestion from four hours to zero. Adding auxiliary lanes decreases the number of merges that occur at a given section. This in turn would lead to fewer vehicle emissions, as cars idling in congestion produce more emissions than driving in free-flowing traffic. Also, merging onto a freeway is a major cause of accidents, so decreasing the number of merges also improves safety.
Metro staff seem to forget their job is to serve the public. They are attempting to force their own transportation agenda on the region instead of providing the improvements residents say are most important. Portland metro residents should stand up to this bullying by voting “no” on Metro’s transportation bond measure next year. We need improved transportation, not more low-use government pet projects.
Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was published by Pamplin Media Group on November 27, 2019.
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By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
Oregon’s population grew by more than 41,000 residents last year, according to Portland State University’s Population Research Center. That may sound like a boom and lead some to conclude the state is doing great: “Look! People are still flocking to Oregon.”
But, in fact, the state’s population grew by about 1%, which is the slowest growth in the last six years. In contrast, Washington’s population has grown at a pace that’s about 50% higher than Oregon’s. Idaho’s and Nevada’s population growth have been about double the rate of Oregon’s. We may no longer be the first choice for people heading Out West.
Because job and population growth go hand-in-hand, employment growth tells a similar story. While the Oregon Employment Department says the state’s economy is in a “sweet spot,” Oregon’s employment growth has been eclipsed by Washington, Idaho, and Nevada. Indeed, it can be argued that Oregon’s employment growth is looking more like lackluster California than the rest of the Pacific Northwest.
Some might cheer Oregon’s slower growth. With the state’s land use and tenant laws constraining housing supply and sluggish residential construction driving up housing prices, slower population growth relieves some of the upward pressure. Although the state’s housing prices have rapidly increased, over the past five years Oregon home price increases (49%) have been much smaller than neighboring Washington (56%), Idaho (56%), and Nevada (64%). For the second month in a row, Portland-area rents have declined.
Slower employment growth means fewer commuters, thereby delaying the day of reckoning for Oregon’s no-more-roads policies. Even so, Portland is rated the tenth most congested city in the U.S.
However, no one should cheer slower growth. A growing population and growing employment are signs of a healthy economy. Over time, when Oregonians’ incomes were growing, so was its population. When job opportunity grew, so did population. The reverse is true, too.
Oregon politicians and policymakers tend to take population and employment growth for granted. Or, even worse, they ignore Oregon’s performance relative to other states. By their way of thinking, so long as employment is up and people are moving in, everything is A-OK. They see high-income Californians moving to Oregon and see the dollar signs of more tax revenue.
It’s not A-OK. Looking around the Northwest, Oregonians should ask: “Why are Washington and Idaho growing so much faster?” It’s not an accident. Over the years, state and local policies have made it harder to live and work in the state; and it’s showing up in sluggish growth and fewer job opportunities. Rather than micromanaging to “control” growth, the state should enact policies to foster growth: lower taxes, fewer regulations, and investments that benefit the people who live and work here—or want to live and work here.
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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