Metro’s Transportation Tax Will Overspend on Underused Projects
By Rachel Dawson and Vlad Yurlov
What could you do with $7 billion? That’s the question on a lot of people’s minds as the Metro regional government pushes a permanent transportation tax this November. The tax will be paid by employers at workplaces with 26 or more workers, including nonprofit organizations. Metro, however, exempted itself and other local governments from paying the tax. Many of these projects will end up causing more problems in the future, creating congestion and redundancy and saddling us with more public debt.
The crown jewel of Metro’s transportation tax program is the Southwest Corridor light rail line extension, which is expected to cost $2.8 billion. This project encapsulates many of the problems in this measure. Southwest Corridor is an 11-mile extension of the MAX Green Line from Portland State University to the Bridgeport Village luxury mall. The draft environmental impact statement for the project concludes it will increase congestion at 46 intersections during the PM peak and 30 intersections during the AM, compared to only 36 and 14 intersections otherwise. Multiple I-5 ramps will see increases in congestion during both peak hours.
While some argue that light rail investments will get people out of their cars, much of light rail ridership comes from commuters who already ride public transit. Furthermore, light rail ridership has decreased by roughly 65% since the beginning of the pandemic, and many riders won’t return because CDC recommends that employees avoid transit. Roughly $2.8 billion will be spent on a rarely used facility that will worsen our region’s congestion.
Projects such as bus-only lanes will create bottlenecks and increase congestion on multiple corridors. Taking away a traffic lane before an intersection will force other vehicles to merge into a neighboring lane, increasing traffic and creating safety hazards. For example, Metro wants to implement at least one mile of bus-only lanes at various intersections along the Tualatin Valley Highway corridor. Portland’s proposed bus-only lanes are expected to increase delays for cars and trucks, divert traffic to nearby streets, and remove parking. Metro’s bus-only lanes are sure to produce similar congestion effects throughout the region.
While Portland certainly needs more bridges for cars and trucks, Metro’s bond measure will fund an unnecessary pedestrian bridge. The Trolley Trail Bridge is a $14.4 million project within the McLoughlin corridor. The bridge would cross the Clackamas River between Gladstone and Oregon City. The proposed bridge, however, is located right next to the recently renovated 82nd Drive Pedestrian Bridge. It takes less than 3 minutes for a cyclist to get from the proposed bridge’s end to the 82nd Drive Bridge and about 8 minutes for pedestrians. If local residents want to build a bridge next to an existing one, local jurisdictions should be the funding source. While it might be nice to have, this redundancy adds little value to the region.
The Foster/172nd Roundabout included in the Clackamas to Columbia corridor is a clear example of lavish spending and inflated costs. The City of Gresham’s 2018 cost estimate for a roundabout or traffic signal at this intersection was $342,000 (or approximately $348,197 in 2019 dollars). Metro’s new cost estimate for this project is more than 18 times higher at $6.5 million in 2019 dollars. This drastic increase in price calls into question the validity of this corridor’s cost estimates. Since the City of Gresham’s Transportation System Plan had this roundabout in its 50-year construction forecast, it is not an urgent development. However, safety improvements could be installed here with a traffic light for under $200,000. This amount can fit within a local jurisdiction’s budget without a regional wage tax.
These four examples were selected from hundreds of problematic investments proposed in Metro’s 2020 transportation measure. Increased congestion, redundancy, and lavish spending are not what we should be funding. Portland’s business community has made it clear that the tax imposed by this measure would cost jobs in our region. During an economic recession we should be leaving money in the voters’ pockets. Although Metro pushes this measure as a regional effort, everyone’s tax burdens will fund projects that few people will use. Metro area residents should vote “NO” on Metro’s Measure 26-218 this November.
Rachel Dawson and Vlad Yurlov are policy analysts at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
By Rachel Dawson
Governor Kate Brown took carbon policy into her own hands earlier this year after the failure of Oregon’s cap-and-trade bill by issuing Executive Order 20-04. This order creates new greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goals and directs various agencies to take actions and exercise their authority to reduce GHG emissions.
Four agencies, the Department of Transportation (ODOT), Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLC), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Department of Energy (ODOE), collaborated to develop a draft statewide work plan in response to the governor’s directive, known as the Every Mile Counts initiative.
The strategy is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it duplicates efforts already underway. On the other hand, it does so in a way that will impose additional costs on Oregonians without producing any measurable effects on global climate change.
Objective 1: Reduce VMT per capita
The work plan proposes a number of action items aimed at decreasing statewide vehicle miles traveled. In the 2004 Statewide Congestion Overview for Oregon report, ODOT predicted that we could expect an additional 15,500 vehicle miles traveled (VMT) annually for every job created in Oregon and 360 additional VMT for every $1,000 increase in total state personal income.
Traffic is tied to economic activity. Increased traffic is a sign of a growing economy, and VMT plummets during recessions. As the state’s economy came to a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic volumes on Oregon roads steeply dropped. Stifling economic activity is the surest way to reduce VMT in state. Efforts to aggressively reduce VMT in Oregon go hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce employment and income growth.
Increasing VMT in Oregon is a sign that more people and businesses are moving to our state. More people are consuming goods and services; and thus, our economy is growing. Oregon is already experiencing record-high levels of unemployment due to COVID-19. The state should not actively be promoting a reduction in VMT.
This is especially important now with COVID-19. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has concluded that cars are a better option than transit during the crisis and has urged businesses to offer their employees incentives to “use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others,” such as driving alone or biking. This plan’s objective to reduce single-occupancy trips directly contradicts the CDC’s advice.
Business owners, and not state agencies, have a deeper knowledge of their firms’ transportation requirements. If trip reduction efforts, such as telecommuting and flexible work hours, will benefit their business and employees they should be willing to engage in such efforts without the need for government intervention.
Objective 2: Support use of cleaner vehicles and fuels
State agencies should not support a zero emission vehicle plan. This is redundant as Oregon utilities are already required by the PUC to support transportation electrification plans, which will invest ratepayer funds in statewide electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and increase outreach efforts on EV adoption. Having four more agencies engage in the same type of investments would be an inefficient use of taxpayer funds.
Objective 3: Consider GHG in decision making
Finally, state agencies should not require local GHG reduction planning and related performance measures. One of the largest rulemaking efforts these agencies plan on engaging in an update to the Transportation Planning Rule (TPR) to require that local governments “plan for transportation systems and land uses to reduce GHG emissions.”
However, the TPR already indirectly works towards reducing GHG emissions by promoting the development of transportation systems designed to reduce reliance on passenger vehicles. While explicitly adding GHG emissions reduction in the TPR may be a worthy endeavor, including it to an already lengthy list of objectives will make the planning process more complex and time-consuming for cities. According to ODOT, completing all elements of a TSP “typically takes 12-15 months, with additional time for public adoption.” This proposed change will simply add another layer of compliance.
It is not clear if the proposed actions derived from Brown’s EO are necessary given Oregon’s steady decrease in per capita emissions over the past few years. Oregon per capita emissions have decreased by 22.8% since 1990, and emissions per unit of GDP have dropped by 50.7%. According to ODOE, Oregon’s energy use per capita is the lowest it has been since 1960; and Oregonians have decreased energy consumption per capita by 37% since it peaked in 1972.
Oregon’s environmental goals need to consider the dramatic progress that has already been made in reducing emissions. For this reason, Governor Brown should suspend her costly Executive Order.
Policymakers also should acknowledge the truth about the vital role automobility plays in a strong statewide economy and rising personal incomes. The above state agencies should provide an explicit cost-benefit analysis demonstrating how the benefits of each action item will outweigh its costs. If they cannot clearly outline such an analysis, the plan should not move forward. During the midst of a financial recession and global pandemic Oregonians need stability and relief, not more costly government regulation with vague benefits.
Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By Rachel Dawson
The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), the agency charged with building and maintaining the city’s transportation system, is shifting the responsibility of improving traffic congestion away from itself and onto individual residents.
This was made apparent in a recently released 2018 report provided by Bloom Communications that surveyed Portland residents’ attitudes and perceptions of the Bureau. The contents of the survey are unsurprisingly critical of PBOT and demonstrate Portlanders’ increasing frustration with the region’s transportation system.
Of the themes that emerged, survey participants were generally concerned with safety on public transit, potholes and degrading roads, increasing traffic congestion, and PBOT’s lack of vision.
People want safe and efficient commutes. 81% of participants said that driving their car was the safest way for them and their families to commute, as they have greater control over who they come in contact with and what happens to them. Another 64% said they would consider taking transit if they were sure they “could reliably get to [their] destination faster or in the same amount of time as driving [their] personal car.” However, the current transportation system is seen as an inconvenience for many participants, and it is quicker for them to drive their car due to the frequency at which the MAX and city buses make stops.
PBOT is charged with repairing potholes and maintaining roads in Portland, yet some participants voiced their frustration with potholes not being filled in and car lanes disappearing across the city, replaced by bike lanes.
When it comes to bike lanes, PBOT doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Various striping patterns around the city lack consistency and confuse bikers and drivers alike.
According to one PBOT stakeholder (emphasis added):
“…The average joe probably doesn’t want the bike lane; they just want the street maintained. These are not necessarily the vocal people that come in and drive the budget. It’s concerning to see most of our city policies focused around that vocal minority. Are we aligning with who the general people are? Or are we focused on the Biker’s Alliance?”
Despite this concern, it seems that PBOT will continue to turn a deaf ear to the majority of commuters who want improved roads and more efficient commutes. The report states that “Portlanders demand a solution to traffic congestion but are unwilling to alter the way they are used to commuting to make positive changes and ease the situation….[R]esidents will have to start changing how they commute.” PBOT has no desire to increase road capacity and is placing the responsibility for rising levels of traffic congestion on individual Portlanders.
Portland commissioner Chloe Eudaly will send Portland’s expiring 10 cent per gallon gas tax back to voters in May 2020. Gasoline-using vehicles pay for 100% of the tax but only receive 56% of the benefits. The other 44% is spent on pedestrian and bicycle safety. Portland’s auditor reported in a 2019 audit that the program was poorly managed and lacked realistic project schedules. Moreover, the program’s spending seems to highlight the concerns held by the above PBOT stakeholder, that city policies are focusing disproportionately on pet projects and the vocal biking minority instead of aligning with the general public.
Commuters want efficient and safe commutes on well-maintained roads. PBOT should be serving the public, not dictating how residents should commute. Voters should reject the 10-cent gas tax and demand that PBOT take responsibility for Portland’s increasing congestion. PBOT should try to reduce congestion, not make it worse. Portlanders deserve better.
Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
“Good in theory, bad in practice.” Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because so often it’s true. It looks to be especially true regarding congestion pricing in the Pacific Northwest.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is pursuing plans to impose tolls on parts of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. Portland recently announced the formation of an “equitable mobility” task force, with “congestion pricing” as a key component. Not to be outdone, Metro, the Portland area’s regional government, is launching a study it hopes will lead to region-wide congestion pricing.
One would expect that something as big and complex as congestion pricing would require substantial public input. However, Metro has made clear that, at least for its technical evaluation of scenarios, its process does “not anticipate significant public outreach.” This is likely because a key takeaway from a survey by DHM Research concludes tolling “is not a popular idea and residents are skeptical that it will be effective at reducing congestion.”
Done properly, congestion pricing reduces congestion. It increases traffic flow while reducing travel time and greenhouse gas emissions. Who knows, it many even reduce blood pressure and road rage. It also raises money. And, done properly, the money would be used to improve and increase road capacity, which in turn further reduces congestion. In theory, congestion pricing is a near-perfect solution to congestion.
But, it’s a long and winding road from theory to implementation. By the end of the trip, the plan that’s put in place often looks very different from the near perfection seen in textbooks. Along the way, policymakers see the dollar signs and shift the goals from minimizing congestion to maximizing revenues to feed their never-ending need for spending on policy priorities and pet projects. In the Portland region, there appears to be little appetite for using money raised from tolls to expand or improve the road network.
As plans progress, interest groups shift the focus from willingness to pay to ability to pay. If they get their way, the pricing scheme becomes less about reducing congestion and more about income redistribution. The way things are going, it’s likely the tolling schemes under consideration will look like nothing seen in a textbook, and roadway users will be worse off.
Recent research by ECONorthwest provides an indication of how much worse off Portland-area residents could be. The study, commissioned by Uber, estimates the costs and benefits of a tolling scheme under consideration in Seattle. The scheme would draw a line around the city of Seattle and charge every vehicle entering the cordon. The tolls would vary by time of day, based on projected congestion at those times.
The study estimates the time-saving benefits of reduced congestion against the costs of the tolls. It concludes that Seattle-area drivers would be almost $40 million a year worse off under the scheme they studied. In other words, the amount paid in tolls would be about $40 million more than the value of time saved from reduced congestion, not including rebates or benefits that could be funded by toll revenue.
While Portland-area policymakers give lip service to reducing congestion, the transportation policies they’ve put in place can only be described as congestion by design. “Road diets” such as lane reductions have choked off major arterials and sent drivers scurrying through side streets. Reduced speed limits have slowed traffic to a crawl in many areas. Speed bumps seem to be popping up faster than dandelions in spring.
Politics has a way of turning good ideas into bad policies. It’s very likely Portland-area politics will turn the good theory of congestion pricing into the bad practice of punishing drivers.
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article appeared in The Oregonian on August 14, 2019.
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By John A. Charles. Jr.
Portland has an international reputation for successfully integrating land-use and transportation planning. The primary goals of such planning are to limit the physical size of the city and reduce the daily use of private motor vehicles by encouraging alternative modes of travel.
Many transportation policies have been developed in support of these goals. One of the most visible has been the policy of slowing vehicle speeds through “traffic calming” and “road diets.” Advocates claim that reducing road capacity for motor vehicles has only minor effects on travel time. They also assert that future demand for road space can be mitigated through mode-shifting from single-occupant driving to walking, biking and transit.
In the late 1990s the Sellwood Bridge and its eastside connector, Tacoma Street, provided a perfect opportunity to test both the concept of integrated planning as well as the strategy of implementing a road diet. The original Sellwood Bridge opened in 1925, and over the next 60 years it became the most heavily traveled two-lane bridge in the state. By the mid-1980s the Bridge was badly in need of either major remediation or replacement.
Multnomah County, which owned and operated it, imposed vehicle weight limits in 1985 and again in 2004. After the second reduction, all heavy vehicles (including transit buses) were prohibited.
With traffic levels continuing to rise, it was clear that Multnomah County needed to either build a wider replacement bridge or a two-lane replacement plus another bridge nearby to the south. Local planners, however, believed the Portland region to be overly reliant on the private automobile and decided to place a moratorium on any new Willamette River bridge capacity. They assumed that if the region simply stopped building bridges, they could persuade people to switch from driving to some other mode.
Soon thereafter, the City of Portland undertook a study of Tacoma Street in the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood, with the goal of making it more pedestrian-friendly. The result of that process was a recommendation to downsize Tacoma from a four-lane collector to a two-lane “Main Street,” even though Tacoma was already a two-lane road except for four hours each weekday – 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. – when street parking was disallowed so that traffic flowing to and from the bridge could move faster. Striped crosswalks were also recommended in three locations between SE 6th and 13th, to allow pedestrians to safely cross mid-block.
Tacoma Street was put on a “road diet” in 2002, in which two travel lanes in each direction became one travel lane each way along with a center turn lane. These changes meant the Sellwood Bridge replacement would also inevitably be limited to two traffic lanes. While the new bridge was designed to be more than twice as wide as the original, more than half the through-lane capacity was allocated to non-motorized uses. The County made this decision even though 98% of all peak-hour passenger-trips on the old bridge had taken place in motorized vehicles.
The new Sellwood Bridge opened for travel in February 2016. The north side cycling/walking facilities were open, but the south side bikeway and shared-use sidewalk did not open until 2017.
Now that the bridge has been fully operational for more than two years, it’s possible to measure actual travel patterns and compare them with the forecasted results. It turns out that the transportation planners were wrong in their prediction of how future travel needs would be met.
Traffic congestion is worse than before. Cycling and walking levels have not gone up as predicted, and transit service is far below the levels promised in the planning documents. Moreover, peak-hour vehicle throughput on the bridge has been permanently reduced due to new traffic signals at either end of the bridge and lowered speed limits.
Since bridge “supply” was reduced but motorized travel “demand” went up with population growth, motorists have increasingly resorted to cutting through side streets north and south of Tacoma in order to gain access to the bridge. In fact, the Tacoma Street downsizing made this practice easier by creating a middle turn lane that creates shelter for motorists trying to enter the traffic queue from side streets. This has degraded the quality of life for nearby residents.
Although the new Sellwood Bridge was marketed as a cutting-edge example of the Portland commitment to “multi-modalism,” the bridge itself is not even a multi-modal facility. Heavy trucks are prohibited, and there is no bus service most of the time. Average daily travel is actually more reliant on the private automobile than it was in 1993.
This paper examines the rationale for putting the Sellwood Bridge/Tacoma Street corridor on a road diet and compares actual travel data with pre-construction forecasts. It offers a cautionary note for city leaders who are planning for growth by shrinking important arterials such as Naito Parkway, Foster Road, and NE Broadway.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a position he has held since 2004. He received a BA degree with honors from University of Pittsburgh and an MPA degree from Portland State University. He has been writing about transportation policy for more than 30 years. The focus of his research is utilizing field studies to determine how the built environment influences urban travel behavior. He has co-authored case studies of transit-oriented developments in the Portland region related to the South Waterfront district, Hillsboro’s Orenco Station, and Steele Park in Washington County. His most recent paper is entitled, Why Cities and Counties Should Consider Leaving TriMet.