A New Day for Portland Transportation: Spending Should Match Utilization

John A. Charles, Jr.QuickPoint!

Observers of Portland transportation have long criticized local politicians for spending billions of dollars on rail transit projects even though rail carries just a small fraction of all trips in the region.

Now the critics have a powerful new ally: Portland city commissioner and mayoral candidate Sam Adams. Commissioner Adams announced last week that he wants to change local priorities for capital spending to ensure that money is spent in proportion to consumer use of facilities. His specific proposal is to allocate 4.5 percent of the capital budget on bike projects, because 4.5 percent of daily commuters are cyclists. Currently, the city spends only 1.6 percent on bike projects.

“Spending should match current utilization,” says Adams.

That’s a great idea. Since roughly 99 percent of all trips in Portland – bike, pedestrian, car, truck, bus, taxi and emergency service vehicle trips – take place on roads, we should spend 99 percent of the capital budget on new and improved roads.

We’ve got a ways to go if we’re going to meet this new performance standard. According to the latest annual city audit, local transportation spending has been skyrocketing in the past decade, but the majority of capital funding has gone for non-road projects. Annual capital expenditures for transportation in Portland increased from $20.9 million in 1997 to $90 million in 2007 (adjusted for inflation), but most new capital funds went to “expansion of the streetcar network, aerial tram, and the East End Connector project.” Only one of those is a road project.

On a regional basis, the spending is even more skewed. Most of the big-ticket items are rail transit projects, including two light rail lines to Clackamas County, the Washington County Commuter Rail, expansion of the streetcar, and a bridge over the Willamette that would have streetcar and light rail tracks but no capacity for cars.

Bike use is not 4.5 percent of all travel in Portland; it’s far less than that for non-downtown and non-work travel. But I’d be happy to allocate 4.5 percent of Portland’s capital budget for bike projects if the spending on roads matched utilization.

John A. Charles, Jr. is president and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a think tank based in Portland, Oregon.

© 2007, Cascade Policy Institute. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and Cascade Policy Institute are cited. Contact Cascade at (503) 242-0900 to arrange print or broadcast interviews on this topic. For more topics visit the QuickPoint! archive.

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