Why won’t ODOT tell us how wide their freeway is?

After more than three years of public debate, ODOT still won’t tell anyone how wide a freeway they’re planning to build at the Rose Quarter

ODOT’s plans appear to provide for a 160-foot wide roadway, wide enough to accommodate a ten lane freeway, not just  two additional “auxiliary” lanes

ODOT is trying to avoid NEPA, by building a wide roadway now, and then re-striping it for more lanes after it is built

The agency has utterly failed to examine the traffic, pollution and safety effects of the ten-lane roadway they’ll actually build.

The proposed $1.45 billion I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway Project is all about building a wider freeway.  But there’s one question that’s left unanswered in  all of the project’s hundreds of pages of p.r. materials and reports:  How wide a roadway are they actually going to build?

As we’ve repeatedly pointed out, OregonDOT has gone to great lengths to say that they are merely adding “two ‘auxiliary’ lanes” to the existing I-5 freeway.  But they’ve never released clearly labeled, accurately scaled plans that show the actual width of the roadway they’re proposing.  The current roadway has two “through” lanes in each direction as it crosses under NE Weidler Street.  ODOT claims that they’re just adding two more “auxiliary lanes.”  but in reality, they’re building a roadway that could accommodate 10 travel lanes (in addition to lengthy on- and off-ramps for freeway traffic.

That matters, because its a few hours work with a highway paint machine to re-stripe a roadway to get an added lane or two.  And because ODOT’s traffic modeling and environmental analyses are based on the assumption that there will only be two additional lanes, the Supplemental Environmental Assessment doesn’t reveal the true traffic, livability or environmental effects of a likely ten lane roadway.  (ODOT is looking to exploit a loophole in FHWA environmental regulations—which themselves likely violate NEPA—that allow a road to be re-striped without triggering a further environmental assessment).

At City Observatory, we’ve been following plans by the Oregon Department of Transportation to spend upwards of $1.45 billion widening this mile and a half long stretch of Interstate 5 opposite downtown Portland in the city’s Rose Quarter.  As we’ve noted, the agency has gone to great pains to deny that it’s actually widening the freeway at all, engaging in a tortured, misleading and at times absurdist effort.

For more than three years, we’ve e challenged ODOT to reveal the actual width of the project they were proposing to build.  The agency’s 2019 Environmental Assessment (which, by law, is supposed to be a full disclosure of the project’s impacts on the surrounding area) contained just a single crude illustration of a cross-section of the project’s right-of-way.  Using that diagram, we deduced that the freeway was to planned to be at least 126 feet wide–enough, not just for adding a mere two lanes to I-5 existing four, but actually wide enough for eight full travel lanes plus standard urban shoulders.

But that actually understates the true size of the project.  City Observatory later obtained unreleased documents prepared by ODOT and its contractors showing that the agency planned to build a 160 foot wide roadway through the Rose Quarter–easily enough for ten highway lanes.  (We’ve provided a blow-by-blow description of our efforts to pry these secrets from recalcitrant ODOT staff, and copies of the documents we obtained, below).

Still Hiding Freeway Width

In late November, ODOT released its Supplemental Environmental Analysis (SEA) for the Rose Quarter.  It continues ODOT’s strategy of deception and obfuscation about the width of the roadway they are planning to build.  Just as in the 2019 Environmental Assessment, they’ve published a “not-to-scale” drawing of a cross section of the freeway that entirely omits key measurements (while selectively labeling just a few features).

This illustration is plainly deceptive.  The drawing is not to scale, by its own admission.  It appears that there are only 3 northbound and 3 southbound travel lanes (the two central parts of the covered section).  But the actual width of these portions of the project are never disclosed.  By the project’s own admission, each of these spans may be 80 feet (or more), which is easily enough room for five traffic lanes in each direction, with ample provision for shoulders (five travel lanes would occupy only 60 feet of an 80 foot wide covered area).  According the the Supplemental Environmental Assessment, the northernmost third of the freeway cover has spans in excess of 80 feet in length (Figure 2.7, page 19).

Massively wide: 160 to 200 feet of roadway

So how wide is the freeway, really?  ODOT isn’t saying directly, but we can get a good idea by looking at another poorly labeled (but scaled) drawing included in the project’s right of way report.  The diagram (Figure 4 on page 12) shows the existing streets (the grid running North-South and East-West) and the proposed widened I-5 freeway, running diagonally through the Rose Quarter from Northwest to Southeast.  The individual lanes of the freeway are indicated.  This diagram makes it hard to see or measure, so we’ve zoomed in and added a scale (from the original drawing).

This section shows the portion of the freeway as it crosses under the NE Weidler Street Overpass.  Here the freeway is divided into three parts, from West to East a two lane southbound off-ramp from I-5, an eight lane main-line section of freeway, and a two lane North bound off ramp.  Including all the lengthy ramps, the footprint of this freeway is 12 lanes wide.

Again, these lane markings aren’t definitive.  Let’s look at the actual width of the roadway.  We’ve added a 200 foot scale at three points along the freeway.  It’s evident that the freeway is more than 200 feet wide near North Hancock Street (the northernmost scale.  It is nearly 200 feet wide at NE Broadway (the middle scale), and slightly less than 200 feet wide just south of NE Weidler (the southernmost scale).  This width is more than enough to accommodate ten travel lanes, as well as the freeway’s proposed on and off ramps

Violating the National Environmental Policy Act

The purpose of an environmental assessment is to disclose the likely effects of a proposed action, in this case, how a wider freeway will affect the community and the environment.  By concealing the actual physical width of the structure they intend to build, the Oregon Department of Transportation is making it impossible for the public to accurately understand the effects of the project, or gauge the truthfulness of claims made by ODOT that it will only add two “auxiliary” lanes of traffic.  ODOT is in violation of NEPA.  It needs to produce a fully detailed, accurately scaled set of plans showing the actual width of the roadway and the location of all structures.  With that in hand, the public can then gauge the actual size of this proposed freeway widening, and know whether it can trust ODOT’s claims about its impacts.

A short history of ODOT’s Deceptions

We raised this issue at City Observatory, and it was also included in official comments in response to the EIS (March 2019), and in formal testimony to the Oregon Transportation Commission (April 2019).  In response, ODOT said nothing.

In November 2020, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration published a “Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact” or as its known in the trade a FONSI, essentially denying that the project had any environmental effects worth worrying about.  That document, and related supporting materials still failed to answer the basic question about the width of the freeway.

So, on December 1, 2020, I appeared (virtually) before the Oregon Transportation Commission, and again asked them to answer this very basic question (as well as several others).  Members of the Commission directed their staff to meet with me, which we did, again virtually, on December 16, 2020.

The December 2020 “meeting” was an extremely stilted, and one-sided conversation because the ODOT staff in attendance (nine in total), declined to answer any questions during the meeting. Instead, they simply took notes, and said they would respond, later, in writing.

On January 14, ODOT sent their response.  Here, is there response to the question about the width of the freeway.

As you can see, there’s not a single number present.  This, for the record, is an agency that has spent several years, and tens of millions of dollars planning and designing this project, and yet wouldn’t answer this basic question.  And just for clarity about the level of detail of those planning efforts, the agency said with some certainty that it would need to take a couple hundred square feet of on hotel parking lot (the area of one good sized bedroom or one smallish living room), as part of the freeway right of way.

So, how wide is it?

In a separate e-mail to me, ODOT’s Brendan Finn, head of the Office of Urban Mobility that supervises the project, said:

“Regarding the “width of the built right-of-way of the Rose Quarter project, . . . I believe you received a response to the width of the Rose Quarter Project, it being within the EA document.”
(Finn to Cortright, February 12, 2021)

In an email to Willamette Week reporter Rachel Monahan, on January 22, one of ODOT’s public affairs persons said:

“Yes, the right of way as stated in the Environmental Assessment is 126 feet.

For your reference, Figure 2-4, located on page 10 within the Project Description of the February 2019 Environmental Assessment, available at https://www.i5rosequarter.org/library/, illustrates the proposed lane configuration which includes an inside and outside shoulder, two through lanes, and one auxiliary lane for the highway in each direction. All shoulders and lanes are 12 feet wide. The anticipated right of way would also provide the opportunity for bus on shoulder use and the space needed for fire, life, and safety requirements and provisions under the highway covers.”

None of this, of course, was actually true.  City Observatory obtained three different sets of documents prepared by ODOT contractors showing the actual width of the roadway to be approximately 150 to 160 feet.  As early as 2016, the project’s contractors drew up plans for a 160 foot roadway–something that was never disclosed publicly by IBR, but which we obtained via a Federal Freedom of Information Act request.  One of the project’s consultant’s drew up a landscape plan for freeway covers, clearly showing at 150 plus roadway (the contractor deleted this image from her website after we published this at City Observatory).  Finally, CAD drawings prepared by the project, obtained by public records request show a 160 foot wide roadway.

What this really means is that the I-5 Rose Quarter project is easily large enough to include a ten-lane freeway.  Here, we’ve adjusted the diagram contained in the original ODOT Environmental Assessment to accurately reflect the number of travel lanes that could be accommodated in a 160 foot roadway.  This illustration contains generous inside and outside shoulders, as well as full 12-foot travel lanes.  (Ironically, ODOT’s own design for the southern portion of the Rose Quarter project calls for 11-foot travel lanes on the viaduct section of I-5 near the Burnside Bridge).

 

ODOT: Our I-5 Rose Quarter safety project will increase crashes

A newly revealed ODOT report shows the redesign of the I-5 Rose Quarter project will:

  • creates a dangerous hairpin turn on the I-5 Southbound off-ramp
  • increase crashes 13 percent
  • violate the agency’s own highway design standards
  • result in trucks turning into adjacent lanes and forcing cars onto highway shoulders
  • necessitate a 1,000 foot long “storage area” to handle cars exiting the freeway
  • require even wider, more expensive freeway covers that will be less buildable

A project that ODOT has falsely billed as a “safety” project—based on a high number of fender benders—actually stands to create a truly dangerous new freeway off-ramp, and at the same time vastly increase the cost of the project, while making it harder to build on the project’s much ballyhooed freeway covers.

Earlier, we revealed that the redesign of Oregon DOT’s proposed $1.45 billion Rose Quarter Freeway widening project will a hazardous new hairpin off-ramp from Interstate 5, endangering cyclists.

The safety analysis for the project’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement confirms our concerns that ODOT is building a “Deadman’s Curve” off-ramp:  The agency estimates the new ramp will increase crashes 13 percent compared to the No-build, and that the design of the off-ramp violates ODOT’s own Highway Design Manual.

As part of its redesign of the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway project, ODOT has moved the Southbound off-ramp from I-5, which is now located just North of NE Broadway, to an area just next to the Moda Center, and immediately north of the existing I-5 south on-ramp.  The new ramp fits awkwardly into the existing street grid, and the most troublesome feature is a  hairpin turn for traffic exiting the freeway:  I-5 traffic traveling southbound and leaving the freeway has to do a tight 210 degree turn onto Northbound Williams Avenue.  The proposed off-ramp would have two lanes of freeway traffic negotiating the hairpin turn on to N. Williams Avenue (shown as green arrows in this diagram).

Just a week ago we wrote a scathing critique of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposed redesign of the I-5 Rose Quarter project.  The agency is building a new and dangerous off-ramp, that creates a hairpin turn on a freeway exit, funnels traffic across a major bike route, and causes longer travel on local streets.  That’s pretty bad.

But the reality is much worse.  Don’t take our word for it.  Take ODOT’s.  Though its shrouded in intentionally opaque bureaucratic language, it’s clear that the engineers at OregonDOT know this is a very unsafe project.  And not just unsafe for bikes and pedestrians on local streets:  the new ramp configuration creates a dangerous, and higher crash rate facility for cars and trucks

The agency’s safety analysis is contained in a technical safety report, dated, August 15, 2022, but publicly released just last week.  It is worth quoting at length:

Under the HSM method, the number of crashes which may occur on a ramp is sensitive to geometric conditions, traffic volume, and length of the ramp. There are no major changes in geometry in the I-5 southbound exit ramp between the No-Build and Build conditions, hence they have similar forecast crash rates. However, as proposed in the Revised Build Alternative, relocating the I-5 southbound exit-ramp connection to the local system from N Broadway to NE Wheeler Avenue would increase the ramp length from approximately 1,000 feet in the No-Build conditions to approximately 2,000 feet in the Revised Build conditions, which would provide 1,000 feet of additional traffic queue storage. The new ramp design also includes wider shoulders than existing conditions. Based on the HSM, the forecast crash rate at this location would be approximately 13 % higher than the No-Build and Build condition. In the HSM, the number of crashes on a facility is highly sensitive to volume and length. As the length of this ramp increases, the forecast number of crashes increases and therefore so too does the crash rate. However, from a traffic operation perspective, the additional storage on the I-5 southbound exit-ramp would reduce the potential for queue spill-back onto the freeway. Under the No-Build Alternative, queue on the exit ramp is expected to propagate upstream onto the freeway mainline, creating a safety concern. The additional storage provided in the Revised Build Alternative would be able to accommodate the queue on the ramp without encroaching onto the freeway. This is particularly beneficial during peak hours and event conditions. In addition, the lengthening of the ramp will allow motorist to decelerate to a safer speed allowing them to safely navigate through the horizontal curve.

The final 250 feet of this ramp includes a horizontal curve prior to the ramp terminal intersection. The proposed curve would not meet ODOT’s HDM minimum radius for exit ramp curves and could also result in truck off tracking that extends outside of a standard travel lane. Therefore, to mitigate these considerations, the design detail of this curve would include wider shoulders and lanes than other sections of the ramp. Adequate delineation, signing, markings and lighting to inform drivers of the sharp curve as they approach the ramp terminal intersection would also be considered. These design treatments would be refined in the design process as the project proceeds. Figure 11 shows the existing N Williams Avenue/ NE Wheeler Avenue/ N Ramsay Way intersection and the lane configuration for the proposed I-5 southbound terminal.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s written in a way as to be opaque and misleading.  Let us translate it into English:

  • We’re building a freeway off-ramp with an extreme (210 degree) hairpin turn (“the final 250 feet . . . includes a horizontal curve”).
  • That’s going to increase the number of crashes by 13 percent above doing nothing, and our previous design.
  • The hairpin turn and crashes will cause traffic to back up on the freeway off-ramp and could jam the freeway, but don’t worry, because we’ve doubled the length of off-ramp (from 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet) so that it will be long enough to serve as a parking lot for those exiting the freeway (“queue on the exit ramp . . . additional storage”)
  • The turn is so tight that trucks can’t negotiate it without crossing out of their lane, but don’t worry, because the shoulders will be wide, giving cars plenty of room to dodge wide-turning trucks.  “truck off tracking . . outside a standard travel lane”
  • The hairpin turn is so severe that it violates our agency’s own standards for road design (the same standards we use to refuse to build bike lanes and provide pedestrian access). (“does not meet ODOT’s HDM minimum radius for exit ramp curves.”)
  • We know the hairpin turn is dangerous, so we’ll think about putting in big warning signs and flashing lights. “Adequate delineation . . . to inform drivers . . .would be considered”).

More Dangerous, More Expensive, and Less Buildable

And there’s one more kicker that isn’t really mentioned here.  Because the I-5 southbound ramp is now Nouth of Broadway and Weidler, moving the ramp South requires that the freeway be widened even further to provide two ramp lanes that reach all the way to NE Wheeler and the MODA center.  Those lanes now have to go underneath Broadway and Weidler.  That means that the additional one-thousand feet of off-ramp length would mostly be underneath one of ODOT’s much ballyhooed highway caps.  In the diagram below, the two extended Southbound on-ramps are shown on the far left (with turquoise cars).

The proposed cost of the Rose Quarter project has tripled to nearly $1.45 billion, chiefly because of ODOT’s additional widening and the concomitant escalation in the cost of freeway caps. The caps are extraordinarily expensive, and their expense increases exponentially with added width.  Routing two thousand-foot long on-ramps under the structure increases the needed with of the structure by at least 30 feet, and likely more.  And that not only increases its cost, but the added width of the structure makes it more difficult to build a structure that could accommodate buildings.  (As we noted earlier, ODOT says this portion of the freeway caps could handle buildings no higher than three stories (and such buildings would have to be “lightweight.”)

We have rules against such things: but they don’t apply to us.

The safety report makes a cryptic reference to something called the “HDM”: saying the dangerous hairpin turn “does not meet ODOT’s HDM minimum radius for exit ramp curves.”  The “HDM” is Oregon’s Highway Design Manual that specifies all of the standards that govern the construction of major roadways and which sets the maximum radius of turns on roadways and off-ramps.  For obvious reasons, tight-corners and blind turns create serious safety hazards.  Freeway design standards are supposed to create roadways where crashes are less likely.  ODOT is proposing to simply ignore its own rules and build this dangerous on-ramp.

ODOT can’t even apply its standards consistently.  It asserts for example that it must build “full 12-foot” shoulders on much of the Rose Quarter project, ostensibly to improve safety.  But its design manual doesn’t require such wide shoulders, and in fact, the agency has gotten recognition from the Federal Highway Administration for its policies that allow narrower shoulders on Portland-area freeways.  In the same breath it touts widening shoulders (not required by its rules) as a safety measure, it gives itself an exemption from its own rules that explicitly prohibit dangerous hairpin turns on freeway off-ramps.

Transportation agencies routinely use their design manuals and similar rules to prohibit others from doing things.  We can’t build a crosswalk or a bike lane in that location, because it would violate our design manual.  That’s the end of a lot of safety improvements.  Just last week, in Seattle, the city transportation department had dawdled for years with an application to a paint a crosswalk at a dangerous local intersection, acted overnight to erase one painted by fed-up local neighbors–citing non-compliance with similar rules.

 

The Rose Quarter’s Big U-Turn: Deadman’s Curve?

The redesign of the I-5 Rose Quarter project creates a hazardous new hairpin off-ramp from a Interstate 5

Is ODOT’s supposed “safety” project really creating a new “Deadman’s Curve” at the Moda Center?

Bike riders will have to negotiate on Portland’s busy North Williams bikeway will have to negotiate two back-to-back freeway ramps that carry more than 20,000 cars per day.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is moving forward with plans to issue a  Revised Environmental Assessment (EA) for the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening, a $1.45 billion project pitched as “safety” project and “restorative justice” for the Albina neighborhood.

The revised assessment was required in part because community opponents, led by No More Freeways, prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the project’s original environmental assessment; the project’s earlier “Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) was withdrawn by the Federal Highway Administration).

We’ve obtained an advanced copy of the Revised EA, and while it shows expanded freeway covers—it’s also clear that ODOT is backing away from doing anything to assure development.  And in expanding the covers, the project has created an entirely new, and hazardous freeway off-ramp.

To expand the covers, ODOT has moved the Southbound off-ramp from I-5, which is now located just North of NE Broadway, to an area just next to the Moda Center, and immediately north of the existing I-5 south on-ramp.  The new ramp fits awkwardly into the existing street grid, and the most troublesome feature is a  hairpin turn for traffic exiting the freeway:  I-5 traffic traveling southbound and leaving the freeway has to do a tight 210 degree turn onto Northbound Williams Avenue.  The proposed off-ramp would have two lanes of freeway traffic negotiating the hairpin turn on to N. Williams Avenue (shown as green arrows in this diagram).

The I-5 Rose Quarter redesign adds a double lane hairpin curve to the I-5 south off ramp. Deadman’s Curve?

Could this become “Deadman’s Curve?” The mainline stem of I-5 has a design speed of 70 miles per hour, and the off ramp would force traffic to slow to 25 miles per hour (or less) to make the u-turn on to Williams.  Traffic exiting the freeway crosses a bike lane running along the west side of Williams Avenue (illustrated with red outlines on the diagram).

A similar low speed, hairpin exit ramp from the I-5 freeway in downtown Seattle has been the scene of a series of repeated and spectacular crashes, as documented on Youtube.

I-5 South Bound Off Ramp in Seattle (Youtube Video)

A hazard for people walking and biking.

The new Southbound off-ramp abuts an existing Southbound on-ramp at the intersection of Williams Avenue and Wheeler Street.  Williams Avenue is a major bike route from downtown to North Portland, and a bike lane runs along Williams, and would cross both these ramps.  The new configuration creates a traffic maelstrom at the intersection of Wheeler, Williams and the I-5 southbound on- and off-ramps.

At one point cyclists and pedestrians will have “refuge” on a tiny triangular island wedged in between a double-lane I-5 Southbound off-ramp (12,500 vehicles per day) and a double-lane I-5 Southbound on-ramp (9,000 vehicles per day).  On one side, they’ll have cars crossing Williams Avenue and accelerating on to the freeway, and on the other side, they’ll have cars coming off the freeway to negotiate the hairpin turn through the intersection on to Williams Avenue.  Green arrows show lanes of traffic entering and leaving the i-5 freeway.  White dots show the path of the bike route.  The red triangle at the center is the cyclists tenuous traffic refuge.

 

Bike route (white dots) crosses multiple freeway on- and off-ramps.  There is a small, “refuge” (red triangle) in the middle of these multi-lane freeway ramps

The Oregon DOT’s Revised EA claims that the project will make conditions better for bikes and pedestrians “on the covers”—but not necessarily elsewhere.  The Rose Quarter project website claims:

Relocating the I-5 southbound off-ramp will reduce interactions between vehicles exiting I-5 and people walking, rolling and biking along local streets on the highway cover.

Notice the qualifier here “on the highway cover.”  What this statement leaves out is the fact that the relocation of the off-ramp will dramatically increase interactions between vehicles and people on streets away from the cover, particularly and Williams and Wheeler.  The new combination of on- and off-ramps here will create many more dangerous interactions, especially for cyclists on Williams Avenue, something that the ODOT Environmental Assessment fails to acknowledge.

The I-5 Rose Quarter project is advertised by ODOT as a “safety” project:  People cycling through this maelstrom of freeway-bound traffic may not agree.

 

Thanks to Bike Portland for its extensive coverage of the bike and pedestrian problems associated with the Rose Quarter re-design.

 

ODOT’s “Fix-it first” fraud

ODOT claims that its policy is “fix-it first” maintaining the highway system.

But it is spending vastly less on maintenance and restoration than is needed to keep roads and bridges from deteriorating

It blames the Legislature for not prioritizing repair over new construction

But it chooses to advance policies that prioritize spending money on new construction ahead of maintenance

It diverts funds that could be used for maintenance to pay for cost overruns on capital construction projects.

ODOT pleads its maintenance backlog as a “bait and switch” to get more revenue that it then spends on capital construction rather than fixing roads

A proclaimed “Fix-It First” policy.

The Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) which directs the activities of the Oregon Department of Transportation, has clearly claimed to prioritize maintenance.  In its 2020 Investment Strategy, OTC proclaims it prioritizes maintenance of existing roads:

Oregon is a fix-it first state. The Oregon Transportation Plan and Oregon Highway Plan focus on preserving the system; highway improvements are focused on enhancing efficiency and the capacity of existing facilities rather than building new ones. . . . Funding to preserve state highway assets is not adequate, resulting in a triage approach to preservation, rehabilitation, and repair, and maintaining status quo conditions requires more than doubling current funding.

The Oregon Transportation Commission has adopted the Oregon Highway Plan’s policy 1G for Major Improvements which says it will prioritize maintaining the highway system over expanding capacity.

Since road construction is very expensive and funding is very limited, it is unlikely that many new highways will be built in the future. Instead, the emphasis will be on maintaining the current system and improving the efficiency of the highways the State already has. The Major Improvements Policy reflects this reality by directing ODOT and local jurisdictions to do everything possible to protect and improve the efficiency of the highway system before adding new highway facilities.

Policy 1G: Major Improvements

It is the policy of the State of Oregon to maintain highway performance and improve safety by improving system efficiency and management before adding capacity.

A huge and growing maintenance backlog

So how is Oregon doing in implementing this policy:  Every report and inventory from ODOT shows that we have a major maintenance gap, and it’s getting worse.

ODOT’s June 2022 federally required Transportation Asset Management Plan (TAMP) reports that Oregon is spending $329 million annually less than is needed to keep roads and bridge at their current state of repair>  The state is spending less than half of what it would need to ($156 million of an estimated $320 million) just to “maintain current conditions” of Oregon bridges.  It is also spending only about 40 percent of what it needs to retain existing conditions on Oregon roads ($112 million of an estimated annual need of $273 million).  Bridges would require an additional 164 million and roads an additional $165 million, each year, in order to simply maintain current conditions.

ODOT’s Investment Strategy, adopted in 2020 admits it is dramatically underspending on maintenance, and that Oregon roads and bridges will deteriorate.  The state has other manifold needs that aren’t funded.

  • ODOT’s plans say we need to spend $5.1 billion seismically retrofitting hundreds of Oregon Bridges:  It currently has funding for just 30 of 183 high priority “Phase I” bridges–the balance are unfunded.
  • ODOT says we need to be spending $50 million per year to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act on Oregon highways
  • ODOT says we need to be spending $53 million per year to provide or repair walking and biking facilities along state highways.

In the face of a tight budget, ODOT has chosen to cut its operations and maintenance, but still expects an even larger shortfall.  In the years ahead.  ODOT’s January 2022 Budget Outlook predicted a widening budget shortfall:

ODOT now projects that the funding gap has shrunk to $144 million in 2027,   due to stronger revenue growth and larger fiscal year 2021 ending balances through budget discipline. However, revenues and expenditures remain out of alignment, and without additional revenue or expenditure reductions the gap will grow quickly. By 2029 the gap is projected to grow to $515 million.

In short, we’re not spending enough to maintain the current system, we’re cutting operation and maintenance budgets and are facing an even larger shortfall in maintenance funding in the years ahead.  And in the face of this, ODOT is marching forward with unfunded plans for huge construction projects that will plunge the state into debt for decades.

Blaming the Legislature

ODOT blames the Legislature for this policy choice.  In a 2020 memo to employees, published by the Oregonian, ODOT Director Kris Strickler says the reason the agency has to slash operating costs and maintenance is because the Legislature short-changed the agency.  Here’s the Oregonian’s coverage:

“Many will wonder how ODOT can face a shortfall of operating funding after the recent passage of the largest transportation investment package in the state’s history,” Kris Strickler, the agency’s director, said in a Wednesday email to employees, stakeholders and other groups, citing the 2017 Legislature’s historic $5.3 billion transportation bill. “The reality is that virtually all of the funding from HB 2017 and other recent transportation investment packages was directed by law to the transportation system rather than to cover the agency’s operating costs and maintenance.”

The public and likely the Legislature will be surprised to know that “directing money by law to the transportation system” somehow precludes ODOT from spending money to maintain those roads.  The truth is that ODOT’s deceptive cost estimates and discretionary reallocation of funds are really what’s short-changing operations and maintenance.

Constantly proposing new construction and under-estimating its cost

While ODOT blames the Legislature, it is the agency advancing hugely expensive new capacity projects, including the I-5 Rose Quarter (1.45 billion), I-5 Bridge Replacement/freeway widening ($5 billion+), I-205 Abernethy Bridge ($700 million) and Boone Bridge (not revealed).

The Legislature approves these projects based on cost estimates provided by ODOT and then ODOT treats this as a mandate to pay whatever cost-overruns the project incurs.  In the case of the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the Legislature was told it would cost $450 million in 2017; the current price tag is now estimated at as much as $1.45 billion.  ODOT told the Legislature the I-205 Abernethy Bridge would cost $250 million; its price tag has doubled to nearly $500 million.  These cost overruns directly reduce funding available for maintenance.  By failing to correctly estimate costs, and by always paying for cost-overruns, ODOT’s actual policy prioritizes new capacity construction over maintenance.

Diverting maintenance funds to new construction

ODOT routinely diverts funds allocated to and available for maintenance to fund capital construction projects.

It used interstate maintenance discretionary funds to pay for the planning of the failed Columbia River Crossing project.  It diverted funds that could otherwise be used for maintenance to pay for the Interstate Bridge Replacement project.  It routinely prioritizes capital construction in the use of “unanticipated federal funds” and “project savings.”  It cobbled together just these funding sources to pay for the initial work on the I-205 Abernethy Bridge before the Legislature authorized any funding for the project.  Each year it gets a tranche of what it calls “unexpected” federal funds (federal money that is unspent from nationally competitive programs that is allocated to the states).  At its July, 2022 meeting ODOT recommended (and the OTC approved) using this money, which could be applied to the maintenance backlog, to fund $10 million towards the Interstate Bridge Replacement project.

This bias toward highway expansion at the expense of maintenance will be amplified by ODOT plans to issue massive amounts of debt for new highway construction. ODOT is pursuing a risky bonding strategy for billions of dollars of Portland-area freeway expansion projects, that effectively pledges to use maintenance monies to repay bond-holders.  HB 3055 allows ODOT to pledge all of its state and federal funds to the repayment of toll-backed bonds.  If toll revenues are less than projected–which happens frequently–ODOT would be legally obligated to cut funding for maintenance statewide to pay back bond holders.

Bait and switch

For years, ODOT has come to the Legislature, pleading poverty:  It doesn’t have enough money to maintain our roads, therefore, we need to increase gas taxes, weight-mile taxes and registration fees.  Then, when the Legislature authorizes higher taxes, ODOT uses this money not to reduce the maintenance backlog, but instead to fund giant new construction projects.  When these projects go over budget, it cannibalizes funds that could be used for maintenance, and comes back to the Legislature, again pointing to its self-created backlog of funding needs to fix potholes and preserve bridges.  In reality, Oregon is a “fix it last” or “fix it never” state:  the maintenance spending backlog is just a perpetual excuse to force the Legisalture and taxpayers to give the agency more money, which it will then plow into expanding roadways.

 

 

A bridge too low . . . again

Ignoring the Coast Guard dooms the I-5 Bridge Project to yet another failure

The Oregon and Washington DOTs have again designed a I-5 bridge that’s too low for navigation

In their rush to recycle the failed plans for the Columbia River Crossing, the two state transportation departments have failed to address Coast Guard navigation concerns

State DOT PR efforts are mis-representing the approval process:  The Coast Guard alone, decides on the allowable height for bridges, and only considers the needs of navigation.  

Make no mistake, the Coast Guard officially drew a line in the sand–actually, 178 feet in the air above the Columbia River–and has essentially said that the two state DOTs “shall not pass” with a river crossing that doesn’t provide that level of navigation clearance.

What the preliminary determination is intended to do is signal to the DOTs the kind of structure that the Coast Guard will likely approve.  But the Oregon and Washington DOTs aren’t taking the hint.  Instead, they’re pretending that this “determination” is really meaningless, and that if they just show that the height restriction would be inconvenient or expensive for them to comply with, that they can somehow force the Coast Guard to let them build a bridge with a lower navigation clearance.  That’s a clearly wrong reading of the law, and more importantly it means the two State DOTs are embarking on a risky strategy that’s likely to doom the current effort to build a new Columbia River Bridge.

Prolog:  The failure of the CRC

As we’ve pointed out, this is deja vu all over again.  The Columbia River Crossing project similarly ignored Coast Guard signals that a low bridge would be unacceptable.

More than a decade ago, the Oregon and Washington DOTs advanced a plan for a new fixed-span I-5 bridge with a navigation clearance of 95 feet.  The DOTs did their own analysis of shipping needs, and claimed that, in their opinion, 95 feet would meet the reasonable needs of river users.  The trouble is, that determination isn’t up to state DOTs:  it’s the exclusive legal province of the US Coast Guard, which is charged by Congress with protecting the nation’s navigable waterways.  (Despite the moniker “Department of Transportation” state DOTs have essentially no legal or policy responsibility for commercial water traffic.

Early on in the bridge design process–in 2005–the Coast Guard signalled its likely objections to a mere 95-foot river clearance.  But state DOT officials blundered ahead, insisting that their own analysis was sufficient to justify the low design.  At the time it issued its record of decision in December 2011, the Coast Guard filed a formal objection, noting that the two state DOTs had not provided sufficient information for the Coast Guard to make the determination as to the needed clearance.  The Coast Guard wrote:

. . . the Coast Guard’s concerns with the adequacy of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) have not been resolved . . . As previously stated, the Coast Guard cannot determine if the preferred 95-foot bridge clearance will meet reasonable navigation requirements based on the information provided for review.

In addition, the Coast Guard noted that the FEIS failed to consider the environmental effects of different bridge heights:

The FEIS does not address current and future impacts to navigation/waterway users as a result of proposed decreased vertical clearance, nor does it study alternatives to a vertical clearance other than 95 feet.

As the bridge permitting agency, the Coast Guard determines the reasonable needs of navigation when acting upon a permit application.

Only after completing the FEIS and getting a ROD did the two state transportation departments start applying for the needed Coast Guard bridge permit.  In December 2012, the Coast Guard made it clear that the proposed 95-foot clearance would not be sufficient.  Ultimately, the Coast Guard insisted on at least a 116-foot river clearance.

Here we go again

Even though they’ve been working on reviving the Columbia River Crossing since 2018, the two state DOTs only submitted a new navigation report to the Coast Guard in November 2021.  For more than three years they’ve been operating under the assumption that the Coast Guard will go along with a 116-foot navigation clearance.  But in its “Preliminary Navigation Clearance Determination” the Coast Guard has said that won’t be nearly enough.

The Coast Guard is crystal clear about its approval standard:

“Generally the Coast Guard does not approve bridge proposal with vertical navigation clearances below the ‘present governing structure’ when the existing VNC has been and is currently needed unless there is a compelling navigational reason to do so.” (Harris to Goldstein, June 17, 2022, p. 2)

The real takeaway from the Coast Guard letter is that the I-5 bridge needs to provide 178 feet (or more) of vertical navigation clearance.

. . .  the Columbia River (specifically the section of the Columbia River immediately east of the existing I-5 twin bridges) has and needs to continue to provide VNC equal or greater than the existing I-5 twin bridges of 178 feet. Our PNCD concluded that the current proposed bridge with 116 feet VNC, as depicted in the NOPN, would create an unreasonable obstruction to navigation for vessels with a VNC greater than 116 feet and in fact would completely obstruct navigation for such vessels for the service life of the bridge which is approximately 100 years or longer. (Emphasis added)

The implication is that if the two DOTs can work out a financial deal with existing river users it can get Coast Guard to approval a lower bridge clearance.  But Coast Guard’s past comments and current review indicate that it is not merely looking out for the interests of current river traffic and industry, but is intent on protecting the current navigational channel for future industry and activities.

The reasons for the Coast Guard’s decision are clearly laid out in its June 17, 2022 letter:

  • Current users need to move structures and vessels with a clearance of between 130 and 178 feet.
  • Vessels and their cargos are growing larger over time.  Marine industries need the flexibility to accommodate larger structures in the future.
  • There are no alternative routes for waterborne traffic to reach areas East of the I-5 bridges; in contrast their are many alternate routes for terrestrial traffic (cars, trucks and trains).
  • Water access to the area East of the I-5 bridges, including PDX airport and the Columbia Business Center marine industrial area in Vancouver may be needed in the event of a natural or national emergency
  • Historically, the Columbia Business Center has been a preferred site for shipyard activity (it housed the Kaiser Shipyard in World War II) and may be needed again for this purpose in the future

The Coast Guard’s conclusion makes it clear that it is strongly committed to maintaining the existing river clearance, that it won’t approve a 116 foot bridge, and that the economic effects of this would be unacceptable.  It also pointedly directs the two state DOTs to evaluate either a tunnel or a moveable span to meet its 178-foot requirement:

The Columbia River System is an extremely important interdependent-multimodal supporting national and international commerce critical to local, national and global economies. Reducing the capability and capacity of the Columbia River System would severely restrict navigation. IBR’s proposed bridge as depicted in Public Notice 02-22 with its 35% reduction of VNC from 178 feet to 116 feet is contradictory to the U.S. Coast Guard’s mandate from Congress to maintain freedom of navigation on the navigable waters of the U.S. and to prevent impairment to U.S. navigable waterways. As new structures are built, navigation clearances should be improved or at a minimum maintained. Any proposed new bridge should have a VNC of greater than or equal to that of the existing I-5 twin bridges of 178 feet or preferable, unlimited VNC, as well as a HNC as permitted during the final USACE 408 permit. There are alternative options to accomplish this VNC to include a tunnel or a high-level lift bridge or bascule bridge, which would provide an unlimited vertical clearance. A modern similar successful project is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, DC that was completed in 2009. It is a higher-level double bascule lift bridge on an interstate (I-95) with transit. The added height of the new bridge reduced the number of bascule bridge openings for vessel passage by 76%. (Emphasis added)

The DOT Strategy:  Maximum Risk

Once again, the state DOTs have delayed as long as possible confronting the issue of the navigation clearance.  This time, having learned from its prior experience, the Coast Guard has insisted that the navigation issue be addressed prior to the environmental impact statement.

Still, the DOTs are equivocating, implying that the Coast Guard decision has no weight, and arguing that the legal standard for review involves some kind of balancing of DOT interests in a convenient and cheaper low clearance bridge and implying that the DOTs and not the Coast Guard are the ones who determine the minimum navigation clearance.

The best way to minimize risk is to advance a series of possible alternative solutions through the SEIS process.  At a minimum, these should include a lower level bridge with a lift span, and some kind of tunnel.  In the event that the Coast Guard sticks to its preliminary determination, which is a strong possibility, if not a very high probability, this will mean that the project will be able to move forward.  The DOTs solution, to move forward with only a fixed span, runs the risk that the Coast Guard will hold firm to its announced intention to require a minimum 178 feet of clearance, meaning that two or three years from now the project will be back to square one with no legally buildable, environmentally reviewed project.  All of the project sponsor’s supposed concern with being able to compete for funding will be jeopardized by this reckless decision to look only a fixed span.

USCG PNCD IBR 17June2022

Oregon and Washington DOTs plan too low a bridge–again.

The Coast Guard has told Oregon and Washington that a new I-5 bridge must have a 178-foot vertical clearance for river navigation–vastly higher than the 116-foot clearance the state’s have proposed

A fixed span with that clearance would be prohibitively expensive and would have to be huge–nearly 2 miles long, and would have steep grades. 

An easier solution would be a new bridge with a moveable span, such as that built for I-95 in Washington DC, yet IBR officials tell falsely claim an I-5 liftwapan would have to be “the world’s largest”

Three Portland area bridges have bascule spans of comparable size to that needed for the I-5 bridge, and much larger bascule and vertical lift bridges have been built elsewhere.

Our story so far:  For the past three years the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation have been trying to revive their plans for the failed Columbia River Crossing, a massive freeway expansion project between Portland and Vancouver.  The project would require replacing the existing I-5 bridges over the Columbia River, and the height of these bridges will be determined by the US Coast Guard.  In June, the Coast Guard issued its “Preliminary Navigation Clearance Determination” (PNCD) saying that the bridges would have to at least preserve the current navigational clearances (178 of vertical space.  That immediately threw a wrench into the DOT plans to build a fixed span with just 116 feet of clearance.  The Coast Guard declared unequivocally:

Our PNCD concluded that the current proposed bridge with 116 feet VNC [vertical navigation clearance], as depicted in the NOPN [Navigation Only Public Notice], would create an unreasonable obstruction to navigation for vessels with a VNC greater than 116 feet and in fact would completely obstruct navigation for such vessels for the service life of the bridge which is approximately 100 years or longer.

B.J. Harris, US Coast Guard, to FHWA, June 17, 2022, emphasis added.

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Project is hoping to get the Coast Guard to back down, in part by asserting that it would be impossible to build a lift span to provide the Coast Guard’s requirements.

IBR Administrator Greg Johnson testified to the Joint Oregon-Washington I-5 Bridge Committee, that if the Coast Guard required the I-5 bridge to be built with a lift span, it would be the largest such structure in the world.

Here’s a transcript of that meeting, from approximately minute 18 of the audio-video recording created by the Oregon Legislature.  IBR Administrator Greg Johnson describes the impact on the project of going to a lift span:
.  . .  a cost of putting what would in essence be the largest lift span in the world. We’re talking about an additional $400 million in that way. So, these are the trade offs that we have to look at the viability of a lift span that large which has never been operated at that size before . .  .
(emphasis added)

That’s simply not true.  In fact, there are other lift spans in the Portland area that are as large, or larger, than would be needed to include a lift span on the I-5 bridges, as we document below.

But Administrator Johnson’s claim is both ominous and vague.  How large would the navigation opening in a lift span need to be?   That determination will be made by the US Coast Guard.  The current bridge has a vertical navigation clearance of 178 feet. The 2012 Navigation Impact Report prepared for the Columbia River Crossing documented the existing navigation clearances of the I-5 bridges, which are 178 feet vertically and 263 feet horizontally.  The bridge also has a barge navigation channel with a maximum horizontal clearance of 511 feet, but this barge channel has a vertical clearance of from 46-70 feet.  The Coast Guard’s preliminary navigation report said that a new bridge should at least preserve both of the current horizontal and vertical clearances.

Needed Navigation Clearances:  178 feet high, 263 feet wide

Here’s the text of the Columbia River Crossing’s navigation report, showing existing bridge clearances.  Keeping the existing main shipping channel, shown on the left, would require a vertical clearance of 178 feet and a horizontal clearance of 263 feet.  The Army Corps of Engineers authorized navigation channel under the I-5 bridge is 300 feet wide, but the actual horizontal clearance under the bridge is 263 feet.  .

In addition, maximum river channel on this stretch of the Columbia River is already constrained by the next downstream bridge, which is the Burlington Northern “9.6” bridge (less than a mile West of the I-5 bridges).  This railroad bridge has a swing span with an opening width of about 230 feet. In order to provide a 263 foot wide channel, the I-5 bridge would need two bascule leaves with a length of 135 feet each.

One does not have to look far in the Portland Metro area to find such bridges.  There are three in the center of downtown Portland, the Morrison Bridge and the Burnside Bridge.  The Morrison Bridge (1958) has two bascule lift sections, with an opening of 284 feet.  The Burnside Bridge (1926) also has  two bascule lift sections, with an opening of 252 feet.  The Broadway Bridge (1911-12)–a slightly different kind of bascule–has an opening of 278 feet.

The Burnside Bridge, 1926:  252 foot wide opening.

The Morrison Bridge (1958):  284 foot wide opening

The Broadway Bridge (1911-12):  278 foot wide opening

Nor is the width of the needed roadway an obstacle.  The Morrison Bridge has a roadway width of 90 feet—exactly the same as the width proposed for each of the two aborted Columbia River Crossing bridges.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge:  A modern busy Interstate with a lift-span

But can we have lift spans on Interstate highways?  Actually, the answer is yes.  I-95, the one of the nation’s busiest freeways connecting the major metro areas on the East Coast has a lift span in Washington DC.  The Woodrow Wilson Bridge, opened in 2009, has a modern double leaf bascule bridge that carries 12 travel lanes and 250,000 vehicles per day across the Potomac River.  Also, there’s some question about the width of the roadway on the bascule bridge.  For the record, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge has two separate sets of “leaves” for the north and south bound sections of I-5 (i.e. it’s like two bascule bridges side by side).

Woodrow Wilson Bridge

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge allows for a relatively low level crossing of the Potomac River, minimizing the height and footprint of interchanges on either side of the river (shown above)

Rather than towering over the Vancouver waterfront, and requiring lengthy elevated roadway sections across downtown Vancouver and over Hayden Island, a bascule lift-span bridge could be built at a much lower level, eliminating the need to rebuild intersections high into the air to meet a fixed span high enough to clear 178 feet.

In contrast, a fixed-span high-level bridge violates both the pledges to respect the environment and promote equity.  It hurts the environment, because the high bridge requires vehicles to climb over a much higher elevation, leading them to consume more fuel and emit more pollutants than would be the case with a lower elevation lift-span crossing.  This is especially true for heavy trucks that will struggle to climb the high bridge’s steep grades, and which will create a safety hazard for faster moving cars.  The high bridge is also inequitable for those who are not traveling by car:  those who walk on bike or on foot will find the steep grades associated with the high bridge much more taxing the motorists, who will simply have to press harder on the accelerator pedal.

Not the world’s largest lift bridge

Contrary to what IBR staff imply, there’s nothing unusual about the size of the possible lift-span for the I-5 bridge.  Large bascule bridges are not uncommon.  The Rethe bridge in Hamburg Germany, built in in 2016, has an opening of about 308 feet.  The Erie Avenue Bridge in Lorain, Ohio, built in 1940, has an opening width of 330 feet. The Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga, has an opening that is 358 feet wide.

Rethe Bridge, Hamburg:  308 foot opening

An I-5 lift span meeting the Coast Guard’s requirements would not only not be the largest lift-span in the world; it wouldn’t be even the largest lift span in the neighborhood  That particular honor belongs to the Burlington Northern Willamette River Bridge 5.9, which has a vertical clearance of over 200 feet, and a moveable span that is more than 500 feet long–higher, and almost twice as wide as the needed opening for a new I-5 moveable span meeting Coast Guard requirements.

The Burlington Northern Willamette River Bridge: 200 feet high, 500 foot opening.

The Sauvie Island Bridge arch is barged under the BN Willamette River railroad bridge
This lift span was paid for by the federal government in 1989 and has a lift span that is 516 feet long and it provides a vertical clearance of 200 feet.  The lift span was added to the existing bridge in place of a swing span  for a cost of less than $40 million (about $125 million in today’s construction expense).

Repeating Past Mistakes:  Planning a Bridge Too Low

A decade ago, the Oregon and Washington Transportation Departments tried to force the Coast Guard to agree to a fixed Columbia River Crossing I-5 bridge with a height of just 95 feet over the river, arguing (exactly as they are now) that this lower level best balances the needs of different forms of transportation.  Balancing needs of road users, though, is not the legal standard applied by the Coast Guard, which following federal law, prioritizes the needs of river navigation.  As the Coast Guard said in its review, road users have many alternate routes for crossing the Columbia River; waterborne commerce has none.

 

The two DOTs attempt to force the Coast Guard to agree to a lower bridge height added more than a year of delays to the CRC process (which ultimately failed) as well as millions of dollars in added planning costs.  The IBR team has no plans to seek a bridge permit before 2025, and thereby seems intent on repeating this mistake–moving forward with attempts to convince the Coast Guard to approve a lower navigation clearance, while spending tens of millions of dollars planning a bridge that may not meet the Coast Guard’s legal requirements.

References:

Price Indexes for highway construction.
  • Federal Highway Administration (1989-2003).  https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/pt2006q1.cfm
  • FHWA, Highway Construction Cost index (2003=1)  2021Q4=2.19
    https://explore.dot.gov/views/NHIInflationDashboard/
Coast Guard Preliminary Navigation Clearance Determination
https://www.interstatebridge.org/media/fi2b3xei/ibr_next_steps_bridge_permitting_june2022_remediated.pdf

ODOT’s Reign of Error: Chronic highway cost overruns

Nearly every major project undertaken by the Oregon Department of Transportation has ended up costing at least double its initial estimate

As ODOT proposes a multi-billion dollar series of highway expansions, its estimates pose huge financial risks for the state

ODOT refuses to acknowledge its long record of cost-overruns, and has no management strategy to address this chronic problem

Costs are escalating rapidly for more recent and larger projects, indicating this problem is getting worse

The Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing to move forward with a multi-billion dollar series of highway expansion projects in the Portland metropolitan area, including the $5 billion Interstate Bridge Replacement project, the $1.45 billion Rose Quarter freeway widening project, the likely $1 billion I-205/Abernethy Bridge/I-205 widening project and an as yet un-priced Boone Bridge project.  Collectively, these projects would be by far the most expensive infrastructure investment in department’s history.  But the quoted prices for each project are just the tip of a looming financial iceberg.

A quick look at the agency’s history shows that it has invariably grossly underestimated the actual cost of the major projects it has undertaken in the past two decades.  Using data from ODOT’s own records and other public reports, we’ve compiled data on the initial project costs estimates (those quoted before construction commenced) and compared them with the latest estimates (either the actual final amount of spending in the case of completed projects, or the latest cost estimates for projects that have not yet been finished).  In every case, the ultimate price of a project was more than double the initial cost estimate.

This is important because ODOT is asking for permission to undertake a series of highway expansion projects, which, once started, will create a huge financial liability for the state of Oregon.  For three projects (the I-5 Bridge Replacement, the Rose Quarter and the Abernethy Bridge I-205 widening), ODOT is planning to sell toll-backed bonds to pay for part of project costs.  But if toll revenues are insufficient to pay bonds, or if costs escalate beyond current estimates, the state is fully liable to repay all these costs, and debt service on bonds, and these payments will take precedence over all other expenditures from state and federal transportation funds.  The failure to accurately forecast project costs for Portland freeway expansions, coupled with an unavoidable obligation to repay bondholders means that all other state transportation priorities, including even routine maintenance, would be in jeopardy.

Here is a closer look at seven major ODOT construction projects undertaken in the past twenty years.  Every one has experienced enormous cost overruns.

The Interstate 5 Rose Quarter Freeway project would widen a 1.5 mile stretch of freeway in Portland and was originally represented to the 2017 Oregon Legislature as costing $450 million. The latest estimates from the Oregon Department of Transportation are that the project could cost as much as $1.45 billion.   

The Legislature directed ODOT to prepare a “cost to complete” report for the I-205 Abernethy Bridge project.  The bridge connects Oregon City and West Linn, and would be widened and seismically strengthened.  ODOT’s 2018 report said the bridge would cost $248 million.  When the agency put the project out to bid in 2022, the actual cost came in at $495 million–essentially double ODOT’s estimate.

ODOT estimated the 5 mile long Highway 20 Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville project would cost $110 million when the project completed its environmental reviews in 2003 (Federal Highway Administration and Oregon Department of Transportation. (2003). Pioneer Mountain to Eddyville US 20, Lincoln County, Oregon, Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Executive Summary).  After years of delay, and including a design-build contractor withdrawing from the project, and ODOT having to demolish bridge structures and redesign significant parts of the project, its total cost was $360 million.

 

The Newberg-Dundee Bypass has been under consideration for almost two decades; a portion of the project was completed five years ago.  The initial estimate of the project’s total cost was $222 million (Oregon Department of Transportation. (2005). Newberg-Dundee Transportation Improvement Project Location (Tier 1) Final Environmental Impact Statement (News Release 06-132-R2).  The latest estimate of the cost of completing that full bypass project is now $752 million (Federal Highway Administration and Oregon Department of Transportation. (2010). Newberg Dundee Bypass, Tier 2 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (FHWA-OR-EIS-10-0-1D). Salem: Oregon Department of Transportation.

In 2002, the Oregon Department of Transportation told the City of Portland that rebuilding the Grand Avenue Viaduct (Highway 99E) in Southeast Portland would cost about $31.2 million (Leeson, Fred, “Council Backs Long Bridge in Viaduct’s Spot”  Portland Oregonian, July 19, 2002) .  The project was completed seven years at a total cost almost three times higher:  $91.8 million (ODOT, ARRA Project Data for ODOTas of 8/31/2010) .

When proposed in 1999, it was estimated that the I-5 South Medford Interchange would cost about $30 million  (Rogue Valley Area Commision on Transportation meeting notes, September 13, 2005).   In 2013, after the project was completed the agency said the cost was $96 million.

 

The original cost estimate for the I-5 Woodburn interchange project was $25 million in 2006 (FHWA & ODOT, Woodburn Interchange Project, Revised Environmental Assessment, November 2006).  The completed price was $68 million.

It’s always possible to make excuses for cost-overruns on any single project.  And if cost-overruns had happened only once, or maybe twice, it might make sense to dismiss them as aberrations.  But as the record of these seven projects makes abundantly clear, major ODOT highway projects almost invariably ending up costing twice as much as the original price quoted at the time the project is approved.  Cost overruns are a systematic and predictable feature of ODOT’s approach to highway building, not an aberrant bug.

No Accountability for Cost Overruns

In an attempt to quell concerns about the ODOT’s managerial competence, in 2015, Governor Kate Brown directed that the agency hire an outside auditor to examine its performance.  ODOT did nothing for the first five months of 2016, and said the project would cost as much as half a million dollars. Initially, ODOT awarded a $350,000 oversight contract to an insider, who as it turns out, was angling for then-ODOT director Matt Garrett’s job.  After this conflict-of-interest was exposed, the department rescinded the contract in instead gave a million dollar contract to McKinsey & Co, (so without irony, ODOT had at least a 100 percent cost overrun on the contract to perform their audit.)

McKinsey’s work consisted mostly of interviews with agency-identified “stakeholders” and a superficial analysis of ODOT date.  Its report focused on largely meaningless or trivial indicators such as “average time needed to process purchase orders.”  One part of the report purportedly addressed the agency’s ability to bring projects on time and under budget.  McKinsey presented this graphic, showing the variation between initial and finished costs for a series of mostly small projects.

There’s a striking omission, as revealed in the fine-print footnote:  McKinsey excluded data for the Highway 20 Pioneer Mountain Eddyville project.  This project, the single most expensive project that ODOT had undertaken, had a 300 percent cost-overrun, which the McKinsey report both failed to report correctly and which it described  as “performed 27 percent higher.”

The Oregon Department of Transportation doesn’t accurately forecast the cost of its projects, and refuses to be held accountable for a consistent pattern of errors.  Relying on ODOT’s cost estimates exposes the state to enormous financial risk, something that is likely to be magnified as the department moves ahead relentlessly with plans for billions of dollars of freeway expansion projects in the Portland area.

 

 

How ODOT & WSDOT are hiding real plans for a 10- or 12-lane I-5 Bridge Project

Ignore the false claims that the Oregon and Washington highway departments are making about the number of lanes on their proposed I-5 project:  its footprint will be 164 feet—easily enough for a 10- or 12-lane roadway.

This commentary was originally published at Bike Portland, and is re-published here with permission.

If you followed Tuesday’s Portland City Council work session or have been reading press reports about the Interstate Bridge Replacement project, you’ve probably noticed claims that the size of the project has somehow been reduced to adding “just one auxiliary lane” in each direction to I-5. The implication is that they’re only building enough capacity to expand the existing I-5 bridge from its current six lanes (three in each direction) to eight lanes (three plus a so-called “auxiliary” lane in each direction).

This claim is false.

A close look at the materials prepared by the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation shows they plan
to build a new I-5 bridge at least 164 feet wide — easily enough for ten or even twelve traffic lanes.

A close look at the materials prepared by the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation shows they plan to build a new I-5 bridge at least 164 feet wide — easily enough for ten or even twelve traffic lanes. While the glossy materials describing the project prominently talk about “one auxiliary lane” (in each direction), they almost completely omit a description of the actual width of the bridge. The IBR documents show only crude and misleading cartoon-like drawings of the bridge, without any actual measurements. That’s intentional: because they don’t really want you to know how wide a structure they’re planning.

But in a cryptic note in their presentation, they do refer to the width: The so-called ten lane bridge (two auxiliary lanes each direction) is said to have the same “footprint” as the 2013 Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA, a step in the federal NEPA review process). For the record, that footprint is 180 feet. For the so-called eight lane bridge (one auxiliary lane in each direction), the footprint is described as “2013 LPA Minus 16 Feet” which works out to 164 feet wide.

The broader context is this: the so-called “bridge replacement” is really a five-mile long, ten or twelve lane wide highway widening project that will cost $5 billion, and potentially a lot more.

ODOT’s actual plans for a 180′ wide CRC obtained by public records request.

This is a repetition of the false claim made for the preceding project — the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC). In 2010, in response to objections from the City of Portland and Metro, ODOT and WSDOT announced they were reducing the size of the CRC bridge from 12 lanes to 10 lanes. But in reality, all they did was change the references in the project documents to that number of lanes, while literally erasing from the Final Environmental Impact Statement every single reference to the actual widths of the bridges and other structures they intended to build. A public records request showed the actual plans for the bridges — which were not published — were exactly the same size (180 feet in width) as they were for the 12-lane version of the bridge.

 

The limited materials released by the IBR project to date make it clear that they are engaged in exactly the same deception.

With standard-width 12 foot wide freeway lanes, this 164 foot wide bridge would accommodate ten traffic lanes (120 feet), with 11 foot shoulders on either side of the travel lanes, or as many as twelve travel lanes (144 feet) with five foot shoulders on either side of the twelve travel lanes). (Alternatively, the 164 foot width would allow construction of 12 travel lanes with 2 foot wide left shoulders and 8 foot wide right shoulders, which would be common, if not generous for an urban bridge.)

While they’re calling it an eight-lane bridge, it’s really a 10 or 12 lane bridge.

ODOT and WSDOT will no doubt say they’re “only” adding two lanes, and point to the supposed safety benefits of wider shoulders; but nothing prevents them, after building a 164-foot wide bridge, from coming back with a paint truck and re-striping it for ten or twelve lanes. In fact, they’ll claim that they can do that without any further environmental analysis under a “categorical exclusion” to the US DOT claims to the National Environmental Policy Act.

This isn’t an aberration or an accident, it’s an intentional strategy to evade environmental review: ODOT and WSDOT did this a decade ago on the failed Columbia River Crossing. It did the same thing with the I-5 Rose Quarter project, again claiming it was merely adding one auxiliary lane in each direction. Meanwhile its actual plans (which it kept secret and didn’t include in the Environmental Assessment) showed it planned to build the I-5 Rose Quarter project to be 160 feet wide, easily enough to accomodate 10 lanes of traffic.

The highway builders know — though they refuse to admit — that more lanes induce more traffic and more pollution. That’s why they’re engaging in this highly deceptive process of claiming they’re just adding a single “auxiliary” lane, when in fact, they’re engineering structures that can be repainted in a day to be vastly wider. This subterfuge enables them to claim minimal environmental impacts now, and then with no further review, create exactly the wider roadway they wanted all along.

Ten unanswered questions about the IBR Boondoggle

In the next month or two, regional leaders in Portland are going to be asked to approve the “modified locally preferred alternative” for the I-5 Bridge Replacement (IBR) Project, an intentionally misnamed, $5 billion, 5 mile long, 12-lane wide freeway widening project between Portland and Vancouver, Washington.

There’s a decided rush to judgment, with almost many of the most basic facts about the project being obscured, concealed, or ignored by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation.  As with the failed Columbia River Crossing, they’re trying to pressure leaders into making a decision with incomplete information.  Here are ten questions that the IBR project has simply failed to answer.  We’ve offered our own insights on the real answers, but before the region’s leaders take another step, they should satisfy themselves that they know the real answers to each of these questions.

1. How much will it cost?

Conspicuously absent from IBR presentations is any clear statement of what the project is likely to cost.  Almost two years ago, the project released a warmed over version of the cost estimates from the Columbia River Crossing indicating the project could cost $4.8 billion.  But this estimate is based on an update of old CRC estimates, rather than a new, bottom-up cost estimate of the current project.  Already, the IBR team has decided to rebuild the North Portland Harbor bridge which will add an estimated $200 million to the project.  Moreover construction inflation has accelerated in recent months; bids for the Abernethy Bridge project in Portland came in almost 40 percent higher than forecast.  Similar cost overruns on the IBR would add more than $2 billion to the price tag.

Real Answer:  The IBR is likely to be a $5-7 billion project

2. Who will pay for it?

Also missing from the IBR presentation is a definitive statement of the sources of funds to pay for the project.  For starters–and just for starters–the project says Oregon and Washington will each be expected to contribute $1 billion.  There’s a considerable amount of vague hand-waving about federal support, but most federal money in the Infrastructure bill is allocated by formula, and comes to the two states whether they build this project or not; and so spending this money on the IBR, rather than fixing the multi-billion dollar backlog of other bridge repairs, comes at a real cost to the states.  What is clear is that a third or more of the IBR’s costs will have to be recouped by charging tolls to bridge users, and that the two states, and no one else, will be on the hook for any cost overruns and any revenue shortfalls.  And cost overruns are hardly conjecture:  The I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project, estimated to cost $450 million five years ago, is now likely to cost as much as $1.45 billion according to ODOT.

Real answer:  Oregon and Washington have unlimited liability for project costs including cost overruns and toll revenue shortfalls.

3.  How high will tolls be?

IBR staff have said next to nothing about what level of tolls will be charged for bridge users.  Studies prepared for the Columbia River Crossing showed that tolls would have to be a minimum of $2.60 for off peak users and $3.25 for peak travel, plus surcharges for those who don’t buy transponders, which would push peak period car tolls over $5.00 each way.  Trucks would pay 5 times as much as cars, with peak period tolls topping $18.  Knowing what the toll levels will be is essential to understanding the economic impacts of the bridge, as well as accurately forecasting future traffic levels.  Experience in other states has shown that even an $1 or $2 toll could permanently reduce traffic to half of its current levels, eliminating the need to add any capacity to the I-5 crossing.  Before they move ahead with the project, shouldn’t the public and its leaders know how much will be charged in tolls?

Real answer:  Tolls will be $2-3 each way, and highest at peak hours, costing regular commuters more than $1,000 per year.

4  Will other bridges and highways be tolled to avoid gridlock?

If just the I-5 bridges are tolled, ODOT and WSDOTs own consultants predict that this will produce gridlock on I-205.  IBR staff have made vague statements claiming to have looked at tolling other roadways at the same time.  But unless parallel routes like the I-205 are also tolled, the traffic claims made for the IBR are simply invalid.  If the region is serious about tolling and avoiding gridlock, it needs to adopt a comprehensive tolling strategy before it commits to a multi-billion dollar freeway widening project.

Technical work done for the CRC project, reported on page one of the Oregonian in 2014, indicated that tolling I-5 would produce gridlock on I-5.  

Tolling will dramatically affect the traffic levels on I-5 and I-205.  The best evidence is that tolling the region’s freeways would virtually eliminate the need for additional capacity expansion.  ODOT’s own congestion pricing consultants showed that a comprehensive system of road pricing would eliminate most metro area traffic congestion, without the need to spend billions on added capacity.  We know from experience in other cities that tolling after adding capacity simply leads to wasting billions of dollars on roadways that aren’t used because travelers don’t value them.

Real Answer:  Unless we toll the I-205 bridge as well, the I-5 bridge will be under-utilized, and I-205 will have gridlock. The region needs to decide on a toll system before its squanders billions on un-need highway capacity, and goes deeply into debt to repay bonds for capacity that isn’t used.

5. What will it look like?

Despite spending more than two and a half years and tens of millions of dollars on designing the project, the IBR has yet to produce any renderings showing what the project would look like to human beings standing on the ground in Vancouver or on Hayden Island.  The bridge will be 150 feet tall as it crosses the Columbia River and will have lengthy approach ramps, and extensive elevated freeway sections over Vancouver and Hayden Island, with substantial visual and noise impacts.  But you would never know it from the project’s presentations, which if they show the bridge and freeway expansion at all, show it from an aerial view that could be seen only from flights over Portland International Airport.  The project’s presentation to a joint legislative committee in April contains no illustrations of what is to be built at all.

City Observatory has obtained, via public records request, the 3D models created by IBR to show the size and location of the proposed I-5 Bridge.  The following image shows what the proposed I-5 bridge would look like, compared to the existing bridge.  It would be dramatically taller and wider, and would loom over downtown Vancouver.  It’s relatively easy to produce images showing how the replacement bridge would affect Vancouver.  Why hasn’t the IBR with its extensive budget produced any such images?

Real Answer:  The I-5 replacement bridge and approaches will tower over downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island.

6. How long will the trains take?

A key part of the project is a plan to add light rail service between Portland’s Expo Center and downtown Vancouver.  The IBR project asserts that there will be huge demand for travel on light rail.  But light rail is relatively slow.  Unless light rail is faster than car travel or express buses, it’s unlikely to attract many riders.  Currently, Tri-Met’s Yellow line takes 29 minutes to get from the Expo Center to downtown Portland.  The CRC FEIS projected that it would take light rail trains about 6 minutes to get from Mill Plain Boulevard across a new I-5 bridge to the Expo Center; together this means it will take at least 35 minutes via light rail to reach downtown Portland from Vancouver.  That’s more than 10 minutes longer than it takes current C-Tran express buses, traveling in morning, peak hour traffic, to travel between 15th and Broadway in Vancouver to SW 5th and Alder in Portland—a 7:56 AM bus leaving Vancouver reaches downtown Portland at 8:20.  Also:  with added capacity on I-5 and tolling of I-5, future express buses would travel even faster than they do today, so light rail would likely be at an even greater time disadvantage than it is now.  The information provided by the IBR contains no explanation of how a slower train is going to attract more riders than a faster bus or why BRT would perform worse than LRT in this corridor.

Real Answer:  The LRT extension to Vancouver will be considerably slower than today’s buses.

7. How can traffic models predict more no-build traffic on a bridge that is already at capacity?

The I-5 bridges reached capacity almost two decades ago, and can’t handle additional traffic, but ODOT’s model apparently predicts that traffic will continue to grow across the bride even though there’s no capacity.  This is a classic example of a broken model that in the words of national modeling expert Norm Marshall “forecasts the impossible.”  ODOT’s own consultants, CDM Smith, said in 2013 that the I-5 bridge could handle no more peak traffic due to capacity constraints:

Traffic under the existing toll-free operating condition on the I-5 bridge reached nominal capacity several years ago, especially considering the substandard widths of lanes and shoulders on the facility. The I-5 bridge has little or no room for additional growth in most peak periods, and capacity constraints have limited growth over the last decade.

The IBR’s own modelers admitted that traffic growth on I-5 has been limited due to the bridge being at capacity and congested.  Yet they’ve created a fictitious “no build” scenario in which traffic continues to increase, essentially because it has no meaningful feedback loops to adjust travel demand to reflect how humans actually respond in the face of congestion.

Real Answer:  ODOT is using flawed models that overstate no-build traffic and pollution, and conceal the true environmental impact of freeway expansion

8. How wide will the bridges be?

The IBR team describes the I-5 Bridges adding either two or four so-called “auxiliary lanes” to the existing six freeway lanes on I-5 through the project area.  But the project hasn’t revealed how wide the structures are that its actually building.  In the project’s last iteration, the “Columbia River Crossing”, the project said they reduced the size of the bridge from twelve lanes to ten in response to objections to its width from local leaders, but in fact, public records requests showed that they didn’t reduce the physical size of the bridges (or other structures) at all.  The supposed “ten lane” bridge was 180 feet wide, just as was the proposed “twelve lane” bridge.

The cryptic information provided by the IBR says that its so-called 10-lane bridge would be just as wide as the CRC (180 feet), and the so-called 8 lane bridge (“one auxiliary lane”) would be just 16 feet narrower (“2013 LPA Minus 16 Feet”), which works out to 164 feet wide.  With standard-width 12 foot wide freeway lanes, this 164 foot wide bridge would accommodate ten traffic lanes (120 feet), with 11 foot shoulders on either side of the travel lanes, or as many as twelve travel lanes (144 feet) with five foot shoulders on either side of the twelve travel lanes).  (Alternatively, the 164 foot width would allow construction of 12 travel lanes with 2 foot wide left shoulders and 8 foot wide right shoulders, which would be common, if not generous for an urban bridge).

When it comes to bridges or freeway capacity, ignore how many “lanes” ODOT and WSDOT claim they’re building, and look at how wide the structures are.  They’ve repeatedly used this deceptive tactic to intentionally conceal the true width and environmental impact of their projects.

Real Answer:  Regardless of how many lanes IBR claims its building, its actual plans provide capacity for more, in this case a 10 or 12 lane bridge.

9. How many cars will use the bridge?

The primary argument for the IBR is that it is needed to carry a growing number of vehicles crossing the Columbia River.  But completely absent from any of the project’s materials is any specification the volume of traffic the bridge will carry.  The project makes claims about travel times and traffic delay, but can’t possibly have come up with those estimates without coming up with estimates of the number of cars that will use the bridge.  It specifically suppressed this information to undercut the public’s ability to understand–and ask questions about and criticize the modeling.  And we know that the project’s earlier modeling done for the Columbia River Crossing was simply wrong.  It predicted that traffic would grow by 1.7 percent per year on I-5 between 2005 and 2030; in fact, through 2019, traffic grew by only 0.3 percent per year.   This chart shows the average daily traffic on I-5 as predicted by the CRC (blue: no-build, red build) and actual, from ODOT’s own traffic records (black).  We can’t see how IBR’s new modeling compares to these figures, because they’ve simply refused to publish any average daily traffic totals.

The models used by IBR systematically over-estimate travel in the No-build scenario and underestimate, if not completely ignore, the additional traffic induced by adding more lanes.  It’s impossible to assess the project’s claims about traffic performance, environmental impacts, or financial viability with out transparent and accurate estimates of the number of vehicles that will use the bridge.

Real Answer:  IBR uses flawed models which overstate the need for freeway capacity to justify un-needed and expensive freeway widening.

10. How will a wider freeway reduce carbon emissions?

The IBR material makes the specious claim that it will result in lower emissions, based on the false claim that decreasing traffic congestion will reduce vehicle idling in traffic, and that the bridge will have a higher share of transit passengers (something which it cannot explain–see #6 above).  The RMI Shift induced travel calculator estimates that adding lanes to the I-5 bridge could increase greenhouse gas emissions hundreds of thousands of tons per year.

Real Answer:  Expanded freeway capacity leads to more driving and more greenhouse gas emissions.

Sprawl and Tax Evasion: Driving forces behind freeway widening

Sprawl and tax evasion are the real forces fueling the demand for wider freeways

Highway widening advocates offer up a  a kind of manifest destiny storyline: population and traffic are ever-increasing, and unless we accommodate them we’ll be awash in cars, traffic and gridlock.  The rising tide of cars is treated as a irresistible force of nature.  But is it?  Look more closely and its apparent that rising traffic levels aren’t inevitable, they’re the product of other forces.  And far from solving traffic problems, widening roads makes these problems worse.

In the case of Portland’s proposed $5 billion 5-mile long freeway widening project—the mis-named Interstate Bridge Replacement project—the real forces behind the project aren’t pre-destined levels of car traffic, but instead, are much more prosaic, and questionable:  sprawl and tax evasion.

Sprawl:  Cause and consequence of wider roads

While Oregon has some of the tightest land use controls in the nation, Washington State is still far more accommodating to rural and exurban residential development.  As many critics of the I-5 bridge project have noted, precious few commuters from Washington State to jobs in Oregon use transit, despite the fact that their are good express bus services from Vancouver to Oregon job centers.  (Prior to the pandemic, express buses carried only about 3,000 people per weekday between Oregon and Washington, compared to more than 250,000 vehicles per day crossing the river). A key reason for this auto-dominated travel pattern is that housing growth in Clark County has been driven by exurban sprawl, and workers commuting from these locations travel overwhelmingly by car.  Here’s a map prepared by Seattle’s Sightline Institute showing the comparative patterns of population growth in the Oregon and Washington portions of the metropolitan area between 1990 and 2000.  While Oregon has had little population growth outside its urban growth boundary–a testament to the policies effectiveness–Washington has experienced a rash of exurban development.

Sightline Institute

This exurban sprawl is both the source of demands for expanded highway capacity on I-5 and elsewhere, and in turn, widening roads simply encourage more such sprawl—a pattern that is repeated in metropolitan areas across the country.  The technical analysis done for the proposed Columbia River Crossing (predecessor of the IBR) estimated that 93 percent of the growth in peak hour trips on I-5 between 2005 and 2030 would result from additional population growth in the suburban fringe of Clark County (i.e. even more purple dots).

Tax evasion fuels traffic growth

While sprawl is one contributor to traffic growth, a second is tax evasion.  Here’s the short story:  Oregon has no retail sales tax; Washington charges its residents one of the nation’s highest rates (over 8 percent).  As a result, Washington residents regularly drive across the Columbia River on one of two Interstate Bridges to shop tax-free in Oregon.  They spend over $1.5 billion per year in Oregon, and effectively evade more than $120 million in sales taxes by doing so.  The average Clark County family of four evades about $1,000 of sales tax each year.

But all these sales tax evasion produces a lot of traffic on the two bridges that cross state lines:  We estimate that between 10 and 20 percent of all the trips crossing the I-5 and I-205 Columbia River bridges are Southwest Washington households driving to shopping centers in Oregon to evade Washington sales tax.  Conveniently, there are major shopping centers at Jantzen Beach and Hayden Meadows (on I-5) and on Airport Way (I-205), both just across the Columbia River into Oregon.   The parking lots of these retail centers are chock-a-block with Washington vehicles.

Jantzen Beach Home Depot parking lot (City Observatory)

Far from being inexorable and inevitable forces of nature, the factors driving the growth of traffic between Portland and Vancouver are actually symbolic of dysfunctional and environmentally destructive trends.  Rather than accommodating them, and encouraging more sprawl and tax evasion, we should be making choices that are consistent with our stated values.

A Universal Basic income . . . for Cars

California is the first in the nation to establish a Universal Basic Income . . . for cars

One of the most widely discussed alternatives for tackling poverty and inequality head-on is the idea of a “Universal Basic Income”—a payment made to every household to assure it has enough for basic living expenses.  While there have been a few experiments and a lot of political hyperbole, it hasn’t really been tried at scale.  But now, California is on the verge of enacting a Universal Basic Income, but instead of being for people, it’s for cars.

It’s a symptom of our deep car dependence thant faced with somewhat higher gas prices (still lower, in inflation-adjusted terms than a decade ago), politicians are falling all over themselves to insulate cars and driving from their real costs.  It speaks volumes that we’re so quick to allocate resources to cars and so reticent to have similar energy when it comes to tackling poverty.

High gas prices are a potent political issue for car-dependent Americans, and that’s prompted elected officials to scramble to come up with ways to ease the pain.  California Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed giving California car-owners a $400 debit card for each car they own, at a total cost of an estimated $9 billion.  It’s effectively a universal basic income (UBI), but for cars.

In an ironic parallel, the City of Oakland is reporting the results of its own recent experiment with a kind of UBI for transportation.  Oakland gave $500 households $300 debit cards that they could spend on a range of transportation services, like bus travel, bikes, scooters and ride-hailed trips.  They then surveyed participants to see how their travel patterns changed.  Overall, about 40 percent of participating households reported reducing their single occupancy car trips.  The idea of a flexible transportation allowance is great way to directly address the equity concerns of our transportation system, especially as we begin using road pricing as a way to make the transportation system function more efficiently.  But it’s striking that while a universal basic mobility allowance merits only a tiny and tentative $150,000 experiment, a universal car allowance worth nearly $10 billion is likely to move forward with little, if any consideration of its social and environmental effects.

Other states have taken a different approach to reducing transport costs, with a similar car bias.  New York Governor Kathy Hochul is proposing a gas tax holiday (which may or may not save motorists money, depending on whether oil companies pass along the savings to customers).  Of course, the cost of paying for maintaining the state’s roads will just be shifted to others, so the savings mostly an illusion.

There’s a good argument that Newsom’s debit cards directly undermine the state’s climate goals, especially by handing out money based on the number of cars a household owns. Both the California and New York plans give fiscal relief to car owners.   You have to own a car to get a California debit cards, and somewhat perversely, households with two cars (who tend to have higher incomes) get twice as much relief as families with a single car.   But the incentive effects of the tax cut are even worse than California’s debit card approach:  people will save in proportion to how much gas they buy.  Those who don’t drive much, drive fuel efficient vehicles, or who don’t own or drive cars at all, will get no relief.  The big winners will be those who own fuel inefficient vehicles and drive a lot.  At least with the California debit card approach, families don’t have to buy more gasoline to get more relief.  They can spend the $400 on anything else they like, including for example, a bus pass or part of the purchase price of a new bike.

Gas tax holidays and California’s universal basic income policy for cars are emblematic of the fundamental inequity of our current transportation policy.  Measures, like a universal basic mobility allowance, which would help those most in need and incentivize more sustainable transportation are subject to protracted experimentation at trivial scale.  Meanwhile, rising gas prices prompt sweeping and ill-considered policies that will send most benefits to those who drive the most, and which will further incentivize more driving and environmental destruction.

Flying blind: Why public leaders need an investment grade analysis

Portland and Oregon leaders shouldn’t commit to a $5 billion project without an investment grade analysis (IGA) of toll revenues

Not preparing an IGA exposes the state to huge financial risk: It will have to make up toll revenue shortfalls, 

The difference between an IGA and ODOT forecasts is huge:  half the traffic, double the toll rate.

There’s no reason to delay preparing the investment grade analysis:  The federal government and financial markets require it, and all of the needed information is available

If you don’t prepare an IGA before making a commitment to this project, you are flying blind

 

Portland are a leaders are being asked to greenlight the so-called Interstate Bridge Replacement Project, which is projected by its proponents to cost as much as $5 billion.  But they’re being asked to give a project a go-ahead with only the sketchiest financial information.  The project’s cost estimates are slightly warmed over versions of decade old estimates prepared for the failed Columbia River Crossing.  Ominously, the details of where the money will come from—who will pay and how much—are superficial and vague.

One thing project advocates grudgingly admit is that the I-5 bridge replacement can’t be financed without tolls.  Program administrator Greg Johnson and Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Bob Van Brocklin have repeatedly said as much.  But how much money tolls will produce and how high tolls will be are never clearly mentioned.  Johnson has said tolls will provide “about a third of project costs.”

Knowing how much money tolls will produce, and how high tolls will have to be to produce that revenue is the central financial question.

Currently the I-5 bridge carries about 130,000 vehicles per day.  But that volume is predicated on the bridge being free.  Charging people to use the bridge would dramatically reduce the number of crossings.  As we’ve documented at City Observatory, when tolls were added to a similar crossing, the I-65 bridges across the Ohio River in Louisville, traffic levels fell by half.

Because tolling depresses traffic, you can’t accurately estimate how much toll revenue a bridge will produce without a detailed model that accounts for this traffic depressing effect.

The models routinely used by state highway departments don’t accurately account for the effect of tolling on traffic volumes.  They tend to dramatically over-predict the amount of traffic on tolled roadways, which has led to over-built facilities that don’t generate enough toll-paying traffic to cover their costs.

Financial markets and the federal government, who are asked to loan money up-front (with a promise to be repaid by future tolls) simply refuse to believe state highway department traffic forecasts.  Instead, they insist that states pay for an “investment grade” traffic and revenue forecast.  You can’t sell toll-backed bonds on private financial markets, and you can’t even apply for federal TIFIA loans, without first getting an investment grade forecast.  In January, Portland’s Metro Council adopted a statement of Values, Outcomes and Actions governing the I-5 project, directing the Oregon Department of Transportation to prepare an Investment Grade Analysis of the project:

As the part of the finance plan, engage professionals with expertise in financing massive complex transportation infrastructure construction projects to conduct and deliver the results of an investment-grade traffic and revenue study of the design options.

That’s a critical step to making and informed decision.

What is an investment grade analysis?

Investment grade forecasts are generally prepared by one of a handful of financial consulting firms.  These studies start with the traffic models used by state highway departments, but make much more realistic assumptions about future population and employment growth, the likelihood of economic cycles, and critically, the effect of tolling on levels of traffic.  As a result, investment grade analyses invariably predict lower levels of traffic that the models used by state highway departments.  Because traffic levels are lower, tolls have to be higher to produce any given amount of revenue.

And the differences between investment grade analysis and highway department forecasts are not trivial:  they are huge.  The Oregon and Washington highway departments prepared traffic and toll estimates for the Columbia River Crossing’s Final Environmental Impact Statement published in 2011.  Those estimates were that the I-5 bridges would carry 178,000 vehicles per day in 2030, and that minimum tolls would be $1.34 to pay for about one-third of the cost of the project.  The Investment Grade Analysis for this project, prepared by CDM Smith on behalf of the two agencies in 2013 estimated that in 2030, the I-5 bridges would carry just 95,000 vehicles per day in 2030, and that tolls would be a minimum of $2.60 each way in order to cover a third of project costs.  In short, the initial highway department estimates overstated future traffic levels by double, and understated needed tolls by half.

The starkly different figures in the investment grade analysis called into question the size of the project, which was predicated on the exaggerated highway department forecasts.  If a tolled bridge would carry dramatically fewer vehicles than the existing bridge, there was no justification for building an expensive wider structure and approaches.  The money spent expanding capacity on the bridge would be wasted because fewer vehicles would use it.  Also, the dramatically different traffic figures also meant that the environmental analysis contained in the FEIS was simply wrong.

Investment Grade Analyses are required for financial prudence

The reason that the federal government and financial markets insist on the preparation of an investment grade analysis is so that they don’t get stuck holding the bag when traffic levels, and toll revenues fall short of the excessively optimistic expectations of state highway departments.  Around the county dozens of toll roads and bridges have failed to produce expected revenues, leading to delinquencies, defaults, and bankruptcies.

If anything, state lawmakers have an even larger financial stake in the IBR project than do financial markets or the federal government.  Financial markets, for example, will insist on additional state guarantees, besides repayment just from the stream of toll revenues.  They’ll require states to pledge other revenues to repay bonds, in addition to insisting on the investment grade analysis.  The 2021 Oregon Legislature passed HB 3055, which authorizes ODOT to pledge state gas tax revenues and future federal grant monies to repay holders of state-issued toll bonds.

Because the state is ultimately liable for any toll-revenue shortfalls, it has an even higher stake than private lenders or the federal government  in knowing the true level of future toll revenues as would be disclosed in an investment grade analysis.

Why ODOT doesn’t want the public to see the IGA first

ODOT and WSDOT are greatly resisting calls to prepare an investment grade analysis.  Their current project schedule doesn’t call for conducting the analysis until 2024 or 2025–well after the design of the bridge is settled and too late to consider a smaller or cheaper alternative.  The highway departments variously claim that its “too expensive” or “premature” to carry out the IGA.

There’s no technical reason it can’t be prepared now.  The base transportation data have been gathered, and the regional model exists.  The agencies say the IGA is expensive, but it’s far less costly than what the agency has spent already on public relations, and the money has to be spent anyhow.  And the IGA will continue to be valid for several years—and can easily be updated once it is complete, if that becomes necessary.  You can’t save any money by delaying.  The only real reason to put off preparing an IGA is because it will show that the IBR will carry vastly less traffic than the DOTs predict, and that tolls will have to be much higher than they’re implying.  In short, the DOTs don’t want the IGA because it will present a definitive case against the over-sized project that they’re building.  Financial markets and the Federal government will insist on the IGA before they make their decision:  the only ones being denied access to this vital financial information are local leaders and state lawmakers who will have to pay for the project.  According to DOT plans, they’ll find out the results of the IGA only after it’s too late to do any good.

Their plan is clearly to convince local and state leaders  irrevocably commit to the construction of a much larger project than could possibly be  justified it anyone saw the results of the investment grade analysis.  It’s obvious from the project’s unwillingness to do anything other than advance a single alternative (a 164-foot wide bridge, enough for ten or twelve lanes of traffic) into the next environmental analysis, that they don’t want the results of an investment grade analysis to undercut their contrived case for a massive structure.

State Highway Department Forecasts are Flawed

As we’ve written before, the IBR project is a scene-for-scene remake of the Columbia River Crossing debacle. Just as they are doing now, the state highway departments published grossly inflated traffic forecasts.  In 2010, the Oregon State Treasurer hired Rob Bain, an internationally recognized expert on toll revenue financing, and author of “Toll Road Traffic and Revenue Forecasts: An Interpreters Guide” to assist in the financial analysis of the CRC.   He found numerous flaws and biases–which prompted calls for the investment grade analysis that produced dramatically different results than the highway department projects.  Specifically, Bain reviewed the CRC traffic and revenue forecasts prepared for the project’s environmental impact statement on behalf of the Oregon State Treasurer.  He stated:

  • The traffic and revenue (T&R) reports fall short when compared with typical ‘investment grade’ traffic studies. As they stand they are not suitable for an audience focussed on detailed financial or credit analysis.
  • The traffic modelling activities described in the reports are confusing and much of the work now appears to be dated. Although a number of the technical approaches described appear to be reasonable, many of the modelling-related activities seem to ‘look backwards’; justifying model inputs and outputs produced some years ago. There is a clear need for a new, updated, forward-looking, comprehensive, ‘investment grade’ traffic and revenue study.
  • No mention is made in the reports of historical traffic patterns in the area or volumes using the bridges. This is a strange omission. Traffic forecasts need to be placed in the context of what has happened in the past. If there is a disconnect (between the past and the future) – as appears to be the case here – a commentary should be provided which takes the reader from the past, through any transition period, to the future. No such commentary is provided in the material reviewed to date.
  • Traffic volumes using the I-5 Bridge have flattened-off over the last 15-20 years; well before the current recessionary period. . . . the flattening-off is a long-term traffic trend; not simply a manifestation of recent circumstances. The CAGR for the period 1999 – 2006 reduces to 0.6%

An investment grade analysis is the bare minimum that’s needed to make a responsible and informed decision about a multi-billion dollar project.  The only reason not to ask these questions now, and to get clear answers, is because the two state DOTs know that the financial risks will prompt legislators and the public to seriously question this massive boondoggle.

A note on nomenclature:  Level I, Level 2, Level 3

Highway departments frequently label traffic forecasts as being one of three levels, ranging from a rough sketch level (Level 1), to a somewhat more detailed Level 2, and up to the financial gold standard, Level 3, an investment grade analysis.  As noted, neither the federal government nor private bond markets will make loans based on Level 1 or Level 2 studies:  they are inadequate to accurately forecast traffic for making financial decisions.  This chart from Penn State University describes the general differences between these three levels of analysis:

Editor’s Note:  Nomenclature section added August 4, 2022

Which metros are vulnerable to gas price hikes?

Green cities will be less hurt by higher gas prices; Sprawling cities are much more vulnerable to gas price hikes.

In sprawling metros like Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando, Nashville and Oklahoma City, higher gas prices will cost the average household twice as much as households living in compact metros like San Francisco, Boston, Portland and Seattle.

Rising gas prices are a pain, but they hurt most if you live in a sprawling metro where you have to drive long distances to work, shopping, schools and social activities.  Some US metros are far less vulnerable to the negative effects of rising gas prices because they have dense neighborhoods, compact urban development, good transit, and bikeable, walkable streets.  Among the 50 largest metro areas, the best performers enable their residents to drive less than half as much as the most car-dependent metros.  Those who live in metro areas where you have to drive, on average, 50 miles or more per day (places like Oklahoma City, Nashville and Jacksonville) will be hit twice as hard by higher fuel prices than the typical household living in a place like San Francisco, Boston or Portland, where people drive, on average, fewer than 25 miles per day.  When gas prices go up, it’s easy being green:  These compact, less car-dependent metros and their residents, will experience far less economic dislocation than metros where long daily car trips are built-in to urban form.

Gasoline prices have shot up in recent days, thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.   A year ago, average gas prices nationally were under $3 gallon.  In February, they averaged around $3.30 per gallon.  After the Russian invasion began, oil prices and gas prices jumped.  On March 14, the national average was $4.30, and rising rapidly, with much higher prices in some markets.

There’s the usual barrage of media hand-wringing about the impact of high gas prices, notwithstanding the widespread support for backing Ukraine, even if it means higher oil prices.  Some 71 percent of Americans favored banning Russian oil imports even at the cost of higher gas prices.  As high as they seem, gas prices today are just now approaching the levels recorded in 2008, when gas prices peaked at $5.09 per gallon (in 2022 dollars).

In our largely car-dependent nation, higher gas prices feel painful, but some Americans feel the pain far more deeply than others, and some feel it not at all.  There’s been more than a little bike advocate schadenfreude on Twitter, pointing out that those who travel by bike or on foot aren’t feeling the pain of higher gas prices.

But this isn’t just about individual choices and behavior:  whole communities can be more or less vulnerable to gas price shocks, depending on how much land use patterns effectively necessitate driving.

Some metro areas are vastly more car-dependent than others, and as a result, are more vulnerable to gas price hikes.  We can get a good idea of which metros will be most affected by price hikes by looking at data on average travel distances in different cities.  The big data firm Streetlight Data published its estimates of the amount of daily driving per person for large US metros.  We’ve tabulated their publicly released data for the period just before the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic, to get a reasonable baseline for comparing travel patterns.

On average, the residents of the typical large metro area in the US drive about 30 miles per person per day (that’s a bit higher estimate than the one provided by the US Department of Transportation).  But there are extremely wide variations in average driving among metro areas.  In general, older, denser metros with more extensive transit systems seem to have dramatically less driving per person than newer, sprawling Sunbelt metros with weak transit.

The metros least likely to feel the pain of higher gas prices include Buffalo, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Portland and Seattle, where metro residents drive about 25 percent less than average.

On the other hand, the metros most vulnerable to higher gas prices are those where, due to job and population sprawl, people tend to drive much further.  These highly vulnerable metros include Oklahoma City, Orlando, Nashville, Dallas, Charlotte and Atlanta, where the typical resident drives 50 or more miles per day, according to the Streetlight estimates, nearly double the typical metro area.

Average Miles Driven Per Person Per Day Prior to Covid-21 Pandemic (Streetlight Data)

 

As we’ve pointed out before, residents of more compact metro areas, with better transit and closer destinations earn the equivalent of a huge green dividend, even when gas is cheap, because they spend far less on cars and gasoline.  Meanwhile, their counterparts in decentralized metros pay a “sprawl tax.”  When oil prices rise, the pain falls disproportionately on those who live in metros where they have to drive a lot.

The differences are significant.  The households living in metros where people drive 50 miles per person per day are conservatively buying twice as much fuel as those living in metros where people drive only 25 miles per day.  So while a family in a compact metro area would be buying say 100 gallons or so of fuel a month, its counterpart in a sprawling metro would be buying 200 gallons.  So a $1 increase in the price of gas would hit about $1,200 harder over the course of a year in a sprawling metro than in a compact one.

In the face of rising fuel prices—whether from a war, or from the the long overdue need to reflect the true social and environmental costs associated with fossil fuels—communities where people don’t have to drive as much, or drive as far, have a real economic advantage over more car-dependent places.  That’s a consideration that ought to play a larger role in local, state and national policies going forward.

 

 

 

More Congestion Pseudo Science

A new study calculates that twenty percent of all time “lost” in travel is due to traffic lights

Finally, proof for the Lachner Theorem:  Traffic signals are a major cause of traffic delay

Another classic example of pseudo-science:  Big data and bad assumptions produce meaningless results

When I was in graduate school, I shared a house in Berkeley with five roommates.  Once a week we’d pool our food dollars, and pile into Archie Lachner’s ’67 Falcon and drive across town to Lucky, Safeway or the Co-Op, and mount a group shopping expedition for the week.  This was in the late 70s, just after Berkeley had installed a series of traffic diverters to stop cut-through driving in residential neighborhoods.  Our driver, Archie, repeatedly chose routes that were blocked by one diverter and then another.  He cursed at the inconvenience:  “These traffic diverters, they get in your way, they slow you down.”  That prompted a heated debate about the merits of diverters.  Archie defended the inherent right of drivers to go wherever they wanted.  Others in the car said they could see how people who lived on these streets might appreciate the diverters cutting down on or at least slowing traffic. Archie had to turn around at least twice to avoid diverters, and as we finally got near the grocery store, we came to to a stop at a red traffic signal.  From the back seat, someone said:  “These traffic lights, they get in your way, they slow you down.”    Offended, Archie, spun the wheel and drove home–“if you can’t respect the driver, you won’t get a ride.”  Despite the protests, Archie drove a couple of miles back home, and the five other roommates had to repeat the trip in another car.

 

Traffic signals cause 20 percent of all time lost to congestion!

Thus was born the Lachner theory of traffic congestion:  Traffic lights get in your way and slow you down.  For decades the theory has been wanting for actual quantification, but at last, we have it.  Crack statisticians at the University of Maryland have sifted through reams, nay gigabytes, of big data, and have produced a comprehensive, nationwide estimate of the amount of time lost when we sit, waiting for red lights to turn green.

According to these University of Maryland estimates, time lost sitting at traffic signals amounts to 329 million vehicle hours of delay, and costs us $8.6 billion dollars per year.  Time spent waiting at traffic signals is roughly three-fifths as great as the 561 million vehicle hours of delay associated with routine “recurring” traffic congestion.

This new study from the University of Maryland finally vindicates the Lachner theorem.  By their reckoning, roughly 19 percent of all traffic congestion is due to waiting at traffic signals.  Those traffic lights do get in your way and slow you down.

Traffic signals cause delays as vehicles queue at intersections. In 10 states, traffic signals are the top cause of traffic congestion, though congestion levels overall remain relatively low in those states. For example, even though Alaska ranked highest in the country in percentage of delay caused by Signals at 53%, it ranked 42nd in terms of total hours of delay caused by signals.

As an accounting exercise, there’s little reason to doubt these calculations. But whether they constitute a “loss” is highly doubtful, because there’s no question that we’d all collectively lose more time in travel if there were no traffic lights.  The policy implication of this finding is not that we should be tearing out or turning off traffic signals.  That would be absurd, of course.  And what the claims of time spent waiting at traffic lights constitute an actual “loss” rests on the assumption that there’s some other traffic-light free way of managing the flow of traffic at intersections that would involve less total travel time for those now waiting.  Simply getting rid of traffic lights—and say replacing them with stop signs—would likely decrease the throughput of many intersections and actually increase delays (though it might beneficially reduce traffic speeds and improve safety for vulnerable road users). Theoretically one might replace every single traffic light in the US with a fully grade separated interchange without stops.

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that you could instantly replace all of the 330,000 or so traffic signals in the US with grade-separated interchanges that eliminated traffic signals.  That might eliminate all the time “lost” by vehicles waiting at traffic lights, but it would come at a cost.  At say, $10 million per intersection (which is probably a conservative estimate) that would cost about $3.3 trillion, all that to save maybe $8.6 billion per year.  Time spent waiting at traffic lights is costly, only if you ignore the vastly greater cost of doing anything to try to reduce it.

It’s easy to point out that the Lachner Theorem about the “time loss” due to traffic lights is pretty silly.  But what’s true of the elaborate (but fundamentally wrong-headed) estimates of the time “lost” to traffic signals is that it also holds for all the other estimates of supposed congestion costs.  For years, a range of highly numerate charlatans have been purporting to compute the value of time lost to traffic congestion. The congestion cost studies generated by the Texas Transportation Institute, Inrix, Tom-Tom and others invariably conclude that traffic congestion costs us billions of dollars a year.  Their copious data creates the illusion of statistical precision without providing any actually useful knowledge.  They generate heat, but don’t shed any light: The congestion cost estimates are part of the propaganda effort of the road-builders, who assert we need to spend even more billions to widen roads to recoup these losses.

It’s an example of a measurement that’s literally true, but quite meaningless.  It’s true in the sense that people probably due spend millions of hours, collectively sitting at traffic lights or traveling more slowly because of congestion.  It’s meaningless, because there’s not some real world alternative where you could build enough road capacity to eliminate these delays.  So, as an elaborate accounting exercise, you can use big data and computing power to produce this estimate, but the result is a factoid that conveys no useful, actionable information—just as we’ve shown with our Cappuccino Congestion Index, which totes up the billions of dollars American’s “lose” waiting in line at coffee shops.

The sky’s the limit if you want to generate large estimates of the supposed time “lost” to slower than imaginable travel.  Consider for example flying cars or helicopters.  If you could travel by helicopter to all your destinations, it would shave hours a day off your total travel time.  With a spreadsheet and some travel data, you could work out an estimate of how many million hours might be saved and how many billions of dollars that saved travel time would be worth.  You could produce a report arguing that the personal helicopter shortage costs us in lost time and money.  It would be a large but meaningless number, because there’s no world where its financially feasible, much less physically possible, for everyone to take every trip by helicopter.

The only way to make meaning of such numbers is in the context of plausible, real-world alternatives.  And that’s exactly what these cost of congestion studies almost invariably fail to consider.  Something is only a “cost” if there’s an actual practical alternative that would save the lost time without incurring even greater monetary costs in doing so.  Imaginary savings from an impossible, or impossibly expensive alternative aren’t savings at all.  All of the evidence about induced travel shows that expanding capacity to try and reduce time “lost” to congestion is ultimately futile:  more capacity encourages more travel, induces more sprawl, and does nothing to reduce congestion and delay.

It’s a welcome sign that one recent report acknowledged this fundamental fact.  To their credit, at least Tom-Tom acknowledges that adding capacity is futile, or even-counterproductive:

Developing road infrastructures and increasing the capacity isn’t the solution. “When a new road is built, it is only a matter of time before more vehicles are added to the road, offsetting this initial easing: it’s called the traffic demand dilemma”, Ralf-Peter Schäfer said. Change behaviours and traffic patterns can make a significant difference. Congestion is non-linear: once traffic goes beyond a certain threshold, congestion increases exponentially. Discouraging drivers to drive during peak rush hour can lead to big improvements, as proven during the pandemic.

And the purveyors of congestion cost estimates almost never point to the only solution that’s been proven to reduce congestion:  road pricing.  Even a modest system of time-based user fees could dramatically reduce congestion.

It’s tempting to believe that more data will make the answers to our vexing problems, like traffic congestion clearer.  But the reverse is often true:  an avalanche of big data obscure a fundamental truth.  That’s what’s going on here.

 

Freeway widening for whomst?

Widening freeways is no way to promote equity.  The proposed $5 billion widening of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver is purportedly being undertaken with “an equity lens,” but widening Portland’s I-5 freeway serves higher income, predominantly white workers commuting from Washington suburbs to jobs in Oregon.

The median income of peak hour, drive alone commuters to Oregon from Clark County is $106,000; significantly higher than for the region as a whole (about $78,000).  

More than 53 percent of peak hour drive alone commuters are from households with incomes over $100,000; fewer than 15 percent of these peak hour car commuters have incomes under $50,000 annually.

Some 86 percent of peak hour, drive-alone commuters are non-HIspanic whites, according to the 2019 American Community Survey; only 14 percent of these peak hour car commuters are persons of color.  Peak hour drivers are half as likely to be people of color (14 percent) as are residents of the region (28 percent).

Clark County is less diverse than the rest of the Portland metro area; its residents of color are vastly more likely to work at jobs in Clark County than to commute to jobs in Oregon.

The proposal to spend $5 billion to widen a 5-mile stretch of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver is being marketed with a generous dose of equity washing.  While it is branded the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” or IBR,  replacing the bridge is less than a quarter of the total cost; most of the expense  involves plans to double the width of the freeway to handle more peak hour traffic. The project has gone to some lengths to characterize suburban Clark County as an increasingly diverse population to create the illusion that the freeway widening project is primarily about helping low and moderate income households and people of color travel through the region.  A quick look at Census data shows these equity claims are simply false.  Peak hour freeway travelers commuting from homes in Washington to jobs in Oregon are overwhelmingly wealthy and white compared to the region’s average resident.

 

Equity? A proposed super-sized $5 billion freeway would mostly serve peak hour commuters with incomes over $100,000, 86 percent of whom are non-HIspanic whites.

What this project would do is widen from 6 lanes, to as many as 14 lanes, five miles of Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver.  The principal reason for the project is a claim that traffic volumes on I-5 cause the road to be congested.  But congestion is primarily a peak hour problem, and is caused by a large and largely uni-directional flow of daily commuter traffic.  About 60,000 Clark County residents work at jobs in Oregon, and they commute across either the I-5 or I-205 bridges.  Fewer than a third that many Oregonians work in Clark County, with the result being that the principal traffic tie-ups coincide with workers driving from Clark County in the morning, and back to Clark County in the evening.  Plainly, this is a project that is justified largely on trying to provide additional capacity for these commuters.  That being the case, who are they?

Census data show that the beneficiaries of the IBR project would overwhelmingly be whiter and higher income than the residents of the Portland metro area.  As with most suburbs in the United States, Clark County’s residents, who are those most likely to use the IBR project, are statistically whiter and wealthier than the residents of the rest of the metropolitan area.  In addition, the most regular users of the I-5 and I-205 bridges are much more likely to be white and higher income than the average Clark County resident.  This is especially true of peak hour work commuting from Clark County Washington to jobs in Oregon, which is disproportionately composed of higher income, non-Hispanic white residents.

Peak hour, drive-alone commuters are overwhelmingly white and wealthy

Data from the American Community Survey enable us to identify the demographic characteristics of peak hour, drive-alone commuters going from Clark County Washington to jobs in Oregon on a daily basis. Here are the demographics of the nearly 20,000 workers who drive themselves from Clark County to jobs in Oregon, and who leave their homes between 6:30 AM and 8:30 AM daily.  Some 53 percent of peak hour, drive-alone commuters from Clark County to Oregon jobs lived in households with annual incomes of more than $100,000.  The median income of these peak hour drivers was $106,000 in 2019, well above the averages for Clark County and the region.

Fully 86 percent of the peak hour, drive-along commuters from Clark County to Oregon jobs were non-Hispanic whites.  Only about 14 percent of these peak hour drivers were persons of color.  The racial/ethnic composition of these peak hour car commuters is far less diverse than that of Clark County, or the region.  Clark County workers who work in Clark County are about 50 percent more likely to be people of color than those who commute to jobs in Oregon.

Clark County is whiter and wealthier than the region and Portland

Suburban Clark County, Washington is whiter and wealthier than the rest of the Portland metropolitan area, and the City of Portland. Clark County may be more racially and ethnically diverse than it once was, but so is the entire nation.  And it’s still disproportionately whiter and wealthier than the rest of the region.  Only about 23 percent of its residents are people of color, compared to about 38 percent for the region as a whole, and about 30 percent for Portland, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. Clark County’s median household income of $80,500 is higher than for the region ($78,400) and for the City of Portland ($76,200).

Few low income and workers of color commute to Oregon from Clark County

Not only is Clark County less diverse than the rest of the Portland region, only a small fraction of its low income workers and workers of color commute to jobs in Oregon at the peak hour.  More than ten times as many low income workers and workers of color who live in Clark County work at jobs in Clark County than commute to jobs in Oregon.  About 38,000 Clark County workers in households with incomes of $50,000 or less work at jobs in Clark County; only about 2,800 are peak hour, drive-alone commuters to jobs in Oregon.  About 31,000 Clark County workers of color work at jobs in Clark County.  If we’re concerned about addressing the transportation needs of low income workers and workers of color in Clark County, we should probably focus our attention on the vast majority of them who are working at jobs in the county, not the comparatively small number commuting to Oregon.

Middle and upper income households are far more likely to commute to jobs in Oregon

In general, for Clark County residents, the higher your income, the more likely you are to commute to a job in Oregon.  Only about 1 in 5 workers in households with incomes less than $40,000 in Clark County commute to jobs in Oregon.  About 30 percent of workers in middle and upper income families in Clark County commute to Oregon jobs, meaning that these higher income households are about 50 percent more likely to commute to jobs in Oregon than lower income households.

 

Data notes

Data for this post is from 2019 American Community Survey, via the indispensabile  University of Minnesota IPUMS project:

Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas and Matthew Sobek. IPUMS USA: Version 10.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2021. https://doi.org/10.18128/D010.V10.0.

Biased statistics: Woke-washing the I-5 Boondoggle

The Oregon and Washington transportation departments are using a biased, unscientific survey to market their $5 billion I-5 freeway widening project.

The survey over-represents daily bridge users by a factor of 10 compared to the general population.

The IBR survey undercounts lower and middle income households and people of color and overstates the opinions of White non-hispanics, higher income households, and Clark County residents

As we’ve noted, highway builders are increasingly engaging in woke-washing, claiming—after decades of experience in which freeway projects have devastated communities of color and destroyed city neighborhoods across the country—that wider freeways will somehow be a good thing for low income people and people of color.

The latest example of this comes from the sales campaign to promote the $5 billion I-5 freeway widening between Portland and Vancouver Washington, misleadingly branded as the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” (IBR) project.  The reality is pretty simple:  the primary beneficiaries of a wider roadway would be higher income, overwhelmingly white commuters who drive daily from suburbs in Washington State to jobs in Oregon.  As we documented last month, the peak hour drive-alone car commuters who cross the I-5 and I-205 bridges from Washington State to jobs in Oregon are whiter and wealthier than the region’s population, with median incomes of $106,000, and 86 percent non-Hispanic whites.

But the IBR project has carefully constructed an alternate reality in which this car-centric freeway widening project is really something that benefits low income people and people of color.  The project’s promotional materials—which actually don’t show the project, or acknowledge its price tag, or the fact that it will charge tolls to bridge users—prominently features stock images of people of color.

Here’s what we mean by “woke-washing.”  The project’s home page featured this image . . .

See our commitment to equity: We bought this stock photo! (Source: Interstate Bridge Replacement Project, March 7, 2022).

. . . which is a stock photograph used by hundreds of websites, mostly those focusing on women’s health.  (Just an aside: A true health-oriented and equity focused project wouldn’t build a 12-lane wide, 5 mile long freeway guaranteed to increase air pollution and with a long history of destroying neighborhoods.)

In addition to its woke imagery, the IBR project supplements this messaging with a pseudo-scientific web-based survey which purports to show that the project is really for lower income people of color.

Selling a $5 billion freeway widening with a woke-washed fable

The IBR staff have developed a fictional “just so” story of how the freeway widening project is needed to help low income households and people of color, who’ve moved to Clark County for cheaper housing, but have to travel to jobs and other opportunities in Oregon.  The survey is grounded, not in actual scientific data, but the project’s own unscientific and biased web-based survey.

Here is IBR staff person Jake Warr, making this false claim to the January 20, 2022 Executive Steering Committee meeting:

One thing that really came out through this survey that I want to highlight is when we . . . asked how often people drive across the bridge, we found a higher percentage of folks who identified with a race or ethnicity besides white or or in addition to white/Caucasian, the non-white respondents really reported more frequently traveling across the bridge.

So that 53 percent‑that’s listed there, 53 percent‑of our of our BIPOC survey respondents reported traveling across the bridge either daily or a few times a week. That’s compared to closer to 40 percent for the white respondents.

IBR’s unscientific and biased web-based survey.

So just something that that really kind of drives home a point that we’ve suspected. It provides further data that you, we’ve seen a trend in our region of folks of color being pushed to further areas of the region, being pushed north of the river, or seeking out more affordable housing north of the Columbia River, but still relying on services jobs etc, in Multnomah County.

And so, there’s that piece that I think this speaks to. We also suspect that related to Covid, as people were answering this question in the context this pandemic, there might be some explanation there, as we know that BIPOC individuals tend to be, disproportionately rely needing to work still in a location and not be able to work from home.

That might have contributed to this but just something that we really found was was a poignant data piece to point out.

The trouble is, this claim is easily disproved by referring to valid survey data from the Census Bureau which shows that commuters across the I-5 and I-205 bridges are actually disproportionately white, and higher income.  Low income workers, and those of color, are dramatically under-represented among bridge commuters.

A biased, unscientific survey from the IBR

The trouble with web-based surveys is they suffer from self-selection bias.  Only highly motivated people take such surveys, and the opinions, experience and demographics of these people differ substantially, and systematically, from the general population.  As a result, it’s simply invalid to make statistical claims (such as people of color are more likely to use the bridge frequently).  That’s especially true when there’s valid scientific data from the American Community Survey, which shows exactly the opposite: peak hour users (for whom the bridge is being expanded) are 86 percent non-Hispanic white and have average incomes of $106,000).

To see just how biased the unscientific IBR web-survey is, we can compare it to other surveys conducted with more valid methodologies.  The correct way to do surveys is with an random selection methodology; the IBR actually commissioned such a survey in 2020.  In its random survey of more than 900 Portland area voters, 13 percent of respondents reported never crossing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia, compared to just 1 percent in the unscientific online survey.  The random survey of voters showed only 5 percent of respondents crossed the I-5 bridge every day, compared to 19 percent in the unscientific online survey.  As a result, the unscientific online survey implies the ratio of daily users to non users is 19 to 1 (there are 19 times as many daily users as never users), while the random survey shows that there are two and a half times as many non-users as daily users of the I-5 bridge.  That means that the unscientific survey overweights the role—and opinions—of daily users relative to non users by more than an order of magnitude relative their share of the overall population of the Portland metropolitan area.

Source: IBR Community Opinion Survey, 2020

Demographic bias in the IBR unscientific web survey

A quick look at the American Community Survey, which is conducted annually by the Census Bureau, shows that the demographics of the IBR’s unscientific web-based survey are dramatically different from the metro area.

One essential for surveys is that participants should be randomly selected.  If they’re not randomly selected, there’s little guarantee that the results will be representative of the larger population. One of the sure tells of a non-random survey is that the characteristics of survey participants don’t match up well with the characteristics of the overall population of the area being surveyed.  That’s the case here.  The IBR survey systematically over-represents some groups, and systematically underrepresents others, which should cast doubt on the validity of its results.  The survey systematically over-represents white, non-Hispanic people, higher income households, and residents of Washington State, and systematically under-represents people of color, low and moderate income households, and Oregon residents.  Here are the details.

Income:  Higher incomes over-represented.  The respondents to the unscientific web-survey are much higher income than the overall population.  Some 44 percent of survey respondents had household incomes over $100,000; only 38 percent of the region’s households had incomes that high.

Race and Ethnicity:  People of color under-represented.   The respondents to the unscientific web-based survey are much more likely to be non-Hispanic white than the overall population; some 85 percent of survey respondents were non-Hispanic white compared to 72 percent of the region’s population.  People of color were 28 percent of the region’s population, but only 15 percent of survey respondents.  People of color were undercounted by almost half in this unscientific survey.

Residence:  Clark County over-represented.  The respondents to the unscientific web-based survey are disproportionately residents of Clark County.  Clark County accounts for less than 20 percent (488,000 of the region’s 2.5 million residents) but accounts for 43 percent of those taking the survey.  Clark County resident views are given more than double the weight of view of other of the region’s residents in this unscientific survey.

Age:  Young people significantly under-represented. There’s also a strong generational bias:  only 5 percent of survey respondents are under 25, compared to nearly 30 percent of the population.  And these people will be the ones who have to live with the environmental consequences of the project.

No doubt the highway agencies will point with pride to the large number of completed surveys–more than 9,000 to date.  But large numbers are irrelevant if you don’t have a random sample.  For a metropolitan area the size of Portland, you need only about 400 to 800 survey participants to come up with statistically valid results,  if you have a random sample.  If you don’t have a random sample, then even very large numbers (and IBR surveyed only about one-third of one percent of the region’s residents) just aren’t meaningful.  The underlying problem that invalidates the survey is called “Self-Selection Bias.” Because this isn’t a true random survey, and because respondents choose whether to participate, there’s no guarantee that the survey data reflect the views (and experiences) of the larger population.  Because those who are predisposed to care about this issue are likely to differ systematically from the rest of the population, the survey produces results that are biased.

Not asking the most important question:  Who wants to pay a toll?

There’s a lot more to dislike about the survey beyond its poor quality sampling strategy and biased sample.  The questions posed in the survey don’t get at the real issues raised by the freeway widening project.  The project’s financial plan shows that it won’t be built without tolls—something you’d be hard-pressed to learn from any of the “public information” work.  The last estimates prepared for the Columbia River Crossing showed I-5 tolls would be a minimum of $2.30 during off peak hours, rising to $3.25 during rush hour, with additional surcharges for those who didn’t buy transponders for their cars in advance.  The survey didn’t reveal these toll rates, or ask people whether they might prefer a smaller, less expensive bridge with lower tolls, to a larger one with these high tolls, or whether they’d really rather keep the existing bridge if it meant they could avoid tolling altogether.  Despite the fact that the survey avoided talking about tolls, many survey respondents raised the question in answering open-ended questions.

It’s rather like a taste test survey that asks people whether they’d prefer filet mignon to a hot dog, without revealing the price tag of either alternative.  For a project that claims so prominently to care about “centering equity,” failing to reveal that people might have to pay on the order of $1,600 per month to commute daily across this bridge is a monumental omission.  But it’s no accident:  the project’s “public information” campaign is designed is an intentionally misleading way to manufacture consent, not to accurately measure public attitudes.

Surveys can be a useful way to gauge public opinion, if they’re undertaken in a scientifically valid fashion.  But if you aren’t careful, you end up with a classic, garbage-in, garbage-out exercise.  That appears to be the case with survey work commissioned by the “Interstate Bridge Replacement” project, a thinly veiled marketing campaign for freeway widening funded by the Oregon and Washington transportation departments—with “communications” consultants reaping more more than $4 million for their services in the past few years.

 

 

 

The I-5 bridge “replacement” con

Oregon and Washington highway builders have re-branded the failed Columbia River Crossing as a “bridge replacement” project:  It’s not.

Less than 30 percent of the cost of the nearly $5 billion project is actually for replacing the existing highway bridge, according to independent accountants.

Most of the cost is for widening the freeway and rebuilding interchanges for miles north and south of the bridge crossing, replacing the current bridge is somewhere between $500 million and one billion.

Calling $5 billion, 5-mile long freeway a “replacement bridge” is like saying if you buy a new $55,000 truck it’s a “tire replacement.” 

Nearly a decade ago, the “Columbia River Crossing—the multi-billion dollar plan to build a wider I-5 freeway between Portland and Vancouver—collapsed of its own fiscal weight, after both the Oregon and Washington Legislatures refused to pony up an estimated $450 million each (as well as signing a blank check to cover future cost overruns and revenue shortfalls). Project advocates delayed for as long as they could revealing the project’s true price tag and actually asking for the money, and when they finally did, legislators balked.

Promoters of the newly re-chrisented “Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) Program” have been assiduous in their efforts not to talk about the scale or cost of the project. In two years, they’ve yet to produce a single, new comprehensive illustration of the project—something that’s a standard fare in megaprojects.

That new name is part of the sale pitch.  Ever since attempting to breathe life back into the failed Columbia River Crossing project, the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation and their coterie of consultants have been engaged in an extensive effort to rebrand the project to make it more salable. (According to Clark County Today, over the past two years, $5.3 million—more than a quarter of the project’s $21 million spending—has been for “communications.”)

It’s no longer ever referred to as  the “Columbia River Crossing”—although the project’s expensive PR consultants failed to get that talking point to the White House, as President Biden recently referred to it by it’s obsolete moniker.  instead, it’s the far more modest “I-5 bridge replacement program”.  The project’s public materials talk mostly about the existing bridge, and as we’ve noted, almost never reveal that the total project is 5 miles long, that it contemplates widening this stretch of freeway to 12 (or more lanes), will cost upwards of $5 billion, and require minimum tolls of $5 for every round trip across the river.  Project staff are even leery of letting anyone look at computer renderings of the project.

The drawings of the Columbia River Crossing hint at just how massive this project would be.  The following animated GIF shows the design for the CRC as it crosses Hayden Island, superimposed on an aerial view of the existing freeway.  And none of what’s shown in this particular illustration includes the actual bridge structure crossing the Columbia River (which would be out of frame to the left).

The plans for Hayden Island show that much of the area would be paved over in a complex web of on- and off-ramps, flyovers, and multi-lane arterials.  Little wonder the residents of the island are strongly opposed to the project, saying:  “the massive footprint over Hayden Island .  .  . will destroy our community.”  (Hi-Noon Newsletter, January 26, 2022).

On and off ramps for the Columbia River Crossing on Hayden Island, south of the Columbia River.

Calling it just a “replacement” is PR gimmick to conceal all these elements of the project.  But it also conceals where the real money is going:  the reality is that the “replacement” of the two existing I-5 bridges, is just a small part of the project’s total costs—less than 30 percent according to independent estimates.

The “bridge” part of the IBR is less than 30 percent of total costs

In 2012, forensic accountant Tiffany Couch undertook a detailed audit of the CRC cost estimates.  Her analysis showed that the portion of project costs attributable to the bridge structure was $796.5 million—just a shade under $800 million.  Her analysis showed these costs represented just 23 percent of the total $3.49 billion price tag for the entire project..

Acuity Group, Inc., Report #6 Columbia River Crossing – Cost Allocation Discrepancies, April 8, 2013

The estimates by Acuity Group differ from the summary level budget breakdowns publicly distributed at the time by the CRC project staff.   According to Acuity, CRC transferred a portion of the costs associated with interchange overpass construction to the “bridge” portion of the project, effectively understating the cost of the freeway widening on either side of the river, and overstating the cost of the river crossing itself:

According to the CRC’s own detailed budgets, the costs to build the interchanges in Oregon and Washington are expected to cost hundreds of millions more than what is being reported to legislators, public officials, and the citizens of Oregon and Washington. Conversely, the CRC’s own detailed budget shows that the cost to tear down and rebuild the interstate bridge is hundreds of millions less than what is being reported.

According to the forensic accountants, ODOT and WSDOT shifted a portion of the cost of reconstructing interchanges north and south of the bridge by allocating all of the costs associated with overpass structures for these interchanges to the category “interstate bridge”:

. . . we found that when we allocated the cost of the overpasses associated with each interchange to the cost of the interstate bridge, we were able to reconcile to the CRC’s public communications and maps.

Replacing the existing bridge capacity might be only $500 million

Even at $800 million, this price estimate is too high to count as a “replacement” cost, because  much of the cost is associated with increasing the bridge’s capacity to 12 lanes, rather than simply replacing the existing 6 traffic lanes.  Inasmuch as the CRC plan calls for building two side-by-side bridges (each about 90 feet wide), the cost of “replacing” the existing structure with a new one is just the cost of one of these two bridges.  That means the cost of a like-for-like bridge replacement would be less than $500 million.

The CRC and IBR projects are proposing two new bridges: only one is a “replacement;” the other is an expansion.

It also now appears that the revived IBR project will be even larger and more expensive than the CRC.  For example, it has at a minimum added in some expenses that were cut out of the final CRC design, such as the North Portland Harbor Bridge, spanning the a slough south of the Columbia River (which would add about $200 million to the project’s cost).

What this means is that, if the “IBR’ were just about replacing the I-5 Columbia River bridges, its cost would be far smaller—in all likelihood less than $1 billion.  A right-sized bridge would be much more affordable, and wouldn’t raise the strong environmental objections that are associated with the DOTs freeway widening plans.

The IBR Project is still hiding the cost

The epic failure of the Columbia River Crossing had everything to do with the project’s unwillingness to talk frankly about finances, and the same mistake is being repeated this time as well.  It’s fair to ask, why should we rely on ten-year old cost estimates in sussing out the actual cost of “replacing” the current bridges?

The reason is that, so far, after more than two years of work to revive the project, ODOT and WSDOT have yet to produce any new cost estimates.  Their “draft” financial plan, released in November 2020, is based on the old CRC budget, with some adjustments for inflation.  In the past year, none of the meetings of the “Executive Steering Group” supposedly charged overseeing the project has discussed project costs or financing.

The fact that the project hasn’t done new, ground-up cost estimates isn’t an oversight—it’s a conscious strategy, to avoid revealing the true cost and scale of the project—and subjecting themselves to the kind of scrutiny offered in the Acuity forensic analysis of the CRC budget.

It’s a bit like going to the car dealership to get a new set of radials for your fifteen-year old F150, and coming back home in a  new $50,000 pickup truck, and telling your spouse that it’s a “tire replacement” program.

It’s always been a bloated boondoggle

In less guarded moments, influential local politicians have been outspoken about the excessive costs generated by ODOT and WSDOT.   Congressman Peter DeFazio famously declared the Columbia River Crossing project to be a gold-plated monstrosity.  In the Oregonian on August 14, 2011, Representative DeFazio said:

“I kept on telling the project to keep the costs down, don’t build a gold-plated project,” a clearly frustrated DeFazio said. “How can you have a $4 billion project? They let the engineers loose, told them to solve all the region’s infrastructure problems in one fell swoop… They need to get it all straight and come up with a viable project, a viable financing plan that can withstand a vigorous review.”
(Manning, Jeff. “Columbia River Crossing could be a casualty of the federal budget crunch”, The Oregonian, August 14, 2011).
Later, Representative DeFazio told Oregon Public Broadcasting:
“I said, how can it cost three or four billion bucks to go across the Columbia River?  . . . The Columbia River Crossing problem was thrown out to engineers, it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”
“Think Out Loud,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, August 18, 2011.

The irony is that if this project were just about replacing the bridge, rather than building a massive freeway, not only would the project be vastly cheaper, there’d almost surely be less public opposition to the project.  The objection isn’t to having a safe, functional bridge, its to building a giant highway that will worsen pollution and bankrupt taxpayers and commuters.

Portland: Don’t move or close schools to widen freeways

Adah Crandall is a sophomore at Grant High School. She is the co-lead of Portland Youth Climate Strike and an organizer with Sunrise PDX’s Youth Vs ODOT campaign, a biweekly series of rallies fighting for the decarbonization of Oregon’s transportation systems.

 

City Observatory is pleased to publish this commentary by Adah Crandall on a proposal currently being considered to move Harriet Tubman Middle School to facilitate the $1.25 billion widening of the Interstate 5 freeway through Portland’s Rose Quarter.  Crandall’s advocacy was recently profiled in a report by Bloomberg CityLab.  Portland Public Schools (PPS) is considering an option that would close another predominantly Black school (Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary) to provide a new site for Tubman.

Crandall gave this testimony to the Portland School Board on January 25, 2022.  A full video of her testimony is here:

 

 

Good evening board members, my name is Adah Crandall and I’m a sophomore at Grant High School.

I’m here tonight because I am extremely concerned about your proposed relocation of Harriet Tubman Middle School. It’s finals week right now, and I should be studying for my algebra test tomorrow morning. But instead, here I am at a school board meeting begging you to do what is right and not displace students to accommodate the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the middle of a climate crisis.

In preparation for this, I spent some time looking into PPS’s bullying policy, because here’s the thing: I think the Oregon Department of Transportation is a bully, and that you all are bystanders doing nothing about it. And I don’t know what you all were taught, but what I learned in your school system is that when you see someone being picked on, you’re supposed to stand up for them.

So why is it that when ODOT’s proposed freeway expansion is literally cutting into Tubman’s backyard and threatening to displace hundreds of students, your response is to just give in and let it happen? The PPS website says bullying is “strictly prohibited and shall not be tolerated,” and to me it seems like you’re breaking your own rule. Why aren’t you modeling to students what it means to be an active ally and stand up against injustice?

As a former Tubman student, I know the pollution at Tubman is dangerous- no students should have to worry about if the air they’re breathing at recess will one day cause asthma or lung cancer. But the decision to move the school rather than fight the freeway expansion follows the same short- sighted line of thinking that started the climate crisis in the first place. Yes, you can move student’s away from the direct threat of pollution, but you cannot move them away from the life of climate disasters they’re inheriting as a result of your decision to support fueling this crisis without making ODOT even study the alternatives.

ODOT has bullied you into thinking this freeway expansion is inevitable, but it’s not. PPS could avoid all the community disruption associated with displacing Tubman and potentially King Elementary by simply forcing ODOT to consider “not building the freeway”. The project just lost a key federal approval last week, remains tied up in multiple lawsuits, and is currently $500 million short. These recent updates are a massive step forward for efforts to stop the expansion, efforts that for some reason, PPS seems to be completely ignoring.

I urge you to join in with the community groups demanding ODOT fully study the environmental impact of the Rose Quarter freeway expansion, which would include studying congestion pricing, an alternative that would reduce congestion and pollution rather than increasing it.

At the last board meeting I attended, I asked each of you to raise your hand if climate justice was important to you, and as I remember with striking clarity, everyone had their hand up. This is your chance to follow through on that promise. Don’t just raise your hands, raise your voices, and raise your standards. If you truly value climate justice, you will not settle for the displacement of students to accommodate expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure into the backyard of a middle school.

If you truly care about climate justice, you will not let ODOT get away with this and destroy my generation’s future. Tonight I urge you to stand true to the values you teach students, and dare to imagine a better world. Stand up for us.

 

Editor’s Note (March 29, 2022):  Portland Public Schools subsequently decided not to relocate the Harriet Tubman School to the King school location.  It is exploring other locations in Portland’s Albina neighborhood.

Transportation trends and disparities

If you aren’t talking about our two-caste transportation system, you’re not really addressing equity.

Portland’s regional government is looking forward at trends in the transportation system and their implications for equity.  In December, City Observatory submitted its analysis of these trends for Metro’s consideration.

Local and regional leaders are increasingly promoting concerns of equity in transportation, as well they should.  But many analyses of equity leave out the most fundamental inequity in the structure of transportation:  our explicit two-caste system that privileges those who can afford and can operate cars, and systematically disadvantages everyone else:  those too young, too old, too infirm or too poor to own and operate a motor vehicle.  Those in the lower caste are condemned to lives of impaired access to the economy and society, and greater risk of death and injury when they do travel. Many of the other observed inequities in transportation flow directly from this two caste system.

If governments are serious about rectifying inequities in transportation they have to look past symptoms and superficial manifestations to underlying causes.  A careful consideration of these trends will take them in this direction.

 

Trend Disparities
Portland will continue to have a two-caste transportation system, with priority for those who can afford to, and are legally and physically able to operate a car (the upper caste), and lower priority for those too poor, too young, too old, to operate a car (the lower caste). Most of the other inequities (safety, pollution, lack of access and discrimination) flow from this two-caste system. Low income people, people of color, and the old and the young are disproportionately consigned to being in the lower caste by our car-dependent transportation system.

 

 

 

 

 

Portland area transportation greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 1,000 pounds per person annually (14 percent) over the past few years, and show no signs of declining, despite state, regional and local plans calling for a reduction in GHGs. The region will have to take much bolder action than any laid out in the RTP to comply with adoption laws. Climate change caused by GHG emissions disproportionately come from higher income households and lower density sprawling neighborhoods, and disproportionately affects low income neighborhoods.

 

 

ODOT plans to spend billions of dollars widening area freeways, which will induce additional travel; Gas taxes from road use don’t cover anything approaching the cost of building and maintaining freeways, meaning that their costs are subsidized by non-users. Freeways are only usable to people who can afford the roughly $5,000 annual cost of owning and operating a car. Car ownership is much lower among low income populations and people of color.   A car dependent transportation system doesn’t work for those who can afford to own a car and those who can’t or shouldn’t drive.
The number of persons killed on Portland area streets and roads has increased steadily. Pedestrians and other vulnerable road users account for half of deaths. Most transportation spending is devoted to enabling vehicles to move faster making roads more dangerous for non-car travelers People of color, low income people, and the young and old are disproportionately likely to be pedestrians, cyclists and vulnerable road users. Spending most transportation dollars on freeways, which are the least deadly roadways is inequitable.
Gasoline prices and gas taxes don’t cover the fiscal, social or environmental costs caused by driving. These costs, which range into the billions of dollars annually, are shifted to non-users.

 

Under-charging users for the costs of driving results in more driving, and more social costs that would otherwise occur, and unfairly imposes these damages and costs on non-users, who tend to be disproportionately low income and people of color.
Public policies will continue to allow unpriced use of public roads by cars while charging prices for use of transit. Congestion on public streets by unpriced private automobiles diminishes the speed and efficiency of public transit, which lowers its productivity, decreases its services levels and competitiveness, which lowers ridership and increases costs. Low income people and people of color, as well as the very young and very old are more likely to be transit-dependent than the overall population. They disproportionately bear the costs of worse bus service caused by the unpriced use of public streets by private cars.

 

Public policies will continue to subsidize free on street parking for most car owners at a cost of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Free and subsidized parking only benefits those who own cars, and disproportionately benefits higher income and whiter populations.
Roads and streets continue to contribute 50 percent or more to stormwater runoff, which causes pollution, and is expensive to fix.   Yet streets and roads, and their users pay nothing toward costs of stormwater collection and treatment. These costs are largely shifted to water users, especially households, many of whom don’t own or drive cars. Low income populations and people of color are disproportionately likely to be responsible for paying costs of stormwater due to costs shifted on to residences.

 

 

 

 

Adjacency is not a good measure of equity

 

 

 

 

 

 

Currently Metro relies on measures of adjacency (i.e. the demographic composition of census tracts adjacent to transportation infrastructure) to determine whether projects are equitable; This approach ignores the negative effects of proximity to many types of infrastructure, particularly highways)..
Accessibility Measures should be used, rather than mobility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The performance of the transportation system should be judged by accessibility (the number of destinations one can easily reach), rather than by mobility (distance and speed traveled).   Maximizing accessibility is consistent with the region’s environmental, social and land use objectives; maximizing mobility undercuts key objectives and is more expensive.
Equity is best served by direct payments rather that more spending to increase supply.

 

 

Measures such as Portland’s transportation wallet can promote equity by giving more purchasing power and a wider array of options to low income households and targeted populations.
Target VMT reductions. Reduced VMT is needed to achieve the state and region’s legislatively mandated GHG reduction goals. Portland decreased VMT 1.5 percent per year between 2005 and 2013. VMT reduction saves money and stimulates the local economy, which benefits disadvantaged populations. The 1.5 mile per day decrease in average trips between 2005 and 2013 saved the region $600 million per year on transportation expense, which benefited the local economy.
Transportation spending targets peak hour car trips.

 

Peak hour car commuters have vastly higher incomes than the general population, and those who commute by transit, bike or walking
Green Dividend: Measures that reduce transportation costs have, in the past, created a “green dividend” for local households. Failure to continue to decrease VMT and transportation expense would be a missed opportunity to improve the region’s economy.

 

 

Transportation is costly: the average household spends 15 percent of its income on transportation.   Policies that reduce the amount of travel that households need to make, as measured by average VMT, reduce household expenses and increase household disposable income. Transportation expenditures are particularly burdensome for lower income households.
Demand for Walkability. Walkable neighborhoods are in high demand and short supply. More housing in dense, high demand locations results in fewer VMT, lower GHG emissions, and higher use of transit, biking and walking.

 

 

More and more people are interested in living in walkable urban neighborhoods, which are in short supply.   The failure to build enough housing in walkable neighborhoods drives up housing prices, and makes it more difficult for low income households to be able to live in walkable neighborhoods, where transportation costs are lower.

Metro’s “Don’t Look Up” Climate Policy

Metro, Portland’s regional government, says it has a plan to reduce transportation greenhouse gases

But in the 8 years since adopting the plan, the agency hasn’t bothered to look at data on GHGs—which have increased 22 percent, or more than one million tons annually.

Metro’s Climate Plan is “Don’t Look Up” 

In the new movie “Don’t Look Up,” Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play two scientists who identify a planet-killing comet headed for earth.  Their warnings go largely ignored, and by the end of the movie, there’s an active anti-scientific movement, which as the comet becomes visible in the sky, tells its adherents to simply “Don’t look up.”

The movie is an allegory for our climate peril:  faced with mounting scientific evidence about the trajectory of climate change, and the increasingly evident manifestation of heat waves, storms, flooding and fires, too many of our leaders are simply looking away.

And in Portland, which prides itself as being a green leader, the regional government has, effectively been pursuing a “Don’t Look Up” climate policy.

Noble intentions, soaring rhetoric

Here’s the background.  In 2007, the State Legislature set a goal of reducing Oregon greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050.  And in 2014, Metro, Portland’s regional government adopted what it called a “Climate Smart Strategy” to reduce greenhouse gasses.

On paper, seems good.

The Metro plan had a few policy ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example by expanding transit and promoting more compact land uses, which would enable more cycling and walking.  But for the most part, it relied on expectations that federal and state regulations and car makers would figure out a way to quickly make cars non-polluting.  Recognizing—at the time, at least—that there was a lot of uncertainty in the efficacy of these policies and the evolution of technology, Metro promised that if its efforts weren’t reducing greenhouse gasses, it would revisit the plan and take even tougher measures.

Here it is, eight years later.  How is that “Climate Smart Strategy” working out?

Well, you might read through Metro planning documents, but nowhere in them will you find any data on the change in transportation-related greenhouse gases in Metro’s planning area in the years since 2014.  In essence, after adopting its plan, Metro hasn’t looked up.

But just like in the movie, scientists are looking up.  And what they see, specifically in Portland, is that the Metro strategy is failing—greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, not decreasing, as called for in Metro’s plan.

Here, the parts of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are played by real-life Boston University physicists Conor Gately, Lucy Hutyra and Ian Sue Wing.  Their research was sponsored by NASA, published by the National Academy of Science, and their database is maintained by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  What they’ve done is to create a nearly four-decade long, very high resolution map of greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation in the US.  They’ve mapped emissions down to a 1 kilometer (0.6 Mile) square grid for the entire nation, for each year from 1980 through 2017.  (There are more details about the project below). Their data is the best evidence we have on the trajectory of this comet.  And for Portland, the news is not good.

Here’s what their data show for the tri-county Portland metro area:

The green line on the chart is the actual amount of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington Counties from 1990 through 2017.  The blue line shows the trajectory of emissions needed to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction goals spelled out in Metro’s 2014 climate action plan.  In 2013, the year before Metro adopted its plan, emissions were about 6 million tons.  The plan envisioned the emissions levels going down by roughly a million tons by 2017.  But instead, as the green line shows, transportation greenhouse gas emissions in the Portland area increased by nearly 1 million tons a year after 2013, to 7 million tons.

Metro’s “Climate Smart Strategy” isn’t just somehow behind schedule.  It is failing.  Emissions are increasing, not decreasing.  The comet is accelerating towards earth. So what are the leaders doing?

Not looking up

Metro’s climate plan promised to track emissions.  To be sure, Metro has published annual sustainability reports since 2014.  And they proudly mention the adoption of the Climate Smart Strategy.  But the only thing Metro tracks in these reports is greenhouse gas emissions (and other environmental effects) of its own internal business operations.  There’s absolutely no mention of overall regional trends from the transportation system Metro is charged with planning.  Neither does the 2018 Regional Transportation Plan provide a time series of data showing the trend in regional transportation greenhouse gas emissions.

Metro’s plan also promised to take additional and tougher measures if those in the Climate Smart Strategy weren’t working fast enough.  On page 1 of the 2014 strategy document, Metro committed to periodically assessing its progress and said:

If the assessment finds the region is deviating significantly from the Climate Smart Strategy performance monitoring target, then Metro will work with local, regional and state partners to consider the revision or replacement of policies, strategies and actions to ensure the region remains on track with meeting adopted targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But if you don’t track your progress, you don’t have to admit you’re failing and you don’t have to  bother with considering more serious steps to reduce greenhouse gases.  Don’t. Look. Up.  It’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s the approach Metro is taking.

The science behind the DARTE database.

The tragedy here is that we have sound scientific data that tell us what is happening.  The research, undertaken over a period of years, sponsored by NASA, gives us a very granular, long-term picture of how our climate efforts are fairing.  You can’t claim to be taking climate change seriously if you aren’t paying attention to this kind of data.

Gately, C., L.R. Hutyra, and I.S. Wing. 2019. DARTE Annual On-road CO2 Emissions on a 1-km Grid, Conterminous USA, V2, 1980-2017. ORNL DAAC, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA. https://doi.org/10.3334/ORNLDAAC/1735

Their results were featured in the New York Times in October 2019.  We alerted Metro staff to the availability and importance of this data in October 2019 (Cortright to Kloster, October 16, 2019).

ODOT’s forecasting double standard

Oregon’s highway agency rigs its projections to maximize revenue and downplay its culpability for climate challenge

ODOT has two different standards for forecasting:  When it forecasts revenue, it says it will ignore adopted policies–especially ones that will reduce its revenue.  When it forecasts greenhouse gas emissions, assumes policies that don’t exist–especially ones that will magically make greenhouse gas emissions decline.

Revenue forecasts are “purely based on historical data” and don’t include adopted policies.  Greenhouse gas emission forecasts are based on “goals” and “wishes” and are explicitly not an extrapolation of past trends.

The inflated revenue forecasts are used to justify (and help fund) highway widening; the greenhouse gas emission forecasts are used to absolve the agency from any responsibility to reduce driving related greenhouse gas emissions.

As we’ve pointed out, the Oregon Department of Transportation keeps two sets of books when it comes to climate emissions.  It tells the public that it cares about climate and greenhouse gas emissions in its largely performative “Climate Action Plan,” but when it comes to the agency’s budget, it tells financial markets it’s counting on Oregonians burning just as much gas—and creating just as much carbon pollution—a decade from now as they do today.

ODOT’s officials have defended their revenue forecasts as being merely passive representations of current trends, unaffected and unfiltered by state policy objectives.  Somehow these actions that produce revenue are beyond either their control or responsibility.

But when it comes to the agency’s climate plan, they’ve gone out of their way to make highly speculative assumptions that all kinds of other actors—consumers, automobile manufacturers, the federal government and other state agencies—will make radically different decisions or implement entirely new policies that lead to reductions in greenhouse gases.

ODOT has a double-standard for forecasting—when it comes to forecasting climate, and especially establishing its responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions—it will make elaborate and speculative assumptions about other people doing things that will make the problem go away.  When it comes to estimating its own revenue (which it then uses to justify building new roadways and borrowing for more), it assumes that nothing will change and that it can safely ignore already adopted legal requirements to implement congestion pricing and limit greenhouse gases—both of which will reduce gas tax revenue.  It’s a deceitful, inconsistent and self-serving approach to forecasting.

ODOT Revenue Forecasts:  We assume nothing will change and ignore our own adopted laws.

Earlier, we pointed out that ODOT’s revenue forecasts are utterly at odds with claims it will reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions, as mandated by state law, and directed by Governor’s executive order.  ODOT representatives defended their forecasts in the media by saying that the agency’s forecasting approach was merely to extrapolate existing trends, and that its forecasts were in no way a reflection of its policy objectives.

Here’s ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton responding to Willamette Week.

“ODOT revenue forecasts are based purely on consumer patterns and historical data,” says ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. “They are not based on what we want to see.”

The forecasts also don’t take into account the reductions in driving that may come with “congestion pricing” or other ODOT initiatives, Hamilton says.

“As Oregon executes many of its climate-focused programs, we expect gas sales to decline, and we will revise our gas sales forecasts to reflect those changes as they occur.”

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Dave Miller pushed the agency’s top planner, Amanda Pietz to explain the discrepancy:

Dave Miller: . . .  I want to focus on a new critique that I’m sure you’re aware of. It came about a week and a half ago from the frequent ODOT critic Joe Cortright, the economist. He put out a report digging into the agency’s estimates given to financial markets about expected gasoline tax revenues through the end of this decade. This was his summary: “What ODOT official revenue forecasts are telling us is that the agency fully expects us to be generating just as much greenhouse gasses from driving in 2030 as we are today. Indeed,” he wrote, “the agency is counting on it to pay its bills.” Amanda Pietz, how do you explain this?

Amanda Pietz: I think it goes back to the earlier statement I was making. When we do our revenue forecasts it’s often looking back at the trends then and projecting those forward without necessarily seeing some of the interventions take hold and create those changes.[Emphasis added].

Dave Miller: I’m slightly confused by that, and that jibes with what an ODOT spokesman said when there was an article about it this week in Willamette Week. But aren’t you supposed to give bond markets a projection that is as accurate as possible? If the whole point is [to say] “trust us, we’ve got revenue coming in, we can back these bonds and here’s our estimate for how the money is going to be coming in,” why don’t you factor in all the things you say you’re going to be doing so economic markets can know to trust you?

Amanda Pietz: Part of what is done when we look at things is [that] we have to rely on something very solid – a clear policy change, a solidified investment that’s been amended into our investment strategy in a way that’s very clear, it’s solid. I think what you’re seeing is an agency that’s recognized that we’re a contributor to the problem in the last year and [is] starting to make some changes and modifications. Now when those take hold and the degree to which they’re solidified [so] that we can roll them into our financial assumptions, my guess is another six months to a year before you start to see some of those. Another key example of that is DEQ has its Climate Protection program which will set limits on fuel sales that will have a big impact on that revenue forecast. That’s in draft form, not finalized. When that’s finalized, becomes implemented, and there’s clarity around what that looks like, that’s when it gets rolled into the financial assumptions. Similar things for us, too. I mentioned we’re investing over $50 million dollars in transportation electrification. We should see fuel sales drop as a result of that. Until we figure out exactly where we’re placing that, how we’re going to leverage with our private partners to put those in the right locations, [that’s when] we can factor that into our revenue forecast.[Emphasis added].

ODOT Climate Forecasts:  Wishes and speculation, including magical policies that don’t exist

When it comes to making forecasts about future automobile emissions, and whether the agency will need to do anything to curtail the growth of driving in order to achieve the state’s statutory greenhouse gas reduction goals ODOT has an entirely different approach to forecasting.  It makes heroic assumptions about things that might happen, if somebody else does them.  It pretends that policies that don’t exist will be adopted and aggressively implemented. And all of these assumptions are skewed in a very particular way, i.e. to reduce or eliminate any need for ODOT to take responsibility for cutting greenhouse gases from cars and driving in Oregon.

These assumptions are built into the State Transportation Strategy (STS), developed by ODOT to sketch out how Oregon might reduce transportation greenhouse gases in the decades ahead.  In a memo prepared for the Land Conservation and Development Commission, explaining the STS modeling, Brian Gregor, who was ODOT’s modeler, explained ODOT’s approach to estimating future greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

The members on the Core Tech Team from the Departments of Environmental Quality and Energy agreed that the STS “trend line” is a reasonable reflection of goals that California, Oregon, and other states participating in the multi-state ZEV standards wish to achieve. They caution, however, that this planning trend does not reflect recent trends in vehicle fuel economy. Substantial efforts on the part of states and the federal government will be necessary to make this planning trend a reality. [Emphasis added].

A footnote on page 30 of the LCDC report makes this point even more clearly:

It is important to note that these ‘trend lines’ represent the trend in the model results given the vehicle assumptions in the STS recommended scenario. They do not represent an extrapolation of past trend. [Emphasis added].

The contrast couldn’t be sharper:  when it comes to estimating an elevated level of future revenue, ODOT discounts anything that will reduce driving or pollution, and won’t even consider the impact of policies, like congestion pricing, which were approved by the Legislature in 2017.  But when it comes to optimistic speculation about technologies or policies that might lower future vehicle emissions—absolving ODOT of the need to act—the agency will definitely count on policies that haven’t been adopted by anyone.  It’s a clear and calculated strategy to avoid responsibility for doing anything to address climate change.

Clearly, ODOT’s current revenue forecasts are counting on the failure of the state’s climate efforts.  They’re assuring financial markets that Oregon will collection hundreds of millions of dollars in motor fuel tax revenues with which to repay bonds it will use to expand the state’s highways, encouraging and subsidizing more driving and greenhouse gas emissions.  It may seem like an arcane detail, but it’s the kind of technocratic climate arson that’s routinely practiced by state highway departments.

 

Why the proposed $5 billion I-5 bridge is a climate disaster

The plan to spend $5 billion widening the I-5 Bridge Over the Columbia River would produce 100,000 additional metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, according to the induced travel calculator

Metro’s 2020 transportation package would have cut greenhouse gases by 5,200 tons per year– 20 times less than the additional greenhouse gases created by freeway widening.

Widening freeways induces additional travel. It’s an established scientific fact:  widening urban freeways prompts more miles of travel and consequently, more greenhouse gas emissions.  The effect is so well-documented that its referred to as the “fundamental law of road congestion.”

Based on a synthesis of the latest award-winning peer-reviewed scientific research and work by scholars at the University of California, Davis‘s National Transportation Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council developed the induced travel calculator that computes the additional amount of greenhouse gases produced by an additional lane-mile of freeway capacity in each of the nation’s metro areas.

The proposed Columbia River Crossing, now re-branded as the “I-5 bridge replacement project”, contemplates a 12-lane wide, 5 mile long freeway between Portland and Vancouver, effectively doubling the size of the existing I-5 freeway and adding 30 lane miles of freeway (3 lanes in each of 2 directions for 5 miles).  Freeway advocates have claimed that the bridge might only be 10 lanes, but as public records requests revealed, the bridge structure is designed to carry twelve lanes, and in many places the proposed roadway is 14 lanes wide.

The Induced Travel Calculator shows that this increase in roadway capacity in Portland would produce an addition 155 to 233 million miles of travel annually, leading to burning an additional 11 million gallons of gas.  That in turn would translate into additional annual greenhouse gases of about 100,000 tons (at roughly 20 pounds of CO2e per gallon of gas).

How big is that amount?  Well, to put in perspective, let’s compare it to the expected greenhouse gas reductions from other possible transportation investments.  In 2020, Metro advances a multi-billion dollar transportation spending project including light rail, bus lanes, pedestrian and safety improvements and other projects.  Metro estimated that this package of investments would reduce greenhouse gases by about 5,200 metric tons per year.

State, regional and local government officials all recognize that we’re in the midst of a climate crisis.  It should be apparent to any casual observer that widening freeways takes us in the opposite direction of our stated commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.  In fact, the best scientific estimates of the emissions from added freeway capacity suggests that widening I-5 would generate 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than would have been saved by the multi-billion dollar package of projects proposed by Metro last year.  Given the cost and difficulty of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the last thing we should be doing is making the problem worse.

How to solve traffic congestion: A miracle in Louisville?

Louisville charges a cheap $1 to $2 toll for people driving across the Ohio River on I-65.  

After doubling the size of the I-65 bridges from six lanes to 12, tolls slashed traffic by half, from about 130,000 cars per day to fewer than 65,000.

Kentucky and Indiana wasted a billion dollars on highway capacity that people don’t use or value.

If asked to pay for even a fraction of the cost of providing a road, half of all road users say, “No thanks, I’ll go somewhere else” or not take the trip at all.

The fact that highway engineers aren’t celebrating and copying tolling as a proven means to reduce congestion shows they actually don’t give a damn about congestion, but simply want more money to build things.

Picture this.  A major interstate freeway that connects the downtown of one of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas to its largest suburbs.  It’s a little after 5 pm on a typical weekday.  And on this 12-lane freeway there are roughly two dozen cars sprinkled across acres of concrete.

I-65 in Southern Indiana (Trimarc)

 

I-65 crossing the Ohio River at Louisville (Trimarc)

These pictures were taken by traffic cameras pointed in opposite directions on the I-65 bridges across the Ohio River at Louisville Kentucky on Wednesday, November 3 at about 5:30 pm.  Traffic engineers have a term for this amount of traffic:  They call it “Level of Service A”—meaning that there’s so little traffic on a roadway that drivers can go pretty much as fast as they want.  Highway engineers grade traffic on a scale from LOS A (free flowing almost empty) to LOS F (bumper to bumper stop and go).  Most of the time, they’re happy to have roads manage LOS “D”.

Somebody finally figured out how to reduce traffic congestion!  Usually, as we know, simply widening highways, to as many as 23 lanes as is the case with Houston’s Katy Freeway, simply generates more traffic and even longer delays and travel times.  And, with no sense of irony, highway boosters even tout the Katy Freeway as a “success story,”  despite the fact it made traffic congestion worse. In contrast, Louisville’s I-65  is an extraordinarily rare case where traffic congestion went away after a state highway department did something.

You’d think that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Indiana Department of Transportation would be getting a special award, and holding seminars at AASHTO to explain how to eliminate traffic congestion.  The fact that they aren’t tells you all you need to know about the real priorities of state highway departments–they really only care about building things, not about whether congestion goes away or not.

So how did they do it?  Let’s go back a few years.  In 2010, I-65 consisted of a single six-lane bridge over the Ohio River, which carried about 120,000 vehicles per day.  The two states decided this was getting too crowded (and predicted worsening delay due to ever expanding traffic volumes) and so spent about $1 billion building a second six lane bridge (the Lincoln) next to the existing Kennedy bridge.  After in opened in 2017, the two states implemented a toll to pay part of the cost of construction.  Tolls started at $2 for single crossings (if you had a transponder), but regular commuters were given a discounted toll: regular commuters pay just a bit over $1 for each crossing.  Today the toll for one-way crossings if you have a transponder (and 450,000 area vehicles do), is $2.21.  But if you cross the bridge 40 times a month (back and forth daily for 20 work days), your toll for each trip is reduced by half to $1.10.

And after the tolls went into effect, traffic on I-65 fell by half.  Here’s the average daily traffic count on I-65, according to data tabulated by the Indiana Department of Transportation.  In the years just prior to the tolling, traffic was in the 135,000 to 140,000 vehicles per day level.  But as soon as tolling went into effect, traffic dropped to barely 60,000 vehicles per day (with a very slight further decline due to Covid-19 in 2020).

 

The two states spent a billion dollars doubling the size of I-65, only to have half as many people use the bridge.  That money was wasted.  Nothing more clearly illustrates the utter folly of highway expansions.  As we’ve pointed out, highway engineers size roadways based on the assumption that the users will pay nothing for each trip.  Just as with Ben and Jerry’s “Free Ice Cream Day,” when you charge a zero price for your product, people will line up around the block.  But ask people to pay, and you’ll get fewer takers.

The fact that Louisville residents would rather drive miles out of their way or sit in traffic for an extra 10 or 15 minutes to travel on a “free” road, rather than spend a dollar or two for a faster, more direct trip tells you the very low value that highway users attach to these extremely expensive roadways.  In fact, they’ll only drive on them if somebody else pays for the cost the roadway.   This is also powerful evidence of what economists call induced demand:  people only taking trips because the roadway exists and someone else is paying for it.

The Louisville traffic experiment shows us that there’s one surefire fix for traffic congestion:  road pricing.  Even a very modest toll (one that asks road users to pay only a third or so, at most of the costs of the roads they’re using) will cause traffic congestion to disappear.  This traffic experiment shows the folly and waste of building additional capacity.  Kentucky and Indiana spent over $1 billion for a bridge to carry as many as 250,000 vehicles per day, and today barely a quarter of that number are using it.

If state DOTs really cared about congestion, they’d be implementing congestion pricing.  A small toll, probably less than a dollar per crossing, would be sufficient to get regular free-flow conditions on the I-65 bridge—without having to spend a billion dollars.  But the truth is, state DOTs don’t care about congestion, except as a talking point to get money to build giant projects. The next time you hear someone lamenting traffic congestion, ask them why they aren’t trying the one method that’s been shown to work.

 

 

 

Louisville’s financial disaster: Deep in debt for road capacity that will never be used

Louisville’s I-65 bridges:  A huge under-used roadway and hundreds of millions in debt for their kids—who will also have to cope with a climate crisis.

Their financial plan kicked the can down the road, saddling future generations with the cost of paying for unneeded roads.

The two states mortgaged future federal grant money and borrowed against toll revenues, which are falling dramatically short of projections.

Louisville’s Ohio River Bridges are a monument to the epic policy, financial and generational failure that is the US highway system.  Ohio and Indiana spent more than a billion dollars on doubling an interstate highway bridge, that thanks to very modest tolls, is utilized at less one-fourth of its capacity.  Meanwhile, through a series of “creative” financial maneuvers, it passed the bill for the highway onto future generations, who, as it turns out will have to actually pay for the bridge at the same time the climate crisis hits in full force.  The almost empty freeway bridges show the folly of “asphalt socialism”—wasting vast amount of public resources on roads that their users don’t value enough to pay even a fraction of their cost.

Earlier, we wrote about one aspect of the I-65 bridge project in Louisville.  It turns out that just by charging a $1 to $2 toll, Kentucky and Indiana were able to entirely eliminate traffic congestion on I-65.  Traffic plummeted from around 130,000 vehicles per day to about 60,000.  Now, even at the rush hour, I-65 is almost empty.

 

I-65 crossing the Ohio River at Louisville

 

And after the tolls went into effect, traffic on I-65 fell by half.  Here’s the average daily traffic count on I-65, according to data tabulated by the Indiana Department of Transportation.  In the years just prior to the tolling, traffic was in the 135,000 to 140,000 vehicles per day level.  But as soon as tolling went into effect, traffic dropped to barely 60,000 vehicles per day (with a very slight further decline due to Covid-19 in 2020).

 

While there’s a hopeful lesson here—one that highway engineers are studiously avoiding—that road pricing can eliminate congestion, there’s a financial horror story that should be a warning to everyone thinking about highway expansion projects.  The two states spent over a billion dollars on doubling bridge capacity in downtown Louisville, and their financial plans show how through combination of cynicism, incompetence or saddled future generations with the cost of this boondoggle.

Ostensibly, the justification for widening the bridges was the notion that traffic was already too congested and was growing rapidly.  The project’s environmental impact statement claimed that the I-65 bridges were “over capacity” in 2012, and predicted that traffic would grow from 120,000 vehicles per day to more than 180,000 by 2025, leading to hours and hours of traffic delay.

The trouble with these forecasts is that they were both simple-minded and wrong, especially given the need to pay for this project—in part—by actually charging the users for a portion of its construction cost.  Like so many state highway department predictions, this one was flat out wrong—traffic was nearly flat-lining on I-65 before the project was built.

State DOT traffic forecasts were wrong

Surely, you must be thinking, the state DOTs knew that charging a toll would reduce traffic.  Before the project was completed, Kentucky and Indiana hired consultants—CDM Smith and Steer, Gleaves, Davie—to estimate future toll revenues from the project.  CDM Smith predicted that future traffic levels on newly expanded and tolled I-65 bridges would be 92,000 vehicles per day in 2020, growing to 102,600 in 2030..  That was a dramatic over-estimate.  Actual traffic levels in 2019 (i.e. the year prior to the pandemic) were just 62,000 vehicles per day.  Whereas CDM Smith predicted that tolling would produce about a 27 percent decline in traffic from pre-tolling levels, the imposition of tolls actually led to a 50 percent decline in traffic.  CDM Smith overestimated the amount of toll-paying traffic that would cross the I-65 bridge by 50 percent.  The direction and magnitude of that error is all too common in toll traffic forecasts, and has led to defaults and bankruptcies for other tolled projects.

Creative Finance:  Sending the bills to future generations.

Tolls are only paying for a small fraction of the costs of the project.  Both states borrowed substantial sums. Kentucky borrowed deeply to pay for its share of the project, using “Garvee” bonds—essentially mortgaging future federal grant money—to the tune of $300 million in principal repayment and $138 million in interest payments.  In addition, Kentucky’s tolls are pledged to pay of both Kentucky revenue bonds of $272 million and a Federal TIFIA loan of $452 million.  The debt service for these two borrowings is back-loaded, i.e. is very low in the first few years of the project, but then steadily escalates.

This back-loading means the financial plan for the I-65 bridges project essentially sends the bill to the region’s future residents.  Essentially, Kentucky has borrowed most of the money to construction the project and arranged for a loan with a series of “balloon payments,” in later years.  Kentucky “back-loaded” the repayment of principal on both its own revenue bonds and its borrowings from the federal government’s TIFIA program.  It pays interest-only or just a token amount of the principal for these loans in the first few years, and then required payments steadily escalate in later years.  Debt-service obligations start at less than $10 million per year, and then balloon to more than $80 million annually in the early 2020s.

In theory, the escalating repayment can be met by growing toll revenues, from some combination of toll rate increases and growing traffic.  Toll rates have increased steadily at 2.5 percent per year, but as the traffic counts show, volume has flat-lined.  The artificially low repayments in the first few years of the project create the illusion that toll revenues are sufficient to cover debt service payments, but as required payments steadily escalate over the next few years, the Kentucky will find it increasingly difficult to meet its repayment obligations.

This looming mountain of debt service obligations has already prompted Kentucky to refinance part of its debt, essentially kicking the can further down the road for repayment of the cost of the I-65 bridges.  The refinancing plan essentially doubles down on earlier back-loading strategy, borrowing more money now to make these payments, and extending the period for repayment further.  Instead of paying off its “first tier revenue bonds” in 2045, they’re extending the term of the repayment by 8 years, to 2053.  And like the initial borrowing, these refunding bonds are mostly “interest-only” for the next 25 years, with nearly all of the principal being repaid after 2045.  As a result, the borrowers will pay almost as much in interest charges ($182 million over the life of the loan) as they pay in principal ($192 million).

Traffic on I-65 will never get back to pre-tolling levels

Whether toll revenues will be sufficient to repay these bonds hinges on whether you believe the latest forecast from Kentucky’s consultant, Steer & Company, prepared as part of the latest re-financing plan.  This new forecast now predicts  that total annual transactions (the number of vehicles using the project) will increase from about 30 million today to about 48 million by 2053.  What this means is that the I-65 bridges will effectively never recover to the level of traffic they had before the crossing was widened.  Currently, as noted above, the bridges are carrying about 60,000 vehicles per day.  The latest Steer forecast is that traffic will increase from that level by about 60 percent over the next three decades (48 million = 1.6 x 30 million).  This means that in 2053, the bridges will be carrying about 96,000 vehicles (which, ironically, is about the same level that the other toll consultants, CDM Smith predicted for 2020 in the projections that were originally used to justify project financing).  On the following chart, the red line is the FEIS traffic forecast for I-65, the black line is the actual level of traffic according to INDOT, and the blue line is the growth in traffic forecast by Steer & Company for the refinancing plan).

 

Comparing these new refinancing estimates with the rosy projections used to justify the project in the first place show the profound gap between highway boosters and reality.  The project was sold based on an environmental impact statement forecast that in the “no action” scenario (with just the single six-lane Kennedy Bridge), traffic on I-65 across the Ohio River would grow to 178,600 vehicles per day, exceeding its “capacity” by 142 percent.  This estimate implies that the capacity of the 6 lane Kennedy Bridge was 125,000 vehicles per day.  (As traffic expert Norm Marshall has shown these “over-capacity” estimates amount to forecasting the impossible, but neatly serve the interests of highway advocates).

Doubling the size of the I-65 crossing was needed, according to the project’s supplemental EIS in order to assure that the project could carry about 185,000 vehicles per day when completed:

Specifically, the combination of new bridges in the Downtown and Far East corridors would result in the Kennedy Bridge operating at 74 percent of capacity in 2025.

With a capacity of 250,000 vehicles per day (double the 6-lane Kennedy Bridge), the 74 percent of capacity implies a forecast level of travel of 185,000 vehicles per day in 2025.  Now, based on the impact of tolling, it’s doubtful that the bridges will ever carry more than a third of their designed capacity, and the much lower level of traffic on I-65 predicted for the 2050s shows that the project was a colossal blunder, wasting a billion dollars.  It’s a blunder that future Louisville area residents will be paying for—for decades to come.

 

 

 

The opposite of planning: Why Metro should stop I-5 Bridge con

Portland’s Metro regional government would be committing planning malpractice and enabling lasting fiscal and environmental damage if it goes along with state highway department freeway widening plans

  • The proposed $5 billion, 5-mile long, 12-lane freeway I-5 bridge project is being advanced based on outdated traffic projections using 2005 data.
  • ODOT is pushing freeway plans piecemeal, with no acknowledgement that they are creating new bottlenecks.
  • Freeway plans fail to address climate change and don’t acknowledge that new capacity will produce additional travel and increased greenhouse gases
  • I-5 bridge plans are inconsistent with adopted state, regional and city commitments to use road pricing to manage demand, which would obviate the need for expensive capacity
  • ODOT and WSDOT have not produced a viable financing plan for the project, which would be the region’s most expensive, and which has a $3.4 billion financial hole.

In theory, Portland has a smart approach to regional planning.  It has a directly elected regional government, with strong planning authority over transportation and land use.  That government claims to care deeply about the climate crisis, and regularly touts the sophistication of its transportation modeling team.  And it says it’s looking at how the whole system works to make Portland a greener more just place.

But when it comes to the single largest transportation investment in the region, a proposed $5 billion 5-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway project across the Columbia River, it’s simply abdicating its responsibility and betraying its stated principles.

Next month, the Metro government is being asked to approve $36 million in additional funds for further planning of this massive freeway project.  It should say no.

Supersize Me: The planned $5 billion widening of I-5 (Courtesy:  Bike Portland)

 

This approval is one more brick in the wall of an even larger freeway building plan.  The Oregon Department of Transportation is pushing an entire series of freeway widening efforts, including the $1.2 billion Rose Quarter project, $5 billion for the mis-named “I5 Bridge Program” and billions more for widening I-205 and I-5 at the Boone Bridge in Wilsonville.

In theory, a regional planning agency would be guided by current, accurate data and scientifically based models.  It would insist on knowing how each project fitted into a larger, long-term vision of how roads and transportation system would work.  It would insist on knowing what a project will cost, how it will be paid for, and who will pay for it.  And if it has committed itself to pricing roadways, it should know how pricing will affect demand before it commits billions on capacity that may not be needed or valued.  And if it is serious about its oft-repeated commitments to tackling climate change, it should insist that its investments actually result in fewer vehicle miles traveled, and less greenhouse gases.

In practice, Portland Metro has done none of these essential things as it has considered the I-5 Bridge.

No forecasts. Most fundamentally and technocratically, ODOT has not prepared, and Metro has not reviewed or analyzed current traffic forecasts that show the actual and projected demand for the I-5 bridge. The foundation of any road project is estimates of the future level of traffic the roadway is expected to carry.  Just last week, the staff working on the bridge project admitted that after more than two years of work to revive the failed CRC, they have no new traffic forecasts, and won’t have any for at least another year.  That hasn’t stopped them from claiming that they know just how big the project should be (they say “ten lanes”) and from claiming that other alternatives won’t meet the project’s purpose and need.  (As we’ve noted before, the two DOTs may claim it’s a “ten lane” project, but they’re planning on building a structure that would easily accomodate a dozen freeway lanes).

The last traffic projections prepared for the I-5 bridge as part of the project’s environmental impact statement date back more than a decade, and are based on data from 2005.

Ruling out alternatives and deciding on the size and design of a highway project before preparing and carefully vetting traffic forecasts is the opposite of planning.

No comprehensive look:  building a badder bottleneck for billions.  As noted earlier, the I-5 bridge project is just one of a series of Portland-area freeway widenings.  Metro should be asking what the region, its environment, and its transportation system would look like with and without all these projects.  Instead, it is considering them only piecemeal.

In effect, this approach amounts to approving the creation of new bottlenecks on the freeway system that will undoubtedly trigger efforts to widen freeways yet again in the future.  The I-5 bridge project would widen I-5 from six to as many as twelve lanes from Vancouver to Victory Boulevard (the project claims its just ten lanes, but in the past it has lied about the actual physical width of the project it plans to build). ODOT is also planning to widen I-5 at the Rose Quarter to as many as ten lanes.  Once these two I-5 projects are complete, a new bottleneck will be formed between them in the three-mile long six-lane wide section of I-5 between the Fremont Bridge and Victory Boulevard, with 12 lanes feeding into six at the north, and 14 lanes (I-5 plus I-405) feeding into this stretch of freeway from the south.  ODOT will then no doubt call for the construction of further “auxiliary” lanes) to carry traffic between exits on this newly bottlenecked segment of I-5.  In essence ODOT is building very large funnels at either end of this six-lane stretch of I-5 North, which will predictably lead to further traffic congestion, more pollution, and additional demands to waste billions of dollars widening roads to accommodate this traffic.

As Metro staff noted in their comments on the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the Oregon Department of Transportation routinely lies about the fact that it is expanding freeway capacity.  It wrote of ODOT’s claim that it was not expanding I-5:

This statement is not objectively true and is potentially misleading; auxiliary lanes clearly add capacity.

Piecemeal reviews that approve segments on an ad hoc basis, and don’t consider the long-term effects of encouraging even more car traffic are the opposite of planning.

Not following through on fighting climate change.  The original CRC was conceived with no notion of the seriousness of the climate challenge.  The proponents of the new I5 bridge have steadfastly opposed incorporating climate considerations in the project’s purpose and need statement.  It’s clear from their choice of alternatives (every one includes at least ten lanes of freeway), and claims that the inclusion of sidewalks, bike paths and transit as somehow make the project “climate friendly,” that nothing has changed with this new iterations of the project.  Never mind that the authoritative Induced Travel calculator based on research from the University of California Davis, shows that expanding I-5 to 10  or 12 lanes for five miles would add 155 to 233 million miles of driving and 800,000 to 2.5 million tons of greenhouse gases.  Freeway widening would worsen the climate crisis.

Of course, these calculations don’t include the effects of congestion pricing.  Tolling I-5, which will be needed to pay for this project, would likely reduce and divert traffic (as we explain below), and ODOT’s own consultants show that tolling would reduce I-5 traffic by enough to entirely eliminate the need for widening I-5 at all.  If the project manages somehow not to be tolled (as many in Clark County want) it would tend to produce vastly more traffic and pollution, as estimated by this calculator.

At $5 billion, the proposed I-5 bridge project is the largest single spending item in the Regional Transportation Plan.  If Metro isn’t going to undertake a serious appraisal of the greenhouse gas impacts of building or not building this freeway then it doesn’t really have a climate strategy.

Metro is officially on record as supporting efforts to address climate change.  Metro has said it wants to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2035.  But so far, its efforts have yielded no decline in emissions.  And greenhouse gas emissions from transportation  in metro Portland have actually increased by 1,000 pounds per person in the past five years.  Metro has so far done nothing, and this and other freeway widening projects will make pollution worse.

At best, the I-5 bridge advocates pay lip service to climate issues, completely ignoring the effects of added road capacity on likely travel volumes and greenhouse gases, and instead making vague and unquantified claims that pedestrian and bike facilities on the bridge, plus transit improvements will somehow ameliorate the climate damage done by doubling freeway capacity.

Approving funding for a climate polluting freeway widening project, and failing to insist on developing a more climate friendly alternative way of spending $5 billion is the opposite of planning, and a betrayal of Metro’s stated climate commitments.

A failure to plan for road-pricing.  The State Legislature, ODOT, the City of Portland and Metro have all said that road pricing will be a key component of the region’s future transportation system.  Pricing can help better manage roadways, reduce peak hour traffic, lower the need for additional capacity, and provide funding for maintenance and equitable alternatives.  Metro should not approve a $5 billion freeway project without a clear idea of how the project integrates with a system of road pricing—and yet ODOT and WSDOT have done essentially nothing to integrate these two concepts.

ODOT faces a profound dilemma with regard to road pricing.  Its financial analysis counts on at least $1.4 billion in revenue from tolling the I-5 bridge.  But the project is being sized and designed as if it needs to handle 180,000 vehicles per day, based on traffic projections—outdated, using 2005 data, and built using a model that ODOT concedes can’t address the effect of tolling.

But imposing tolls will profoundly reduce traffic growth.  ODOT’s own consultants, in work completed after the CRC FEIS, have said that the proposed tolls on the I-5 bridges would reduce traffic levels on the bridge from their current level of approximately 130,000 trips per day to only 85,000.  (And this is a firm that routinely over-estimates traffic on toll roads).  Road pricing could dramatically reduce the need for expensive infrastructure.  Yet ODOT has not incorporated the traffic-reducing effects of tolling into its design or alternatives analysis.  They are treating it purely as a financial afterthought:  a way to pay for a over-sized roadway after they’ve borrowed billions of dollars to build it.  That’s exactly what Louisville did with a remarkably similar project (widening I-65 from 6 to 12 lanes across the Ohio River); there $1 tolls caused traffic to fall by almost half.

Louisville’s I-65 bridges at rush hour: $1 tolls eliminated tens of thousands of daily trips

If Metro were to demand that road pricing be implemented before squandering billions on this project, it would likely find that the region had more than adequate transportation capacity across the Columbia River. A region that says it is going to implement road pricing doesn’t commit to a multi-billion dollar freeway project based on outdated projections, and subsidize expensive freeway capacity that won’t be needed in a world with pricing. Going deeply into debt for a megaproject and failing to consider how paying for it will reduce traffic is the opposite of planning.

No financial viability.  At $5 billion or more, this will be the most expensive transportation project in this region for the next couple of decades.In theory, the project should be part of the region’s “financially constrained” regional transportation plan, but the budget documents prepared by the state DOT staffs show that they don’t know the actual cost of the project, and that there is a massive, $3.4 billion hole in the project’s budget.  Moving ahead with no clear idea how the project would be paid for is opposite of planning.

The original CRC effort foundered a decade ago because there was no stomach for its excessive costs in either Oregon or Washington.  Congressman Peter DeFazio famously declared the project to be a gold-plated monstrosity.   In the Oregonian on August 14, 2011, Representative DeFazio said:

“I kept on telling the project to keep the costs down, don’t build a gold-plated project,” a clearly frustrated DeFazio said. “How can you have a $4 billion project? They let the engineers loose, told them to solve all the region’s infrastructure problems in one fell swoop… They need to get it all straight and come up with a viable project, a viable financing plan that can withstand a vigorous review.”
(Manning, Jeff. “Columbia River Crossing could be a casualty of the federal budget crunch”, The Oregonian, August 14, 2011).
Later, Representative DeFazio told Oregon Public Broadcasting:
“I said, how can it cost three or four billion bucks to go across the Columbia River?  . . . The Columbia River Crossing problem was thrown out to engineers, it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”
“Think Out Loud,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, August 18, 2011.

Ten years ago, the two state DOT’s squandered nearly $200 million on planning without first securing the needed funds for the project, and they are repeating this exact failed strategy today.  Now, in their efforts to revive the project, after two years of work, the project has not developed a definitive financial plan, and its estimates of Oregon’s needed contribution have inexplicably jumped by more than $150 million in a month.  ODOT and WSDOT are spending millions—$200 million is planned for staff and consultants before this project breaks ground—with no clear idea of how this will be paid for.

This amendment adds $71 million to the preliminary engineering (PE) phase of the IBR Program. With this change, the total available budget will change to $80 million ($45M from Oregon and $35M from Washington). The estimated PE cost to complete NEPA for the IBR program is approximately $135 million based on a completion of a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) in mid-2024. Following NEPA completion, the IBR program will develop a program delivery plan and progress with right-of-way acquisitions and final design to prepare for the start construction in late 2025. The estimated PE cost for progressing final design to start the first phase of construction is estimated at approximately $70 million. In summary, the total estimate of PE to begin the first phase of construction is estimated to be approximately $205 million. This estimate is contingent on the scope of the IBR solution, as agreed to by program partners, that will be evaluated through the SEIS along with the scope of the program’s first construction phase. Right-of-way costs and construction costs are not included in this budget estimate.

[Chris Ford, Memo to Metro TPAC, “I-5:Columbia River (Interstate) Bridge: Requested Amendment to the 2021-24 Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program.” Oregon Department of Transportation. September 24, 2021, aka ODOT/Ford Memo. Page 6. Emphasis added.)

The prospect for Build Back Better and a national infrastructure funding package is no reason to move ahead with a misguided, environmentally destructive bridge project.  Oregon and Washington will get their share of these monies whether they build this project, or whether they choose to use these funds more wisely.  A regional government that cared about the future would ask “what is the smartest possible use of $5 billion” rather than approving this project.

Cannibalizing maintenance to pay for megaprojects.  This particular project is a particularly egregious example of how state DOT’s beg for money by complaining that they don’t have enough money to fix potholes, but then use any additional revenue they can find to build massive new projects that simply increase the maintenance burden.  This project is no exception, ODOT is literally asking Metro to approve the reallocation of funds that would otherwise be used for maintenance to pay for planning the megaproject.

ODOT is reducing money for road maintenance and repair to hire consultants for this megaproject.  ODOT’s own memo makes this clear.

This project change requires adjustment to the fiscally constrained RTP. Funds from the fiscally constrained Fix-It buckets in the RTP will be reduced to allow for the $36M ODOT funds to be advanced on this project. Memo with details was sent to Metro 9/17/21 by Chris Ford. We find the analysis is still applicable with the addition of WDOT funds since RTP focuses on Oregon revenue only.

[ODOT/Ford Memo. page 12, Emphasis added.]

Diverting money from maintenance funds to pay for a megaproject is the opposite of planning.

This is a pivotal moment for Metro.  As former Metro President David Bragdon (who guided the agency through the original Columbia River Crossing) wrote in retrospect:

Leadership at ODOT frequently told me things that were not true, bluffed about things they did not know, made all sorts of misleading claims, and routinely broke promises. They continually substituted PR and lobbying gambits in place of sound engineering, planning and financial acumen, treating absolutely everything as merely a challenge of spin rather than matters of dollars or physical reality.

That history is important, because if you’re not honest about the patterns of the past, you are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, I understand that’s exactly what’s going on with the rebranded CRC: the same agencies, and even some of the same personalities who failed so spectacularly less than a decade ago – wasting nearly $200 million and building absolutely nothing – have inexplicably been rewarded for their failure by being given license to try the very same task, using the very same techniques of bamboozlement.

Metro has a choice: It can repeat the mistakes of the past and bow to the wishes of an entrenched highway building bureaucracy, or it can do its job, and live up to its professed values.  It can plan.  It can insist on accurate travel projections, it can demand a definitive finance plan, it can require that freeway construction be addressed comprehensively, rather than piecemeal, it can require that the vision for capacity be integrated with congestion pricing, and it can require a full financial plan before squandering more on planning this speculative project.  And above all, it can insist that the region’s next multi-billion dollar transportation project reduce greenhouse gases, rather than increase them.  Anything less would be the opposite of planning.

Oregon, Washington advance I-5 bridge based on outdated traffic projections

The Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation are advancing their $5 billion freeway widening plan based on outdated 15-year-old traffic projections. No new projections have been prepared since the 2007 estimates used in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement,

The two state DOTs are essentially “flying blind” assuming that out-dated traffic projections provide a reasonable basis for sizing and designing and new bridge, and rejecting other alternatives.

The two agencies have spent two years and tens of millions of dollars but not done the most basic preliminary work to accurately predict future traffic levels.

The Oregon DOT has specifically violated Governor Kate Brown’s pledge that new traffic analyses would be done prior to determining the “best solution” for the I-5 bridge project.

The two agencies have no plans to publish new traffic studies until mid-to-late 2022—months after determining a final design and asking for other local sponsors to approve.

The justification for spending upwards of $5 billion on a massive expansion of the I-5 freeway between Vancouver and Portland—a project misleadingly branded as a mere “bridge replacement”—is the notion that there will be a huge increase in traffic between the two cities.  That notion is based on traffic forecasts prepared by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation.  As with all transportation projects, estimates of how much demand there will be are key to deciding whether projects are needed and justified, for determining how they’ll be designed and what their worth, and critically, assessing their environmental impacts.

Traffic Projections for the I-5 Bridge are based on 15 year old data

When it comes to the “I-5 Bridge Replacement Project,” which has been proceeding for more than two years, there are no new traffic projections.  The latest traffic numbers the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation are from the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, published in 2011.  They predict that without the project, traffic on the I-5 bridge will increase to 184,000 vehicles per day, and produce high levels of congestion.

Columbia River Crossing Final Environmental Impact Statement , 2011, Chapter 3, page 3-30.

 

These numbers are the same as were presented in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, published in 2008.  In fact, the traffic analysis for the project was completed in 2007, and is based on traffic data gathered in 2005.

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Columbia River Crossing Draft Environmental Impact Statement , 2008, Traffic Technical Report, page 47

How, it is reasonable to ask, is it possible to plan for a $5 billion project without bothering to update the most fundamental data used to design, justify, and evaluate the environmental impacts of the project?

Traffic Projections are Central to Project Design and Environmental Impact

The basis for any major transportation investment is some sort of careful statistical analysis to project future travel volumes.  How many people might travel in a region or a corridor, and what are the various options for accommodating their travel?  The statistical models used to generate these data, should, in theory, inform the design of particular alternatives and shape the choices.  In particular, traffic forecasts are essential to evaluating the environmental effects of alternatives:  which alternative will have lower levels of pollution?

We have many concerns about the quality and biases built into the models used by state Departments of Transportation, but without a doubt, these statistical estimates are in theory, the intellectual foundation for any claims about the need for a project.  Without traffic estimates, highway engineers are simply predicating key project decisions on their personal opinions rather than demonstrated facts.  In this case, the engineers guiding the I-5 bridge project are engaged in nothing more than faith-based project planning.

For the past two years, the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation have been trying to revive the corpse of the Columbia River Crossing, a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that died in 2014.  In the process, they’ve told a series of lies, beginning with the false claim that unless they move forward with the moribund project, that they’d have to repay $140 million in federal money spent on planning the original project.  (That’s not true!).

In September, the staff of the misnamed “Interstate Bridge Replacement Program” debuted their final and definitive list of project alternatives.  Every one of them is centered on a something labeled as a ten lane bridge, with typical illustrations like this:

If the past is any guide, the agency will draw pictures of a ten-lane bridge, but then size it to accomodate 12 or 14 lanes of traffic—exactly what they did with the failed Columbia River Crossing.  In reality the project is likely to look like these renderings of the Columbia River Crossing—12- or 14- lane, five-mile long freeway.

In the process, the staff has ruled out a range of other alternatives, like improving transit, instituting pricing, improving local connections, and constructing a supplemental bridge, rather than a replacement.  The staff published a series of memos in August, 2021, claiming, based on technical work done by the original CRC process more than a decade ago,  that these alternatives “failed to meet the project’s purpose and need,” the first item of which is “growing travel demand and congestion.” Whether any of these alternatives can meet “growing travel demand” and result in lower congestion depends critically on the assumptions one makes about future levels of traffic.  Similarly, the as yet un-resolved question of how wide the bridge needs to be also hinges on these same traffic forecasts.

For two years, ODOT has disobeyed Governor Brown’s order to prepare new forecasts first

The need for updated forecasts was recognized when the project was revived in 2019.  At the time, Governor Kate Brown promised that a first order of business would be revised forecasts to shape the project.  On November 18, 2019, Brown said:

“I think what else is key is that we’re going to be doing a traffic analysis ahead of time to help us determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge Replacement Project.”

Clearly, Governor Brown envisioned that we would do a traffic study first—”ahead of time”—and allow the data to shape decision.  But that’s not what has happened.  Let’s turn the microphone over to Clark County Today, which specifically asked the managers of the bridge project the status of their traffic projections, which were originally promised  in 2019.

It is now almost two years later. Has the IBRP team conducted a new traffic analysis to determine what’s the best solution for the I-5 Bridge replacement project? Clark County Today asked for the details of any traffic analysis.

“The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program is currently collecting new traffic data and conducting preliminary traffic modeling that will be used to inform the evaluation of preliminary design options that will be considered to identify the IBR solution early next year,” said Frank Green, IBR assistant program administrator. “More in-depth traffic modeling is expected to be completed in mid to late 2022 as a critical component of the federal environmental review process.”

The IBRP team has no plans to release forecasts until after making design decisions

That timetable was confirmed at the December meeting of the project’s Executive Steering Committee.  The project’s schedule calls for developing a resolution defining a “locally preferred alternative” by April 2022, and securing endorsements of that solution by June 2022.

 

Meanwhile, ODOT and WSDOT have no plans to complete serious traffic modeling—which would address the impact of tolling on traffic levels—for two or three more years.  In its November presentation on its tolling plans, the agencies made it clear that they are putting off serious “investment grade” forecasts—like the ones made for the CRC, which showed traffic on I-5 would never recover to pre-construction levels, until 2025.

What this means in practice, is that the only traffic projections that the project has were the ones prepared for its original environmental analysis.  These were published originally in 2008, and based on 2005 base year data.  As a practical matter, ODOT and WSDOT are planning this bridge based on data that is now more than 15 years out of date.

Pushing for a decision before updating traffic forecasts is engineering malpractice, and violated NEPA

When the project managers say that they need to build a bridge that is at least 10 lanes wide, it’s based on these outdated projections, rather than current, accurate information.  This isn’t so much fact-based engineering as it is faith-based speculation.  They’ve decided the bridge needs a minimum of ten travel lanes, without first doing a traffic forecast. The I-5 Bridge Project’s Manager has made it clear for nearly a year—well in advance of any technical analyses or any new traffic information—that they’ve already decided what they’re going to do.  Clark County Today summarized a January, 2021 presentation by Greg Johnson:

During discussions at Monday’s EAG meeting, Administrator Johnson made the following statement.
“One of the things that I also tell folks, if you’re here and you think we’re going to talk about a third bridge, or we’re going to talk about not doing the Interstate Bridge, you’re in the wrong meeting.  The whether we’re gonna do this has been decided. “

John Ley, “Revelations surface from the two ‘advisory’ group meetings on the Interstate Bridge,” Clark County Today, January 28, 2021.

Saying that the project must be ten lanes wide, or claiming that other alternatives don’t adequately meet the project’s stated purpose and need are, in the absence of traffic forecasts, simply arbitrary and capricious.  The fact that project managers have repeatedly made definitive statements that no other options will be considered, and that the bridge will be ten lanes wide before even undertaking traffic analysis, shows that they have no intention of allowing the data to drive their decisions, and are signalling that they will cook the modeling to justify this pre-made decision about the project’s size and scope.

Concealing or lying about traffic models is nothing new for ODOT. When it released its environmental assessment for the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project, it entirely omitted any data on “average daily traffic”—the most basic yardstick of travel volumes, and also purposely concealed its modeling assumption that its base year, 2015 traffic volumes were based on the entirely fictional assumption that the I-5 Columbia River Crossing had already been built. As we’ve said, this is the opposite of planning.

 

 

Here’s what’s wrong with Oregon DOT’s Rose Quarter pollution claims

10 reasons not to believe phony DOT claims that widening highways reduces pollution

We know that transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and that our car dependent transportation system is the reason Americans drive so much more and consequently produce far more greenhouse gases per capita than residents of other wealthy countries.  Scientists have shown that building more and wider roads stimulates more driving, longer trips, and more decentralized land use patterns, reinforcing car dependence.

With this entire vicious cycle well-documented, it’s hard to imagine anyone arguing that a widened urban freeway would  be good for the environment, but for state DOTs and their paid apologists, it’s a frequent claim.  They’ve created trumped up projections that claim traffic and pollution will be greater if we don’t build freeways.  These are false claims, and today we take a close look at how this plays out in one egregious, if typical, project.

For years, we’ve been following the Oregon Department of Transportation’s proposed I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project.  The project would widen a mile-and-half long stretch of Interstate 5 in downtown Portland at that has recently ballooned to $1.2 billion.

A key part of the agency’s argument is that this freeway widening project—exactly unlike every other one that has ever been undertaken—will have essentially no impact on air pollution or greenhouse gases.  They make the fanciful claim in their Environmental Assessment that the not widening the freeway (the “no-build” option) will somehow produce more pollution than the eight- or ten-lane freeway their plans shown they’re really intending to build.  In this commentary we sketch ODOT’s claims, and present a 10-point rebuttal.

A long list of false environmental claims from Oregon DOT

Recently, a Portlander interested in the project contacted us, asking us to comment on ODOT’s Environmental Assessment, which makes these claims:

  • Traffic operations would improve on I-5 in both the AM and PM time periods, . . .
  •  Conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists would improve from increased travel route options, improved ramp terminal intersections, physical separation from motorized users, and reduced complexity of intersections.
  • Overall, the Regional Travel Demand Model results did not indicate trip increases on I-5 much beyond the Project limits (i.e., no induced demand). The 5 to 14 percent trip increase on I-5 within the Project Area is expected for an auxiliary lane project intended to improve flow between entrance ramps and exit ramps and is indicative of primarily local through-traffic.
  • While consideration of greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change has not been a NEPA requirement for EAs and EISs since the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) withdrew its previous guidance on April 5, 2017, ODOT included an analysis of climate change in the Project EA due to the high level of agency and stakeholder interest in these issues. As reported in Section 3.5 of the EA, the 2045 operational greenhouse gas emission total for the Build Alternative is projected to decrease by approximately 22 percent compared to the 2017 emission total due to federal, state, and local efforts to develop more stringent fuel economy standards and vehicle inspection and maintenance programs and the transition to cleaner low carbon fuels for motor vehicles. These trends are expected to continue over the life of the Build Alternative. The Build Alternative would contribute to this reduction due to higher speeds, less stop-and-go traffic, and less idling on I-5. Therefore, no mitigation is proposed.

Ten reasons not to believe Oregon DOT’s false claims

There is so much that is false and misleading about these claims about traffic, air pollution and greenhouse gases that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  We’ve written about all these phony claims at City Observatory.  Here are ten reasons why everyone should ignore ODOT’s environmental analysis of this project.

1. Traffic projections assume that a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway was built just north of this project in 2015.  Hidden in the Rose Quarter’s traffic forecasting is an assumption that a massive, multi-billion dollar Columbia River Crossing was built as part of the “no-build”–and finished five years ago. The project is still in limbo in 2021.  This inflates traffic and increases congestion in the Rose Quarter in the “no-build,” and makes the “build” look better than it is.

2. ODOT concealed plans that show it is widening the I-5 roadway enough to accomodate 8 or 10 lanes of traffic.  Two years after ODOT published the environmental assessment we uncovered true plans for a 160-foot roadway. But its traffic modeling assumes that the freeway is expanded only from four to six lanes.   Modeling an 8-  or 10-lane road would show much more traffic and pollution.

Secret ODOT documents showed plans for 160 foot roadway, enough for a 10-lane freeway.

3. ODOT’s Rose Quarter Forecasts forecasts are completely inconsistent with the forecasts they prepared for the CRC and as part of ODOT’s own road pricing work.  Those forecasts show much lower traffic on I-5 in the RQ in the “no build” scenario.  By inflating the base case, and ignoring induced demand, the Rose Quarter forecasts cook the GHG and pollution estimates and hide the negative impacts of the project.  (For details, see the section labeled “Two sets of books”, at the end of this commentary).

4. ODOT frequently claims that “pollution will be lower in the future”—but this is entirely due to assumptions about a cleaner vehicle fleet (more electric vehicles, tougher mileage standards for remaining internal combustion cars).

“. . . operational greenhouse gas emission total for the Build Alternative is projected to decrease by approximately 22 percent compared to the 2017 emission total .  . .”

This is a classic red herring:  You get these emission reductions whether you build this project or not. It’s simply irrelevant to deciding which options to choose. And, for what it’s worth, neither electric vehicle adoption or higher fuel economy standards accomplishing as much as ODOT hoped; in fact greenhouse gas emissions from driving are up in Portland by 1,000 pounds per person

5. In response to these criticisms, ODOT routinely claims that its air quality analysis was validated by a  “peer review panel”.  The panel was a whitewash:  it wasn’t provided with any of the critiques of traffic models and air quality analysis, held no public meetings, and explicitly chose to ignore road pricing, which they admitted could greatly affect project outcomes.  Former ODOT Director Grace Crunican, who ran the review, testified that the group didn’t look at the traffic projections to see if they were reasonable or accurate, they just took them at face value. The phony traffic numbers generate phony air quality estimates.

6. There is a strong scientific consensus on induced demand, with multiple studies in the US, Europe and Japan.  Wider roads means more travel.  ODOT and other highway agencies simply ignore the science.

When pressed, professional staff ODOT and PBOT admitthis project will do nothing to reduce daily “recurring” congestion at the Rose Quarter—invalidating claims that it will produce less idling.

7. At City Observatory, we’ve developed a version of the induced travel calculator created by the University of California Davis to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from the Rose Quarter project.  Its verdict:  Widening the roadway will increase emissions by adding 17.4 to 34.8 million miles of vehicle travel and 7.8 to 15.5 thousand tons of greenhouse gases per year.

8. Highway engineers love to pretend that greenhouse gases are caused primarily by cars having to idle in traffic, and they we can fight global warming by getting cars moving faster. That’s a myth:  Improving traffic flow generates more total miles of travel which overwhelms any savings from less idling.  Also:  Cars generate more GHG per mile at speeds over 50 MPH than below (something ODOT never mentions).  Wider, faster freeways mean both more vehicle miles traveled and more greenhouse gases generated per mile traveled.  This is validated scientifically by a paper published by two scholars at Portland State University.

9. Like most state DOT’s Oregon DOT uses an outdated and flawed traffic modeling approach that fails to accurately incorporate the effects of induced demand.  These static, four-step models consistently over-estimate traffic levels and congestion for no-build scenarios, and under-estimate or completely ignored the added travel induced by creating more capacity.

10. Globally, the only strategy that’s convincingly been shown to lower congestion is road pricing, which the Oregon Legislature approved for this stretch of I-5 in 2017.  Oregon DOT failed to examine road pricing as an alternative in its 2019 Environmental Assessment.  ODOT’s own consultants say pricing I-5 would obviate any need to add lanes at the Rose Quarter.

Governor Brown ordered ODOT to look at road pricing as part of its environmental review of the project in late 2019; but the agency has simply ignored her instruction.

ODOT is keeping two separate sets of books for its I-5 traffic estimates.

There’s no question that the traffic estimates created to sell the Rose Quarter project were rigged to make the “No Build” look worse.  At the same time it generated the Rose Quarter forecasts, ODOT hired another firm to estimate future traffic on this same stretch of roadway in 2027.  It came up with dramatically lower levels of I-5 traffic in the “no-build” world.

In May 2018, at the same time it was preparing I-5 forecasts for the Rose Quarter project, ODOT also contracted for modeling of I-5 traffic for the legislatively adopted congestion pricing plan. These are contained in a report from ODOT: https://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/Value%20Pricing%20PAC/VP_TM3-Final-InitialConceptEvaluatio n.pdf

These data include baseline estimates of traffic on Interstate 5 in the Portland metropolitan area for the year 2027. The study has baseline estimates, that project future traffic conditions in the absence of congestion pricing. This study uses an I-5 cordon line North of the project area corresponds to N. Skidmore Street, which is just two blocks from the I-5 cordon line used for the Rose Quarter projections. The following table compares the projected 2027 volumes in the congestion pricing study at this cordon line with the VISUM Rose Quarter 2015 volumes. This shows that the volumes used in the VISUM model for 2015 are 21 to 37 percent higher than the expected volumes in 2027, according to the congestion pricing baseline model.

I-5 North Volumes from two ODOT models
Northbound Southbound Total Difference
Time Period RQ VISUM Model (2015)
AM Peak 8AM-9AM 4,370 4,631 9,001 37%
PM Peak 5PM-6PM 4,424 4,855 9,279 21%
Conges on Pricing Study (2027)
AM Peak 8AM-9AM 3,255 3,337 6,592
PM Peak 5PM-6PM 3,803 3,860 7,663
RQ VISUM Model, “Mainline North of Going, 2015 No Build”
Conges on Pricing Study, “Interstate Br.-Skidmore” Baseline Traffic Performance

This analysis suggests that the traffic numbers, particularly north of the Rose Quarter project area are much higher than would be expected in another arguably reasonable forecast of traffic conditions. Given the expectation of growing traffic levels in the ODOT Rose Quarter modelling, one would expect that 2027 I-5 traffic levels would be considerably higher, not lower than 2015 levels. The fact that two models, prepared for the same agency, in the same month, produce two such different pictures of traffic levels suggests that the model results are highly sensitive to the assumptions and input values used by the modelers. These key values and assumptions have generally not been provided to the public for review, making it impossible for independent, third parties to understand, replicate, and analyze the summary results presented in the Environmental Assessment.

Climate efforts must be cost effective

Portland’s $60 million a year clean energy fund needs climate accountability

Any grant writer can spin a yarn that creates the illusion that a given project will have some sort of climate benefits, but if you’re actually investing real money, you should insist on a payback in the coin of the climate realm:  a measurable and significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  That standard isn’t being met, mostly because even the most basic questions aren’t being asked of projects submitted for funding by Portland’s Clean Energy Fund.

Former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick, and long-time Chair of the Oregon Global Warming Council, Angus Duncan are demanding that Portland’s $60 million per year clean energy fund have at least minimal performance standards when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases.  A bit of background:  using the city’s initiative process, activists forwarded a ballot measure to create a gross receipts tax on larger businesses, with the proceeds dedicated to clean energy investments.  The voters approved the measure by a wide margin, and the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) now is making grants to community groups for projects to promote greater energy efficiency, and, at least in theory, reduce greenhouse gases.  But in practice there are real concerns that the dispensation of grants is advancing either climate or equity considerations. As Novick and Duncan wrote in their Op-Ed:

Already, the fund has issued grants for projects that have nothing to do with climate or equity, including $100,000 for a rooftop garden on a yoga studio. For the program’s long-term success, we should ensure that the fund supports proposals tied to specific outcomes and cost-effectiveness goals. Unfortunately, the fund’s proposed scoring criteria do not provide any such benchmarks. Indeed, they are not really focused on outcomes at all.

The underlying problem is that PCEF doesn’t have clear standards for defining what constitutes either equity, or cost-effective greenhouse gas reductions.  According to Novick and Duncan, the application process is a kind of affinity-demonstrating beauty contest, with applicants chosen chiefly for the meritorious origins of the sponsoring organization rather than the characteristics of the project.

For example, applicants for large-scale grants of up to $10 million can earn no more than 8 points out of 100 for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Think about that: “Clean Energy Fund” applicants could, apparently, get 92 points out of 100 without reducing greenhouse gas emissions at all. Meanwhile, applicants can only lose 5 points if their proposal will not “realistically result in intended outcomes.” So, you could get 95 out of 100 points even if your project has no realistic chance of succeeding. Applicants get a large number of points for “characteristics of the organization” categories, which may be important, but not more than actual results. The selection committee could simply require that organizational applicants meet certain criteria for diversity, etc., rather than allowing applicants to make up for a lack of substance by accumulating “organizational” points.

The idea of setting up a public sector fund to advance the twin goals of promoting equity and reducing greenhouse gases has considerable merit, but if it’s going to make any difference in either area, it needs to insist on measurable results and clear accountability.  The current PCEF regulations do very little to achieve this fundamental need.  Portland’s voters, historically disadvantaged communities, and the environment all deserve better.

A net zero blind spot

Stanford claims its campus will be 100 percent solar powered . . . provided you ignore cars.

A flashy news release caught our eye this week.  Stanford University is reporting that its campus will be 100 percent powered by solar energy very soon.

In the echo chamber that is social media, that claim got a lot of attention and repetition, and predictably morphed into an even more sweeping accomplishment.  Climate Solutions tweeted that Stanford would be the first major university to achieve 100 percent clean energy.

To be clear, Stanford’s press release didn’t make that claim, but any time you tout “hashtag 100 percent” anything, people tend to focus on the “100” and not on the universe to which that is applied.  When you read the fine print, it’s clear that the “100 percent” claim applies only the the campus buildings, not to how students, faculty, staff and visitor actually get to and from the campus to for education, research and entertainment.

Buildings get a lot of attention; you have to use energy to heat, light, and cool them, and run computers and other equipment, but as with the rest of America, the far bigger source of energy use and carbon emissions is not the buildings themselves, but the energy and pollution generated by traveling to and from them.  In California, cars account for 5 times as much greenhouse gas production (28 percent) as all commercial buildings (5.5 percent).

In the case of Stanford University, The “100 percent  solar” claims definitely doesn’t include the campus’s nearly 20,000 parking spaces, most of which are used by internal combustion fueled cars.   About 58 percent of those working on campus arrive by private car. And that produces vastly more carbon emissions that just building operations.

To its credit, in recent years, the university has been taking steps to build more on-campus housing, and to meet the travel demand from expansion without increasing the total number of car trips, but it’s still the case that cars and travel are the university’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.  So far the university’s own sustainability plan has counted mostly building-related emissions, and avoided counting what it classifies as “Scope 3” emissions associated with university travel.  They’re planning to address those emissions in the future.

While it’s technically true that the building energy may come from solar, it’s important to recognize that the buildings have no utility unless people travel to and from them on a regular basis.  The parking lots, and the cars they service are an integral–and in fact dominant–part of the university’s carbon footprint.  It’s all well and good to celebrate greater use of solar power, but before anyone makes “100 percent” or zero net carbon about any particular institution, they would do well to consider all their emissions, not just one component.

 

Insurance and the Cost of Living: Homeowners Insurance

Yesterday, we explored the differences in car insurance premiums in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Today, we will take a look at homeowners insurance rates. Unlike car insurance, homeowners insurance is not required in states. Still, this insurance can be required by a mortgage lender, and it is an important action to protect one’s home. Premiums vary across the US, with location being one of the strongest determinants of price. Differences in weather, proximity to disaster-prone areas, crime rates, and density can vary home insurance rates across different metropolitan areas. We will explore these variations in insurance premiums and consider how it might affect the overall cost of living. 

Home insurance rates are important to examine right now because of the growing impact of climate change on our built environments. Differences in insurance costs among cities may become even larger in the years ahead.  The growth in wildfires and extreme weather events associated with climate change has already produced record insurance payouts. Insurance models are generally based upon historical data. They calculate the expected payout and create prices accordingly. What happens when climate change shifts trends in unpredictable ways? Just last year, disaster payouts from reinsurers, the firms that insure the insurance companies, were the fifth highest in history. Climate change prompts insurance companies, and the “re-insurers” who share these risks to reevaluate their rate-setting models. When the risk for payout increases, so does the cost of insurance. Mother Nature plays a crucial role when considering insurance rates. Nature’s volatility can significantly heighten your premiums.

Which cities have the least (and most) expensive home insurance rates?

Home insurance rates have similar variables that impact the rates across the country. The greater the likelihood for damage to the home, the more expensive the rate will be. We used Insure.com data to compile the average annual home insurance rates across 52 of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. Unfortunately, Insure.com did not have any estimates for Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA. The site did not have clear methodologies on the rate, however, it was uniform throughout so we can examine the relative differences across these metro areas. Among the large metro areas, the median rate was $2118.  (Cities have somewhat higher rates than rural areas, which is why the large city median is north of the national average of $1631). 

The cities with the highest home insurance rates were Miami, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Detroit. The lowest home insurance rates were found in San Jose, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. Among large metro areas, California appears to be the cheapest state to insure your home. In fact, with Seattle, Portland, and Las Vegas all below the 25th percentile as well, the West Coast proves to be a relatively inexpensive place to insure your home. The South? Not so much. Eight Southern cities are above the 75th percentile. 

The risk of extreme weather in these regions appears to be a significant factor for these differences. Miami and New Orleans have hurricane seasons every year. In 2020, there were a record breaking 30 named hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season, with 11 landfalling in the United States. The risk for home damage due to the prevalence of events like this increases insurance rates. As climate change continues to disrupt the trends of the weather, we can expect home insurance rates to rise. Other regions also face their own unique risks: Oklahoma City is in a high risk zone for tornados, fires, and earthquakes. These natural disaster risks push up premiums. While there are wildfire and earthquake risks in the West, they haven’t produced dramatically higher insurance rates—yet. We will likely see changes in this over time as we continue to feel increasing impacts of climate change though. 

Insurance and the Cost of Living

Just like we did yesterday for auto insurance, we compared the BEA’s RPP for Rent with the insurance data below. What we found: a slight negative correlation for homeowners insurance. However, when looking at the graph, you can see California standing out as an outlier, bringing down the correlation. When the RPP for Rent ranges from 80 to 150, there is a clear positive association between the insurance premiums and the price parity. This trend points us to consider that there might be an increasing effect for insurance rates and housing costs.

Let’s consider two cities: Oklahoma City and Seattle. According to Insure.com, the average annual homeowners insurance rate in Oklahoma City is $6045, while Seattle’s average rate is $1214. Clearly, there is a notable difference between these two premiums. When we compared the sprawl tax to cost of living, we used estimates of rent differential as a benchmark for cost of living. The cost of housing varies the most across metropolitan areas, so this was an effective measure for comparison. The typical resident in Oklahoma City paid roughly $2,525 less in annual rent/housing costs compared to the typical large metropolitan area. In Seattle, the typical resident paid approximately $2,055 more. From our Insure.com data, the annual housing insurance premium in Oklahoma City is $3,927 above the median premium across large metro areas. Seattle, on the other hand, has an annual premium that is $904 less than the median rate. These data suggest Oklahoma City’s high homeowner’s insurance rates effectively cancel out the lower rents in the metro area. The cost of housing is heightened significantly by homeowners insurance, placing Seattle and Oklahoma City on roughly the same pedestal. Seattle’s lower cost of insurance made up for the high rents. A cost of living comparison that omits these significant variations in insurance costs probably isn’t reliable.

What’s the relationship between home values and insurance rates?  In general, we would expect that insurance premiums would be higher in cities with expensive housing, as it would be more expensive to repair or replace a home in an expensive metro than a lower priced one.  Overall, there is a positive but modest relationship between home prices and insurance rates. Generally, the more valuable a home is, the more expensive it will be to insure it. 

High homeowners premiums are likely to hike up the cost of living. However, low homeowners premiums in Western metro areas like Seattle, San Jose, and Sacramento at least partially offset higher annual housing costs. In contrast, some seemingly affordable Southern metro areas like New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Memphis could have some or all of their affordability advantage eroded by notably high insurance premiums. These areas are where insurance makes its biggest impact in the overall cost of living. 

Although homeowners insurance isn’t mandated by law like auto insurance, it is widespread and many homeowners regard it as essential, making it an important element to include in cost-of-living comparisons. Auto insurance likely plays a smaller role in the overall cost of living. Owning and insuring a car is not a requirement in all places, so the lack of need for auto insurance (and other car maintenance) could help lower the cost of living. It is difficult to fully quantify the cost of living across different areas because there is value in the external benefits of different cities. These cost of living comparisons struggle to encapture the amenities which cities can provide for their constituents. Still, insurance has the potential to play a mighty role in the cost of living. Auto and home insurance can require thousands of dollars out of consumers’ pockets each year. The impacts of climate change on our world will increase those premiums. Climate change is making a more volatile and uncertain world. As extreme weather risks intensify, the demand for insurance will as well. The role of insurance will heighten as we move into the future and it will be important to keep in mind how hefty the price tag is across the nation. The role in cost of living may not be entirely significant now, but as the world becomes more unpredictable, we could see the price to protect your belongings rise to new heights.

 

 

Note: This post has been updated to provide a link to insure.com‘s website.

Insurance and the Cost of Living: Auto Insurance

Everyone loves to compare the affordability of different cities, and most of the attention gets focused on differences in housing prices and rents. Clearly, these are a major component of living costs, and they vary substantially across the nation.  But as we’ve regularly pointed out at City Observatory, transportation costs also vary widely across cities, and some places that have somewhat more costly housing also have more compact development patterns and less sprawl, and therefore enable their residents to spend less on cars and gasoline for transportation. These differences can create a significant impact on the overall cost of living across cities. We’ve computed the difference in city living costs in our Sprawl Tax report.

There’s another important component to differing living costs across the nation that we think deserves additional attention: insurance costs. Nearly all drivers and the majority of homeowners carry insurance on their cars and homes. Insurance premiums vary widely across the US, based on differences in crash rates, losses to natural disasters, and state-to-state variations in legal standards (as well as other factors). Today we’re going to start looking more closely at these variations—we’ll start with differences in car insurance costs, and tomorrow, look at home insurance.

Car insurance is a requirement for many people living in auto-dependent places. Wide sprawling metropolitan areas often require more miles to be driven for commuting. We are curious about the role that insurance plays in relation to the cost of living. When a car is required to commute to work or the store, insurance is a necessity to protect yourself and the car. The price of insurance is dependent upon one’s personal background as well as the makeup of one’s setting. Location plays a major role, whether it be state policy, natural regional differences, or the composition of the insurance pool around you. Insurance can become a vital and costly expense for Americans. The magnitude of that expense could severely influence the way we view the overall cost of living across major cities. 

Which cities have the least (and most) expensive auto insurance rates?

Using data from TheZebra.com, we compiled the average annual auto insurance premiums across the 53 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The Zebra estimated the typical premium paid by a 30 year old single male driving a Honda Accord. In the typical large US metropolitan area, the average automobile insurance premium is about $1,800 per year.  The rankings of large metros are shown below. Premiums in these large metros are higher than the overall national average auto insurance premium. In general, rural areas have generally lower rates. Insurance companies base their rates upon the perceived risk at obtaining a claim. The more at-risk the company is at receiving a claim, the higher their insurance rates will be. Cities increase the risk, as insurance companies report that claims are higher in urban areas, thus their rates increase accordingly.

The cities with the highest car insurance rates were Detroit, New Orleans, Miami, and New York. Detroit, by far the highest, had an average insurance rate of $6,280. The Motor City has annual prices approximately four times higher than the median rate for large metropolitan areas. The cities with the lowest car insurance premiums were Cincinnati, Charlotte, Virginia Beach, and Raleigh. These annual rates were all between $900 and $1200, significantly lower than the highest tier. Generally inexpensive cities (25th percentile) and generally expensive cities (75th percentile) vary by $670.

Other living cost estimates, like the sprawl tax, vary differently than auto insurance rates. The sprawl tax in particular has less extreme values, yet a wider range of variation across the middle of the data. The median sprawl tax, $1,302, is less than the median insurance rate by roughly $500. At the same time, the sprawl tax in generally inexpensive cities compared to generally expensive cities is nearly $1000, a greater difference than insurance rates. Insurance premiums in the most expensive cities are by far greater than the sprawl tax. These clear outliers make the distribution of auto insurance premiums standout compared to other living cost estimates. 

Another interesting difference can be seen by examining which cities standout across sprawl tax and car insurance. For instance, New Orleans and New York are two of the most expensive cities to insure your car. Yet, they have the lowest sprawl tax. Moreover, five of the ten most expensive cities to insure your car are all below the 25th percentile for the sprawl tax. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between miles traveled and insurance rates. Using data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, we compiled the annual vehicle miles traveled per household across metropolitan areas and compared it to the auto premiums. We assumed that we would see a positive relationship. The more miles you drive, the greater your risk for filing a claim. Instead, we found the opposite – auto insurance rates decreased as annual VMT per household increased.

Insurance rates were lower in the places where people drove more often. Insurance rates were higher in places where people had lower sprawl taxes. Why? Car dependence. In sprawling metropolitan areas, people need to drive themselves to get where they need to go. People are reliant on their cars for nearly all commuting travel, which in turn makes insurance a necessity. Insurance pools grow with more insurers distributing the risk of payout across more people, which consequently decreases rates. Sprawl may have a negative impact on insurance rates because of its impact on the demand for insurance. 

We believe that the structure of insurance policy is a strong contributor in the variation of rates across metro areas. State laws regulate the market for automotive insurance policies, which can be choice no-fault, a tort liability, or a combination of both. A no-fault state means that in the event of an accident, neither driver is deemed “at fault” and both drivers use their insurance to cover their own damages. As a result of this, no-fault states require personal injury protection (PIP) to cover medical costs, economic benefits, and death benefits. This additional protection on top of the ordinary liability can raise prices. Michigan is a no-fault state that also requires personal property insurance (PPI), and Detroit feels the consequences of that. In fact, 6 out of the top 10 cities for annual auto insurance rates (Detroit, Miami, New York, Tampa, Grand Rapids, and Philadelphia) are all in no-fault states. PIP requirements are likely a key player for the higher prices. Starting in July 2020, the state of Michigan readjusted their auto insurance policy to allow the insured to choose their level of PIP. This may lead to reductions in overall costs in the nation’s most expensive city for car insurance.

A city’s demographics are also important to consider when thinking about insurance rates. We have explored discrimination in automobile insurance before at City Observatory. We found that there were higher auto insurance rates in black neighborhoods, even those with safe drivers. Black drivers were found to be less likely to speed, yet they pay substantially more because of living in a predominantly Black neighborhood. A quick look at our data shows that several of the cities with the largest Black populations—Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Baltimore—face some of the highest premiums of all the 53 largest metros. Race and population demographics could help explain some of this variation in average insurance premiums across the country.

Auto Insurance and the Cost of Living

As we explained in our Sprawl Tax series, the Bureau of Economic Analysis Regional Price Parities (RPP) is the most comprehensive measure we have of inter-metropolitan differences in consumer prices. Variations in rents are the largest component of overall cost-of-living variations between cities. But, how does the variation in auto insurance premiums relate to the variation in housing costs? Does the cost of insuring your car significantly change the cost of living? We compared the BEA’s RPP for Rent with the insurance data below. BEA’s RPP for rent does not include the cost of insurance. Insurance is included within the RPP for services, however it does not hold significant weight on their calculations (only about 6%).  

Comparing insurance rates to BEA RPP’s for rent, we find a slightly positive relationship with auto insurance and cost of living. This trend points us to consider that there might be an increasing effect for auto insurance rates and housing costs. However, when thinking about insurance and the cost of living, it is imperative to consider the quantity of insurance. Whether or not someone insures their car is dependent upon the makeup of the city. 

For example, in New York City, auto insurance is quite expensive, but owning a car is not a necessity for living within the city. The accessibility of consistent public transportation and the walkability of the city remove the need for a car and thus auto insurance. An interesting trend we have noticed in our data is that as annual vehicle miles traveled per household increases, the insurance rate decreases. So, while insurance rates might be high in cities like New York, a car is not a vital aspect of living within the city. New York’s relatively high car insurance rates aren’t a cost burden for the large number of households that don’t own cars. This is similar to our takeaways comparing insurance to the sprawl tax. High insurance rates may be more due in part to a lesser demand to drive a car and thus a lesser demand to insure an automobile. Car dependence makes auto insurance a necessary additional cost of living. However, limited sprawl and accessible alternative modes of transportation create an environment where insurance is not required. While this may cause rates to increase, it does not imply an increase in the overall cost of living. 

The real impact on the cost of living arises when automobile insurance is a required aspect of living. Looking objectively at the rankings does not paint the picture of cost of living. We must consider the auto dependence and the sprawl tax across these metropolitan areas to attribute the cost of insurance into transportation costs. It seems simple: people who don’t drive don’t insure cars. For those who must drive, auto insurance can pose an expensive burden annually. For those who don’t, the omission of auto insurance from their expenses is a valuable amenity. It is important to consider not only how much insurance costs but where the costs are necessary.

All in all, the cost of insuring a car can create a serious dent in your paycheck depending upon where you live. If you move across Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, your rates could increase by over $1000. The variation between these cities is notable. Racism and the structure of insurance policy may be major contributors, but other factors, like density and land use policy, might help explain this variation as well. Car dependence results in car insurance dependence. When you have to drive, insurance can place a burden onto your budget. This is where the impact on cost of living appears. People can save a whole lot of money annually when they do not need to insure an automobile.

 

BIB: The bad infrastructure bill

Four lamentations about a bad infrastructure bill

From the standpoint of the climate crisis, the infrastructure bill that passed the Senate is, at a minimum, a tremendous blown opportunity.  Transportation, especially private cars, are the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.  We have an auto-dependent, climate-destroying transportation system because we’ve massively subsidized driving and sprawl, and penalized or prohibited dense walkable urban development.  The Senate bill just repeats the epic blunder of throwing more money at road building, and even worse this time, drivers are excused from paying the costs of the bill—a triumph for asphalt socialism.

You’ve probably seen “BIB,” Michelin’s famous cartoon mascot for its tires (and tourist guides).  Coincidentally—and perhaps appropriately—BIB is the nickname of the Senate-passed bi-partisan infrastructure bill. and the animated stack of tires is an fitting mascot for the legislation.  It’s all about driving and jovially oblivious to the deep systemic problems in our approach to transportation finance.

Michelin’s BIB is the true mascot of the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Bill; Two thumbs up for more subsidies to auto dependence, climate destruction and asphalt socialism.

Others, including Transportation for America, NACTO, Streetsblog, the Eno Foundation and Politico have written about the details behind the bill.  You should definitely read their analyses.  But allow us to pull out just four themes—lamentations, if you will—that explain why this triumph of bipartisanship is a disaster for safety, climate, and fiscal responsibility.

1. $200 billion for more deadly, climate killing highways.  The centerpiece of the bill is more money for roads and bridges, which in practice means wider roadways and more capacity.  The Senate Bill writes a $200 billion check for state highway builders, which is likely to fund wider roads and bridges that will generate more traffic, more pollution, more climate-destroying greenhouse gases, and more sprawl.  The National Association of City Transportation officials observes:

. . . the infrastructure bill passed today by the Senate keeps our nation on an unsafe and unsustainable path. It continues to prioritize building the infrastructure that most contributes to the U.S.’s worst-in-class safety record and extraordinarily high climate emissions: new highways. With transportation as the largest source of U.S. climate emissions, and 80% of those coming from driving, the Senate’s bill goes in the wrong direction, giving a whopping $200 billion in virtually unrestricted funding to this unsustainable mode.

Ironically the Senate passed the bill the same week the International Panel on Climate Change released its latest and most dire warning about the damage done by these greenhouse gas emissions.  The Senate Bill not only does nothing, but promises to squander vastly more resources to make the problem worse.

2. No accountability for climate, safety or good repair.  It’s a considerable exaggeration to say we have a federal “transportation policy.”  In effect, while it mouths a national interest in a safe, well-maintained and sustainable transportation system, the Senate bill just continues a system in which the federal government writes huge checks to state highway builders and . . . looks the other way.  There are no requirements with any teeth that hold states accountable for the most basic of outcomes, and the Senate bill continues this system, as Beth Osborne of Transportation for America explains.

. . . the Senate also supercharged the highway program with a historic amount while failing to provide any new accountability for making progress on repair, safety, equity, climate, or jobs access outcomes.

3. Inequitable asphalt socialism, and the cynical joke of “user pays”.  The great myth of road finance in the US is that we have a “user pays” system.  Truth is that’s never been the case, as road users have forever been subsidized, and shifted the social, environmental and health costs of the road system off onto others.  The Senate had no stomach for asking road users to pay a higher gas tax to support roads, so instead, they’ve turned the  highway “trust fund” into the trust-fund baby of the BIB, getting a huge infusion of general fund money, which will simply be added onto the national debt, with the costs ultimately being repaid, with interest, from income taxes.

An analysis by the ENO Foundation shows that the Senate bill transfers $118 billion to the highway trust fund from the general fund, bringing the total amount of the bailout of highway funds to more than $272 billion since 2008.

We know that despite Congress dumping more than $200 billion of general fund revenue into the highway portion of the fund, that car apologists will continue to make the false argument that we have a “user pays” system, and that spending money on any non-auto form of transportation is somehow stealing from drivers.  This bill completely disconnects use of the transportation system from the obligation to pay for its costs:  what we call asphalt socialism.

4. We could have done better.  House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio managed to engineer passage of a decent stab at transportation reform in the House, only to see it “gutted and stuffed” by the Senate.

The bill that passed the House earlier this year contained provisions that at least gently nudged expenditure priorities in favor of “fix-it first” policies that would put repairs ahead of expansion, would require at least an effort to consider how highway construction leads to greenhouse gas emissions, and would have held states accountable for actually improving safety (rather than just talking about it).  All that language was purged from the Senate BIB.

Politico‘s Tanya Snyder offers a succinct insider explanation of the politics of the bill from an anonymous former congressional staffer:

“It’s not that it was bipartisan; it was a least common denominator approach,” said the former aide, who worked on the transportation bills that Congress enacted in 2012 and 2015, both of which were hailed as triumphs of bipartisanship. Larger ambitions, he said, “fail to get addressed because of the insistence on staying in the very, very narrow area of bipartisan agreement and we recreate the status quo.”

So what the BIB really does is recycle and perpetuate a badly broken transportation finance system that promises to make our climate, community, health and transportation problems worse, not better.

 

To solve climate, we need electric cars—and a lot less driving

Electric vehicles will help, but we need to do much more to reduce driving

Editor’s Note:  City Observatory is pleased to offer this guest commentary by Matthew Lewis.  Matthew is Director of Communications for California YIMBY, a pro-housing organization working to make infill housing legal and affordable in all California cities. For 20 years, he has worked on climate and energy policy and technology development at the local, regional, national, and international levels. 

The deadly heat waves, epic floods, and worsening droughts around the world are forcing a reckoning on climate change: We messed up, badly, and the earth’s rapidly destabilizing climate system is the consequence. 

There are many “mistakes” that have brought us to this moment of truth — powering our economies on coal and methane gas, cutting down rainforest to grow beef, soy, and palm oil — but one of the biggest and most intractable: Car culture, NIMBYism, and their  incumbent challenges in energy use, land use, social equity, and human health and safety. 

Cars are not only the leading source of climate pollution in the United States, they’re also the leading cause of premature death for young Americans and a disproportionate cause of negative health outcomes: air pollution and sedentary lifestyles are major contributors to American morbidity and mortality, not to mention the 2 million Americans who are permanently injured every year by car crashes.

But there’s a problem: We’ve spent 50 years tearing down our cities and remaking them for sprawling, single-family house development, entirely reliant on the automobile. The climate crisis is urgent, and we don’t have time to completely undo this mistake and re-build our cities from scratch.

So, the question becomes: How much time do we have? Can we simply swap out electric cars for gasoline vehicles, and solve the climate crisis? The answer: Unequivocally, no. There are simply too many cars, too many of them run on gasoline, and most new cars sold today still run on gasoline. 

To make matters worse, our current urban land use policies are still controlled, in most cities, by NIMBYs opposed to more housing; who defend parking as a divine right; who oppose safe street interventions that save lives and make communities more walkable; and who block efficient transit interventions, like dedicated bus lanes. 

When it comes to climate change, NIMBYism is a huge factor in exacerbating pollution from cars, but it’s also led to the point where we have no choice in the matter: By forcing workers to live far from their jobs, and by allowing the car industry to continue selling gasoline vehicles, we have foreclosed the option of achieving a climate-friendly car culture.

As of this writing, there are 280 million cars and trucks in the American fleet, and 278 million of them run on gasoline. In an average year, Americans buy around 17 million new cars. So, in a scenario where 100% of new car sales were electric in 2021, it would be 2037 before all U.S. cars and trucks are electric (assuming no growth in the size of the fleet). 

But we’re nowhere near 100 percent EV sales in 2021. Current estimates suggest the earliest date when the last gasoline car will be sold is sometime in the 2040s. In fact, the car industry is still focused on selling primarily gasoline cars, and primarily gas-guzzlers like pickup trucks and SUVs. And it’s made clear that its intention is to continue selling these climate-destroying beasts for most of the rest of this decade.  

What that means: It will be a long, long time before the U.S. vehicle fleet will be all electric. Exactly how long depends on a number of variables, but the various scenarios are not hard to imagine — and in fact, experts have run the numbers and are converging on broad agreement:

If electric cars are going to be a part of the climate solution, Americans will have to drive much less. How much less is somewhat of an open question; but the California experience is illustrative. In 2018, the California Air Resources Board did the math on fleet turnover. What they found:

California cannot meet its climate goals without curbing growth in single-occupancy vehicle activity. 

Even if the share of new car sales that are ZEVs [zero-emissions vehicles] grows nearly 10-fold from today, California would still need to reduce VMT [vehicle miles travelled] per capita 25 percent to achieve the necessary reductions for 2030.

Furthermore, strategies to curb VMT growth help address other problems that focusing exclusively on future vehicle and fuels technologies do not. For example, spending less time behind the steering wheel and more time walking or cycling home, with the family, or out with friends can improve public health by reducing chronic disease burdens and preventing early death through transport-related physical activity. 

California’s existing plans for electric vehicles aimed to have 1.5 million ZEVs on the road by 2025, and 4.2 million by 2030. As of 2021, there are 425,000 BEVs registered in the state — meaning the electrified fleet has to grow 10x in the next 9 years, with sales that exceed the best-year ever, every year

But even at that breakneck pace, it won’t be enough to undo the damage done by the one-two punch of the car industry’s focus on selling gas guzzlers, and California cities’ commitment to defending NIMBY housing and land use policies. 

In sum: With all the gasoline vehicles still driving around for the next 15 to 20 years, EVs won’t be able to close the gap in pollution reduction fast enough. We’re out of time.

Others have done their own calculations, with similar results; one of the more recent among these, by researchers with Carnegie Mellon University, did not mince words about the pickle we’re in:

Transportation deep decarbonization not only depends on electricity decarbonization, but also has a total travel budget, representing a maximum total vehicle travel threshold that still enables meeting a midcentury climate target. This makes encouraging ride sharing, reducing total vehicle travel, and increasing fuel economy in both human-driven and future automated vehicles increasingly important to deep decarbonization.

In other words: In order for electric vehicles to solve climate, we need people to drive less. That combination — of less driving, and vehicle electrification — is the only pathway to climate stability. 

Ironically, this problem of the need for fewer cars is entirely of the car industry’s creation. For decades, the industry has fought efforts to make cars cleaner, to reduce air and climate pollution, and to transition their product away from deadly, inefficient, polluting machines to clean, efficient mobility devices. 

If we had started the transition to clean, electric vehicles 20 years ago, it would be slightly more accurate to say we can continue our current, sprawling housing and transportation patterns and rely on fleet electrification. But the car industry has spent those 20 years pivoting to SUVs and pickup trucks as their primary product. 

What this means: Urban land use reform, affordable housing, reliable transit, and safe streets are now top-priority, must-have interventions for climate change. We have to end the era of car-powered suburban sprawl, and make it legal — and less expensive — to build housing in our urban cores, or in the central business districts of suburban areas, near jobs, transit, and services. 

Denser areas not only have dramatically lower carbon emissions from transportation than suburban and rural developments; but they also use substantially less energy per home — as much as 50% less. 

The writing is on the wall. The car industry missed its climate window for electric sprawl, and the NIMBYs forced the issue with their selfish opposition to infill housing. At this stage, if electric vehicles are to play a major role in solving the climate crisis — which they must — they have to be paired with dramatic land use reform that shortens or eliminates a substantial portion of all vehicle trips, and replaces them with transit, walking, biking, shared vehicles, and other forms of mobility. 

Only by combining a rapid deployment of electric vehicles with an equally rapid elimination of the need for most Americans to own and drive a personal vehicle in the first place can we have a shot at climate stability. 

 

 

Further reading

Burn, baby, burn: ODOT’s climate strategy

The Oregon Department of Transportation is in complete denial about climate change

Oregon DOT has drafted a so-called “Climate Action Plan” that is merely perfunctory and performative busywork.

The devastation of climate change is now blindingly manifest.  Last month, temperatures in Oregon’s capital Salem, hit 117 degrees.  The state is locked in drought, and already facing more wildfires, on top of last year’s devastating fire season.  Cities across the nation are swathed in the smoke from Western wildfires—largest among them Oregon’s Bootleg fire—and are daily witnessing orange-tinged sunsets.

Earth Observatory, July 2021.

All this is plainly due to climate change, and in Oregon, transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gases.

If there were every a time to change direction on climate, this would be it.  But plainly, the Oregon Department of Transportation is locked on cruise control, moving ahead with plans inspired by the dreams of the 1950s rather than the increasingly grim reality of the the 2050s.

ODOT’s climate denialism

While the Oregon Department of Transportation mouths the words of climate awareness, the substance of its plans make it clear that it is engaged in cynical climate denialism.  Its State Transportation Strategy (STS)—which claims to address state greenhouse gas reduction goals, never acknowledges that Oregon is failing to reduce greenhouse gases as mandated by law because of increased driving.

In Oregon, transportation, and specifically driving, is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 40 percent of statewide greenhouse gases.  And while we’ve made some progress cleaning electricity generation and reducing industrial emissions, transportation greenhouse gases are increasing, up 1,000 pounds per person annually in the Portland metropolitan area over just the last five years

To date, Oregon’s and ODOT’s plans to reduce transportation greenhouse gases have amounted to less than nothing.  According to DEQ statistics, driving related greenhouse gases are were 25 percent above 1990 levels in 2018.  Given the state’s objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050), we’re headed in exactly the wrong direction.

In the face of this epic failure to make progress, and in the wake of the most extreme weather ever recorded, ODOT is proposing to actually make the problem worse by spending billions widened Portland area freeways, and going deeply into debt to do so, as we discussed earlier.

As the Oregon Environmental Council and 20 other local environmental organizations wrote to the Oregon Transportation Commission:

Transportation-related emissions make up nearly 40% of Oregon’s total greenhouse gas emissions and continue to steadily increase. The investments that ODOT has made to address climate, while valuable, are profoundly insufficient given the scale and urgency with which we must reduce emissions to avert the worst of the grim and chaotic future we are already experiencing.

ODOT’s “climate action plan”:  Cynical, meaningless and wrong

In theory, the Oregon Department of Transportation is going to combat climate change through  is a five-year climate action plan, which is supposed to represent the agency’s response to a call from Governor Brown to take climate more seriously.  It’s a sketchy and vague grab-bag of piecemeal and largely performative actions, packaged along with some deceptive claims about transportation’s contribution to climate change.  And its policies make it clear that the agency is principally concerned with continuing to build more roads, and get ever larger budgets.

A fig leaf for business as usual

Appropriately, the plan’s signature  graphic element is a single leaf—a fig-leaf as it were— superimposed over an outline of the map of Oregon. Never has an info-graphic been more appropriate:  this document is fig-leaf covering what would be, upon any closer inspection, an obscene document.

 

ODOT’s climate plan has no measurable goals and no accountability

ODOT is a staffed by engineers, so you might think they’d have some actual quantitative measures of the problem they face, and the impact of the steps they’re proposing.  his a remarkable plan which contains no statement of the problem in terms of quantities of greenhouse gases emitted, no goal for their reduction (to 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, as mandated by law), and no evidence that individually or collectively the measures described in the plan will have any quantitative effect on greenhouse gas emissions whatsoever.  It’s merely a perfunctory checklist of actions, which once taken, will absolve ODOT of any further responsibility to worry about climate issues.  There’s simply no accountability for any reduction in greenhouse gases.

The lack of accountability is apparent in the framing of the document; there’s no acknowledgement that transportation greenhouse gas emissions have gotten worse since the development of ODOT’s first climate fig-leaf, it’s “Sustainable  Transportation Strategy” eight years ago.

Reducing GHG’s isn’t a priority:  Getting more money for ODOT is

Climate may be in the title, but the substance of the plan is really about ODOT’s 1950s era highway-building values.  It’s clear from the get-go that this strategy actually isn’t interested in reducing greenhouse gases.  The document states clearly it has three main priorities (pages 7-8):  promoting equity, building the transportation system, and assuring ODOT has enough money.  Reducing greenhouse gases didn’t even make the list.

It’s worth noting that with equity, as with climate, there are no measurable objectives.  It’s just lip service from an agency that has repeatedly pushed city destroying highways through minority neighborhoods, and which plans to atone for this damage by making the highways even wider.

Pricing is a source of revenue, not a means to manage demand or reduce climate pollution

Potentially, pricing could have a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions.  Fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions actually did decrease through 2014 when gas prices were high. But ODOT has no plans to using pricing to achieve climate objectives. The plan mentions pricing, but only to pay for more roads; there’s no commitment to use pricing to reduce greenhouse gases, vehicle miles of travel or traffic congestion.  The only stated policy concern is generating enough revenue to fund ODOT construction projects,

“Pricing:  Price the transportation system appropriately to recover the full costs to maintain and operate the system.”

The plan contains no provisions to reflect price of environmental damage back to system users—ODOT wants to get paid to build more roads, but resists having it or highway users pay for the damage their emissions cause.  As we’ve noted, ODOT backed off from pricing based in part on its consultations with avowed climate change deniers it appointed to its “stakeholder” group.

Falsely claims making traffic move faster will reduce emissions

The strategy repeats a false claim that Oregon DOT can reduce emissions by making traffic move faster.  One of the plan’s action items is “System efficiency” which it defines as

“. . . improve the efficiency of the existing system to reduce congestion and vehicle emissions.”

What this really means, in practice, is that ODOT spends more money on elaborate computers, variable advisory speed signs and signboards that show estimated travel times on some highways.  None of these so called “intelligent transportation systems” have been demonstrated to measurably reduce either congestion or greenhouse gases.  Moreover, to the extent they do lower congestion, they induce additional travel demand, and the scientific literature has shown that increased travel more than wipes out any emission reductions from improved traffic flow.  This is precisely the false set of claims that ODOT conceded it made to the Legislature in 2015 when it lied about estimates of emission reductions from these “system efficiency projects.”

It’s “climate lens” is really an eye-patch, turning a blind eye to induced demand

The climate plan says a “climate lens” will be applied to the State Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) projects, but is silent on the application of any such standard to megaprojects like  the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the revived Columbia River Crossing or any of the billions in other proposed Portland area freeway widening projects.  The induced demand calculator developed by the University of California Davis from the best available science shows these kinds of freeway widening projects will produce hundreds of thousands of tons of additional greenhouse gas emissions.

The so-called “climate lens” is simply a glib PR talking point that has no impact or meaning. If you were at all serious about climate, a real climate test would have the agency put on hold all additions to state highway capacity.

The climate plan reiterates a discredited claim that greenhouse gases can be reduced by widening roads and making traffic move faster, something that’s been shown scientifically to induce more driving and pollution.

Technocratic climate denialism

Future generations, enduring the brunt of increasingly intolerable summers and extreme weather, seeing Oregon’s forests and natural beauty decimated by climate change will look back to the decisions ODOT is making now and ask how it could simply ignore this problem, ignore the demonstrated science about its causes, and then commit literally billions of dollars to make it worse, dollars that future generations will be forced to repay.

This may seem like a simple, routine technical matter.  It’s not.  Its an irrevocable commitment to burn our state, to cower in ignorance in the face of an existential challenge, and an effort to cling to an outdated ideology that created this problem.

 

Miami’s E-Scooters: Revisiting the Double Standard

In Miami, e-scooters pay four to 50 times as much to use the public roads as cars

If we want to encourage greener, safer travel, we should align the prices we charge with our values

Florida is home to some of the most unsafe cities to be a pedestrian or a cyclist. Miami is currently attempting to change their image as an auto-dominated city and create a more inclusive transportation network along their downtown streets. They hope to increase the safety of bikers, pedestrians, and e-scooter riders. The Miami-Dade County of Transportation and Public Works Department plans to add bollards and concrete barriers along three miles of city streets to create protected lanes for bikes and scooters. Part of their plan to pay for this new infrastructure? A daily fee on e-scooters. The tax code reads that:

“operators shall remit to the city a motorized scooter fee in an amount of $1.00 per motorized scooter per day. The motorized scooter fee shall be calculated monthly based on the number of scooters authorized by the city of the current period…. During the duration of the pilot program, this motorized scooter fee shall be designated for sidewalk/sidewalk area, and/or street improvements within pilot program area.”

At City Observatory, we examined Portland’s scooter pilot program in 2019. The implementation of e-scooters into the city had positive results. Scooters were most used during peak travel hours, consequently reducing congestion. They provided a greener solution for people to make short trips throughout the city’s downtown. The program was successful and popular, but it left us wondering about how differently the Portland Bureau of Transportation treats these micro-mobility solutions as opposed to large, gas-guzzling automobiles. In Portland, we estimated  that scooter riders were paying ten times as much in fees per mile traveled than car users pay in gas taxes. For example, if payments were based on the amount of space taken up on the streets or the pollution generated, drivers should have been paying significantly more than scooter users. 

Miami’s new pilot program is another example of this stark double standard. Once again, we focus on how much the city charges different vehicles to use its roads. Miami’s tax code charges each scooter $1 per day. How does that compare to what it charges for a car? 

Gas taxes are a key source of local and state revenue for road infrastructure. The total tax imposed in Miami-Dade County on gasoline sums to 36.6 cents per gallon. If we assume the average car gets about 25 miles per gallon, the average vehicle in Miami pays a little more than 1 cent per mile traveled. Miami residents drive 19.2 miles daily according to the Federal Highway Administration. After some quick math, our estimate for the daily price car users pay in Miami comes to roughly 25 cents. This means, on a daily basis, e-scooters pay four times more per day than cars do.

 

Another way to look at this is to consider the amount the city charges per mile. A case study analyzing the e-scooter program in Indianapolis provides us with a template of what micro-mobility travel could look like in a major city like Miami. The Indianapolis e-scooter program averaged 4,830 trips per day and a median number of scooters in service per day of 1,654. This gives us an estimate of 2.92 daily trips for a unique scooter. The median trip length in this program was .7 miles. If we assume that Miami would see similar daily usage, scooters paying the city’s daily dollar fee pay roughly 34.2 cents per trip and 48.9 cents per mile. As we estimated above, the average vehicle in Miami pays roughly 1 cent per mile traveled, nearly 50 times less than our e-scooter estimate. Scooters in Miami will travel significantly shorter distances than cars in the city, however, they will likely be paying at vastly higher rates for using the roads. 

The City of Miami is not making a poor decision adding infrastructure to protect bikes, scooters, and pedestrians. The experiment in Portland showcased that there is a positive impact of increasing micro-mobility accessibility. There will be rewards from restructuring a car-dominated downtown to create safe, viable options for other modes of transportation. While their mission is in good faith, the partial funding by scooter fees begs the question: why are cars paying so much less each day?

Cars impose the most negative externalities onto the roadway. They are heavier. They take up more space. They create unsafe environments for other users of the road. Yet, the 25 pound scooter which is small enough to sit on the sidewalk pays 4 times as much to use the road each day. Research performed in London finds that e-scooter rentals could replace 5 million car trips, reducing both traffic congestion and CO2 emissions. These micromobility options provide a path to a transportation system that is safer, greener, and more efficient. If this is the future we want, it is imperative that we appropriately charge the most damaging and dangerous vehicles on our roads. Our prices ought to reflect our goals and our values. The disparities between what we charge those who use cars and scooters are a double standard that transportation departments must consider. Shouldn’t cars be paying more to improve the roads and make the city a safer place?

The Bum’s Rush

The $800 million project transitions from “nothing has been decided” to “nothing can be changed”

There’s a kind of calculated phase-shift in the way transportation department’s talk about major projects.  For a long, long time, they’ll respond to any challenges or questions by claiming that “nothing has been decided” or that a project is still being designed, that its in its infancy, and that objections will be dealt with . . . at some point in the indefinite future.

But then, a magic moment occurs, with no notice or observable event, and they’ll suddenly proclaim that it’s too late to raise and questions or consider any changes.

That’s exactly what’s happened with the Oregon Department of Transportation’s $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter project in the past few weeks.

You’ve got concerns?  Not to worry, nothing’s been decided

As recently as last fall, ODOT’s Director of Urban Mobility, Brendan Finn was telling OPB’s Think Out Loud host Dave Miller, the project is only 15 percent designed, and that there was lots of opportunity for the community to shape the project:

Well, the project is still pretty much in its infancy, it’s only being at 15 percent design.  I don’t clearly remember the exact verbiage as far as that.  The House Bill that was passed that created the Rose Quarter project, HB 2017, did have certain parameters in it that were expected from the Legislature, and that was one of them.  That said, there is almost an amazing opportunity here to connect neighborhoods and to provide not only multi-modal options, but  community connections.  And for us, making this move right now is signaling to the community . . . especially . . . those who have left the process, that we are willing to do things differently, we are ready to change, we are ready to be deliberative about our commitment to our shared values around restorative justice.

And very publicly at that time, ODOT convened an “Historic Albina Advisory Board “(after blowing up two other efforts at community engagement) and spent several million dollars hiring a team of consultants to conduct an independent highway cover assessment.  ODOT hired a multi-million dollar team of consultants to undertake an independent analysis of the freeway covers, undertaking both a technical analysis, and seeking public opinion.  This work developed a series of alternatives that vary considerably from the proposal being designed by ODOT—devoting more space to housing  and better reconnecting the urban street grid, and moving freeway on and off ramps away from the center of project.

According to ZGF: Oregon DOT’s plan for the Rose Quarter produced irregular parcels that would be “challenging to develop” and create a complex, unintuitive street system.

This process is proceeding according to the timeline ODOT announced when it appointed this new board last year.  In May, consultants presented their analysis and recommendations to the Historic Albina Advisory Board and the project’s steering committee.  Their alternatives, included two that rate much higher technically, and in community support, and which would significantly re-design the project.

Sorry, time’s up: Too late to make any changes

Now, ODOT says, it’s simply too late to think about doing anything different than what the agency first planned.

The community has been pushing for buildable covers for years, and now ODOT says, that any consideration of covers will create unacceptable further delays.  Last week, in response to support by Oregon’s two Senators and local Congressman for buildable covers, ODOT said it was basically too late to think about doing that, according to the Portland Mercury:

A spokesperson for ODOT told the Mercury that while getting the cost of the caps fully funded by federal dollars would be “a dream,” there are still other obstacles to consider when building more substantial freeway caps. In order to build caps capable of supporting five-story buildings, the caps would need larger support pillars on either side of the freeway to ensure that there is enough structural strength to support the buildings.

“That could mean further acquisitions of land in the area, potentially displacing businesses,” said April deLeon, an ODOT spokesperson.

According to deLeon, changing the design of the caps now could also add time delays. The Federal Highway Administration would need to approve the new cap design, but would be under no timeline to do so. That time delay could make the project more expensive due to the cost of inflation.

It’s also worth noting that ODOT’s own consultants have said that buildable covers would be much more economical, if only ODOT would narrow the overly wide project to just the two additional lanes it says it needs, and built shoulders comparable to other urban freeway projects.  According to ODOT, it will build stronger covers only if it gets to condemn other people’s land, not if it has to give up any of the monstrously oversized roadway it intends to built (and then to re-stripe into a ten-lane freeway).

ODOT’s reflexive claim that its too late, and too costly to even consider buildable caps shows that their claims of interest in “restorative justice” are just a sham.  What the really want to do is build a wider freeway, and they’ll engage in whatever performative theatre they think is needed to convince people they care

Kudos to OPB’s Dave Miller for asking hard questions last fall:  But what the media generally fails to do is follow the thread and insist on accountability.  At what point did the project go from “infancy” to unchangeable?  Who made that decision?  Deus ex machina is a great literary device, but it’s no way to run a government.

How highways finally crushed Black Tulsa

Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood survived the 1921 race massacre, only to be ultimately destroyed by a more unrelenting foe: Interstate highways

Black Tulsans quickly rebuilt Greenwood in the 1920s, and it flourished for decades, but was ultimately done in by freeway construction and urban renewal

Even now, Tulsa has money for more road widening, but apparently nothing for reparations.

The past week has marked the Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when hundreds of Black residents of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood were brutally killed and the neighborhood, Greenwood, was leveled.  Recent news stories have made more Americans aware of this tragic chapter of our history than unfolded in May 1921:  Greenwood’s residents were shot and beaten, their homes and businesses burned and their neighborhood bombed.

What’s less known is that despite the best efforts of the violent racists, they didn’t kill Greenwood.  In fact, the neighborhood’s Black residents returned and rebuilt, in less than five years.  The rapid rebuilding, in spite of the obstacles put in its place by the City of Tulsa, and continued racial discrimination grew praise for the neighborhood’s  resilience.  In 1926, W.E.B. Dubois wrote “Black Tulsa is a happy city,“ saying:

Five little years ago, fire and blood and robbery leveled it to the ground. Scars are there, but the city is impudent and noisy. It believes in itself. Thank God for the grit of Black Tulsa.”

Rebuilt and thriving Greenwood in North Tulsa, 1930s.

Greenwood’s heyday stretched into the 1950s, and even its moniker–The Black Wall Street–dates from this period, and not before the massacre.

What finally killed Greenwood wasn’t an angry racist mob:  it was the federally funded Interstate highway system.  Coupled with urban renewal, highways built through North Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood in the late 1960’s did what the Klan and white racists couldn’t do:  demolish the and depopulate the place.  That’s the key conclusion of a newly published book by Carlos Moreno, which chronicles the neighborhood’s destruction, re-birth and ultimate demise at the hands of the highway builders.  NBC News interviewed Moreno, and reported:

In his new book set to be released next week, “The Victory of Greenwood,” Moreno explores how the neighborhood had a second renaissance led by Black Tulsans after the massacre, rebuilding even bigger than before. It was not the bloodshed that eventually destroyed most of Greenwood, however; rather, it was this, he said, pointing to the spaghetti of interchanges to the south and the expressway that stretches north.

Carlos Moreno & the freeway that finally crushed Greenwood (NBC News)

In an essay at Next City, Moreno explains:

What often gets erased from Greenwood’s history is its 45 years of prosperity after the massacre and the events that led to Greenwood’s second destruction: The Federal-Aid Highway Acts of 1965 and 1968. As early as 1957, Tulsa’s Comprehensive Plan included creating a ring road (locally dubbed the Inner-Dispersal Loop, or IDL); a tangle of four highways encircling the downtown area. The north (I-244) and east (U.S. 75) sections of the IDL were designed to replace the dense, diverse, mixed-use, mixed-income, pedestrian, and transit-oriented Greenwood and Kendall-Whittier neighborhoods.

As in so many other US cities, the construction of freeways was used to demolish, divide and isolate communities of color.  President Biden acknowledged the federal government’s role in Greenwood’s decline in his proclamation of a Day of Remembrance:

And in later decades, Federal investment, including Federal highway construction, tore down and cut off parts of the community. The attack on Black families and Black wealth in Greenwood persisted across generations.

At a community conversation sponsored by Tulsa Urbanists, Moreno summarized his research on the role of the 1921 race massacre and later highway building and urban renewal efforts in destroying Greenwood:

Greenwood looks the way it does today, not because of the massacre.  It came back. And there’s a video footage of that. But North Tulsa/Greenwood look the way it does today because of the federal highway project, and because of urban renewal . . .

And Tulsa continues to widen highways even as it refuses to discuss reparations for the destruction of Greenwood.  Again, Moreno:

Somehow it’s okay for Tulsa to pay $36 million to repair one mile of road between 81st and 91st on Yale in South Tulsa, like that’s okay. We have no problems doing that. We just passed a road widening bill and every single citizen of Tulsa is paying a part of that $36 million. But somehow reparations for Greenwood is a non starter . . .

A hat tip to Next City for publishing Carlos Moreno’s synopsis of his book and Graham Lee Brewer of NBC News his reporting of how the highway’s wounds still trouble Greenwood to this day.

It’s hard to imagine anything more hateful and horrific than the bloody attack on Greenwood in May, 1921.  In the past century, that kind of violent overt racism has given way to a more subtle, more pernicious and more devastating  kind of systemic or institutional racism, in the form of highway construction.

Single-Family Zoning and Exclusion in L.A. County: Part 1

Single-family zoning, a policy that bans apartments, is widespread in Los Angeles County. The median city bans apartments on 80% of its land for housing.

Cities with more widespread single-family zoning have higher median incomes, more expensive housing, and higher rates of homeownership.

Single-family zoning blocks renter households and low- and moderate-income households from accessing affordable housing in affluent, high-opportunity cities.

Editor’s Note:  City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest commentary by Anthony Dedousis of Abundant Housing LA.

For over a century, single-family zoning has defined the landscape of American cities. Single-family zoning, which prohibits the construction of apartments, including modest townhouses and duplexes, essentially mandates single-family detached houses as the only legal housing option. While single-family zoning predominates in suburbs, it is surprisingly common even in large cities, where apartments are often banned on over 75% of the land zoned for housing.

When a city limits housing types, it limits who can live in that city. Single-family homes are more expensive than apartments; limiting the housing stock to standalone homes thus raises the cost of living. Single-family zoning fits into a constellation of land use restrictions, including minimum lot sizes and on-site parking requirements, which raise housing costs and create barriers based on income and race. 

Here in California, efforts to reform exclusionary zoning and promote denser housing have met with fierce opposition from wealthy homeowners and anti-gentrification activists. Even modest reform proposals like Senate Bill 9, which would legalize duplexes, have attracted hostility from similar corners. As policy and research director at Abundant Housing LA, a “Yes In My Back Yard” organization that advocates for more housing, I sought to better understand the interplay between zoning, income, and race in the Los Angeles area. The outstanding examination of single-family zoning in the Bay Area by the UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute inspired my methodology and interest in this topic.

By analyzing zoning data from the Southern California Association of Governments and demographic data from the American Community Survey, I determined how widespread single-family zoning is in each of L.A. County’s 88 cities. I found that cities with more pervasive single-family zoning tend to have higher median household incomes, higher median home values, higher homeownership rates, and are often more racially segregated.

This two-part series will dive deep into the connection between these variables: Part 1 explores income, housing costs, and homeownership, while Part 2 will focus on race and segregation.

Single-Family Zoning, Income, and Housing Costs

Apartment bans are widespread in L.A. County; the median city zones over 80% of the land for housing as single-family. Even in the City of Los Angeles, America’s second-largest city, apartments are banned on 80% of the residentially-zoned land. 

Cities with widespread apartment bans are often high-income enclaves, like Calabasas in the western San Fernando Valley, Palos Verdes Estates in the South Bay, and La Canada Flintridge in the San Gabriel Valley. However, single-family zoning is common even in some lower-income cities, like Compton, South Gate, and Lancaster.

Some pairs of neighboring cities hint at a link between single-family zoning and cities’ socioeconomic makeup. In Lawndale, a lower-income city in the South Bay with a Latino majority, just 8% of the land for housing is zoned single-family. Its neighbor, Torrance, bans apartments on 80% of the land zoned for housing. Torrance’s median household income is $34,000 higher than Lawndale’s, and just 17% of the city’s population is Latino. Other city pairs, like Claremont/Pomona and Cerritos/Hawaiian Gardens, have similar dynamics.

To explore this link, I grouped cities into five buckets, based on their prevalence of single-family zoning:

  • 0-50% of residential land zoned single-family (13 cities)
  • 50-70% of residential land zoned single-family (11 cities)
  • 70-80% of residential land zoned single-family (16 cities)
  • 80-90% of residential land zoned single-family (23 cities)
  • 90+% of residential land zoned single-family (23 cities)

For those who want more information about individual cities, a here is a spreadsheet showing which zoning bucket each city falls into, as well as other key statistics.

There’s a clear link between more single-family zoning and higher household incomes. In cities with the most single-family zoning, median incomes are more than twice as high as in cities with the least single-family zoning.

Cities with more single-family zoning also tend to have more expensive homes.

The median home value in the most restrictive cities is nearly $700,000, 63% higher than in the least restrictive cities.

Cities with more single-family zoning also have much higher rates of homeownership, especially in very restrictive cities. This stands to reason: apartment-dwellers tend to be renters, so a widespread ban on apartments acts as a backdoor ban on renter households.

Next, I looked at the relationship between single-family zoning and income for individual cities. Here, it’s important to remember that many suburbs were incorporated explicitly to maintain income and racial barriers; for example, suburban Lakewood incorporated in the mid-1950s to avoid annexation by larger, more urban Long Beach. It’s also worth noting that the City of Los Angeles is by far the largest city in L.A. County by population and area, and that zoning, income, and housing costs vary hugely between the city’s neighborhoods.

With these caveats aside, we can see that nearly every city with a high median household income also has a high prevalence of single-family zoning. There are almost no cities with high incomes and low single-family zoning prevalence, though 20 cities have both high single-family zoning (above 75%) and below-average median household incomes.

Similar patterns emerge when we compare single-family to median home values and to homeownership rates.

 

Taken together, we can see that cities with wealthier populations, more expensive homes, and higher rates of homeownership are likelier to have widespread apartment bans. Single-family zoning thus acts as a barrier preventing renter households and low- and moderate-income households from accessing affordable housing in affluent, high-opportunity cities, a point that the Berkeley team made convincingly in its Bay Area analysis.

Analyzing housing policy, income, wealth, and exclusion in cities also requires us to analyze race and segregation. In Part 2, I will dig into the relationship between cities’ zoning, racial composition, and prevalence of segregation.

 

Single-Family Zoning and Exclusion in L.A. County: Part 2

Single-family zoning, a policy that bans apartments, is widespread in Los Angeles County. The median city bans apartments on 80% of its land for housing.

Cities with more widespread single-family zoning have higher white and Asian population shares, and lower Black and Latino population shares.

Cities with more widespread single-family zoning are more segregated relative to Los Angeles County as a whole.

Single-family zoning acts as a significant barrier to Black and Latino Americans accessing affordable housing in affluent, high-opportunity cities.

Editor’s Note:  City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest commentary by Anthony Dedousis of Abundant Housing LA.

In Part 1 of this series, I examined single-family zoning in the cities of Los Angeles County, and found that cities with more restrictive zoning tend to have higher median incomes, housing costs, and homeownership rates. In Part 2, I dive into the link between zoning and cities’ racial composition, and found that cities with more pervasive single-family zoning tend to have lower Black and Latino population shares, and are more racially segregated relative to Los Angeles County as a whole.

Sadly, this was not a surprising finding: in the United States, income and race are closely linked, and racial discrimination helps to explain much of the wealth gap between white and nonwhite Americans. Also, in many cities, single-family zoning was often introduced as a way to maintain race-based barriers to housing opportunities without violating civil rights laws.

In 1916, Berkeley, California became the first American city to implement single-family zoning; one motivating factor was a desire to exclude Black-owned businesses and families from a white neighborhood. After a 1917 Supreme Court case overturned local laws forbidding Black Americans from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods, many cities used exclusionary zoning as a way around the ruling

Even after redlining and restrictive covenants were banned in the 1960s, single-family zoning offered an ostensibly race-neutral way to maintain patterns of segregation into the present. Studies have linked more restrictive zoning to lower Black and Latino population shares in Boston-area neighborhoods and in New York’s suburbs. A Berkeley analysis of Bay Area zoning found that cities with more pervasive single-family zoning were likelier to have a higher white population share, higher median incomes, more expensive homes, better access to top schools, and superior access to economic opportunity.

Present-day L.A. County is both incredibly diverse and also highly segregated. While the county overall is 48% Latino, 26% white, 14% Asian, and 8% Black, the racial composition of individual cities varies dramatically. Cities with more widespread single-family zoning tend to be more white, more Asian, less Latino, and less Black. Cities with the least single-family zoning tend to be majority-Latino.

To explore further, I calculated a “Segregation Index” score, which compares each city’s racial composition to the county’s overall demographics. (This is similar to the Divergence Index used as the UC Berkeley team’s preferred metric of segregation, scaled so that 100 would represent the most segregated city in the county.) 

In Los Angeles County, cities with higher Segregation Index scores tend to have larger white and Asian populations and smaller Latino and Black communities, relative to the county average. High-income cities in the South Bay and western San Fernando Valley, as well as Beverly Hills, Glendale, and Burbank, have high Segregation Index scores and high prevalence of single-family zoning.

Segregation index by city (100 = most segregated)

Again, grouping cities into five buckets, based on the prevalence of single-family zoning, shows that cities with more widespread single-family zoning tend to have higher Segregation Index scores. Cities with the most restrictive zoning have Segregation Index scores that are nearly ten times higher than cities with the least restrictive zoning.

Additionally, while not every city with heavy single-family zoning is highly segregated, the most segregated cities generally have widespread single-family zoning.

As with income, this shows how single-family zoning can create or maintain patterns of ethnic exclusion. Single-family homes are more expensive to buy or rent than apartments, and given America’s significant racial income and wealth gap, regulations that mandate more expensive types of housing in a city effectively make that city less affordable to Black and Latino Americans. Barriers to apartment production therefore block many Black and Latino Americans from moving to higher-income areas that offer upward economic mobility, and reinforce the concentration of lower-income families in low-opportunity neighborhoods.

Single-family zoning has a heavy social and economic cost: it makes it harder for families with low or moderate incomes, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, to move to prosperous cities with good schools and jobs. And by raising the cost of housing, it excludes these households from homeownership opportunities. This is profoundly unfair and unnecessary; simply legalizing apartments in these affluent cities would do much to create more affordable housing and homeownership opportunities for people of all backgrounds.

Building a society where opportunity and prosperity are widely enjoyed, regardless of one’s income, skin color, or place of birth, requires us to end single-family zoning. Ending single-family zoning does not mean banning single-family homes. It would simply make single-family houses one of several types of housing that are permissible. Single-family houses would continue to exist alongside duplexes, bungalow courts, and larger apartment buildings, as they already do in neighborhoods throughout California.

Fortunately, a growing number of cities are embracing zoning reform. Minneapolis and Portland were first to legalize small apartment buildings citywide. In 2019, California legalized accessory dwelling units and has seen strong ADU production as a result. Sacramento recently voted to allow up to four homes on any residential parcel, and Berkeley is poised to do the same. Even Santa Monica, no stranger to NIMBY politics, may allow modestly higher housing density in single-family zoned areas. 

Legalizing apartments will make these cities more affordable and welcoming to people of all walks of life. It’s time for every city across America to do the same.

State DOTs can and should build housing to mitigate highway impacts

If OregonDOT is serious about “restorative justice” it should mitigate  highway damage by building housing

Around the country, states are subsidizing affordable housing to mitigate the damage done by highway projects

Mitigation is part of NEPA requirements and complying with federal Environmental Justice policy

The construction of urban highways has devastating effects on nearby neighborhoods.  Not only has building highways directly led to housing demolitions to provide space for roadways, the surge of traffic typically undermines the desirability of nearby homes and neighborhoods, leading to the depreciation of home values, the decline of neighborhood economic health, and population out-migration.  That story has been told numerous times across the US; we’ve detailed how the Oregon Department of Transportation’s decisions to build three huge highway projects in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s decimated Portland’s Albina neighborhood.  This predominantly Black neighborhood lost two-thirds of its population over the course of a little more than two decades. At the time, no one gave much thought to the loss of hundreds or thousands of housing units, or the effect on these neighborhoods.  But increasingly, state highway agencies are looking to mitigate the negative effect of current and past highway construction by subsidizing housing in affected neighborhoods.  Here are three examples from around the country.

The Oregon Department of Transportation claims that it is interested in “restorative justice” for the Albina community, which has identified housing as one of the keys to building wealth and restoring the neighborhood.  And ODOT’s project illustrations show how hundreds of housing units might be built near the project–but these are just vaporaware, as ODOT hasn’t committed to spending a dime of its money to making that happen, to replacing the homes it demolished over the decades.  Based on the past and current experience of other states, there’s no reason that they can’t treat investments in housing as mitigation, just as ODOT routinely spends a portion of its highway budget on restoring wildlife habitat, creating new wetlands, or even replacing jail cells.  A real restorative justice commitment would make up for the damage done, as these examples show.

Lexington Kentucky:  A community land trust funded from highway funds

For decades, Kentucky’s highway department had been planning a freeway expansion through Davis Bottom, an historically African-American neighborhood.  The threat of freeway construction helped trigger the decline of the neighborhood.  When the road was finally built a little more than a decade ago, the state highway agency committed to restoring the damage done to the area by investing in housing.  As part of the Newtown Pike Extension project, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet acquired 25 acres of land and provided funding to establish a community land trust for the construction of up to 100 homes.

In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration gave the project an award for this project, saying:

The Davistown project is the first CLT ever created with FHWA Highway Trust Funds. Eighty percent of the project, including the acquisition of CLT land and the redevelopment of the neighborhood, will be funded with these FHWA funds.

The FHWA Environmental Justice guide highlights the Lexington CLT as as a “best practice.”

Houston, Texas:  $27 million to build affordable housing to mitigate interstate freeway widening

Houston’s I-45 “North Houston Highway Improvement Project” would, like the I-5 Rose Quarter project, widen a freeway through an urban neighborhood.  The Texas Department of Transportation, as part of the project’s environmental impact review process has dedicated $27 million to build or improve affordable housing in neighborhoods affected by the freeway.

 

Reno Nevada, State DOT providing land and money to cities and counties for affordable housing

Nevada DOT committed to using highway funds to pay for housing to mitigate effects of freeway expansion in Reno at the junction of I-80 and US 395.

NDOT will provide funds or land already owned by NDOT to others (Cities of Reno or Sparks, Washoe County) to build affordable replacement housing for non-Reno Housing Authority displacements. Those displaced by this project who wish to remain in the area will be given priority access to the replacement housing. After those needs have been addressed, the affordable housing will then be made available to those who qualify for affordable housing but were not displaced by the project. Residents will be considered eligible for this replacement affordable housing if they meet Section 8 eligibility requirements or Reno Housing Authority’s Admission and Continued Occupancy Policy (Reno Housing Authority 2018).

Federal Regulations encourage or require mitigating impacts.

The key environmental law governing federal highway projects is the National Environmental Policy Act.  It requires that agencies identify the adverse environmental impacts of their decision, and then avoid, minimize or mitigate those impacts.  In particular, NEPA mitigation includes “restoring the affected environment” and “compensating for the impact by . . . providing substitute resources or environments.”  Using highway funds to replace housing demolished by a freeway is one key way in which the negative effects of a highway project on an urban community can be mitigated.

CFR § 1508.20 Mitigation.

Mitigation includes:

(a) Avoiding the impact altogether by not taking a certain action or parts of an action.

(b) Minimizing impacts by limiting the degree or magnitude of the action and its implementation.

(c) Rectifying the impact by repairing, rehabilitating, or restoring the affected environment.

(d) Reducing or eliminating the impact over time by preservation and maintenance operations during the life of the action.

(e) Compensating for the impact by replacing or providing substitute resources or environments.

A federal executive order on Environmental Justice directs agencies to pay particular attention to the impacts, including the cumulative impacts of agency decisions on low and moderate income people and people of color.  THe Federal Highway Administration’s Environmental Justice Policy specifically identifies impacts on neighborhoods as “adverse effects” of federal highway projects, and calls for both mitigating these impacts, and considering alternatives that minimize adverse impacts on communities.

  1. Adverse Effects. The totality of significant individual or cumulative human health or environmental effects, including interrelated social and economic effects, which may include, but are not limited to: bodily impairment, infirmity, illness or death; air, noise, and water pollution and soil contamination; destruction or disruption of human-made or natural resources; destruction or diminution of aesthetic values; destruction or disruption of community cohesion or a community’s economic vitality; destruction or disruption of the availability of public and private facilities and services; vibration; adverse employment effects; displacement of persons, businesses, farms, or nonprofit organizations; increased traffic congestion, isolation, exclusion or separation of minority or low-income individuals within a given community or from the broader community; and the denial of, reduction in, or significant delay in the receipt of, benefits of FHWA programs, policies, or activities.

FHWA Policy:  It is FHWA’s stated policy to mitigate these disproportionate effects by providing “offsetting benefits” to communities and neighborhoods, and also to consider alternatives that avoid or mitigate adverse impacts.

What is FHWA’s policy concerning Environmental Justice?  The FHWA will administer its governing statutes so as to identify and avoid discrimination and disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority populations and low-income populations by:

(2) proposing measures to avoid, minimize, and/or mitigate disproportionately high and adverse environmental or public health effects and interrelated social and economic effects, and providing offsetting benefits and opportunities to enhance communities, neighborhoods, and individuals affected by FHWA programs, policies, and activities, where permitted by law and consistent with EO 12898;

(3) considering alternatives to proposed programs, policies, and activities where such alternatives would result in avoiding and/or minimizing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental impacts, where permitted by law and consistent with EO 12898

Taken together, the NEPA requirements for mitigation, and the FHWA’s policy on environmental justice require FHWA projects—like the I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway Widening—to address the cumulative totality of the project’s effects on the neighborhood, including the disruption of community cohesion, the displacement of people and businesses and increased traffic congestion.  The current project adds, as we have shown, to a long history of federally supported highway projects in the Albina neighborhood that have had devastating cumulative effects, including particularly, the destruction of hundreds of housing units, which are essential to the economic well being of the neighborhood and its residents, who, historically have been lower income and people of color.  It is fully consistent with federal environmental policy and environmental justice requirements for ODOT to devote funds to rebuilding housing as a way to mitigate the damage it has done to the Albina neighborhood.

 

 

 

The real “I-5” project: $5 billion, 5 miles, $5 tolls

The intentionally misleading re-brand of the failed Columbia River Crossing conceals the key fact that it is a 12-lane wide, 5 mile long freeway that just happens to cross a river, not a “bridge replacement.”

It’s vastly oversized and over-priced, with current cost estimate ranging as high as nearly $5 billion (before cost-overruns), which will necessitate round trip tolls of at least $5 for everyone using the bridge.

This part of the “I-5 bridge replacement” isn’t even the bridge, it’s the widened approach on Hayden Island. (Bike Portland)

Almost a decade ago, plans for a gigantic freeway-widening between Portland and Vancouver collapsed in the face of budget concerns and deep community disagreements about the project.  For the past year, the Oregon and Washington transportation departments have been trying to breath life into the zombie project—with the help of $40 million in consultants. The project’s-PR led marketing effort has systematically concealed the fundamental facts of the project, while promoting meaningless, unquantified and unenforceable platitudes about promoting equity and responding to climate change.

Like the original Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, its an intellectually bankrupt sales pitch, not an honest conversation about alternatives.

It’s been apparent for months now that ODOT and WSDOT are trying to pressure the two states into recycling the project’s current record of decision–now more than a decade old.  That “ROD” as it’s called, specifies a massive freeway expansion illustrated above.  While the agency is hinting at the possibility of “design” tweaks—it’s apparent that their plan is to simply recycle the failed CRC proposal.

They’ve rebranded  it the “I-5 Bridge Replacement” but that’s an intentionally misleading title.  Sounds innocuous, right?  Who can be against merely “replacing” a bridge?

The only part of that branding that’s right is the number 5.

But they’ve left out the real meaning of the “5” in the title.  There are really three “5’s” that really define this project.  According to the project’s own documents: It’s five miles long, it’’ll cost $5 billion, and they’ll charge you $5 for a round trip.

It’s not a bridge “replacement” — It’s a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway that just happens to cross a river.  It stretches five miles from Lombard to Mill Plain Boulevard.

It’s 12 lanes over the Columbia River, and even wider on Hayden Island, as the above illustration shows.  Congressman Peter DeFazio has called the plan “gold-plated.” (Manning, Jeff. “Columbia River Crossing could be a casualty of the federal budget crunch”, The Oregonian, August 14, 2011).

It’s going to cost upwards of $5 billion, a—and likely more because they routinely have massive cost overruns.

According to their tolling financial estimates, which are part of the current finance plan, they’ll charge a minimum toll of $2.60 each way to cross the bridge, which works out to more than $5 per round trip. Peak tolls would be higher, and heavy trucks would pay four times as much as cars ($20 per round trip, minimum).

It’s time for ODOT and WSDOT to be honest about what they’re really proposing, the 5-5-5 project: 5 miles of freeway, $5 billion, $5 tolls per round trip.

Getting real about restorative justice in Albina

Drawings don’t constitute restorative justice

ODOT shows fancy drawings about what might be built, but isn’t talking about actually paying to build anything

Just building the housing shown in its diagrams would require $160 million to $260 million

Even that would replace only a fraction of the housing destroyed by ODOT highway building in Albina

The Oregon Department of Transportation is going to great lengths to cloak its $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project in the language of restorative justice.  Starting in the 1950s, ODOT built not just one or two, but three different highways through the historically Black Albina neighborhood, and is now back with plans to widen the largest of these, but is now pretending to care about restoring the neighborhood.  To that end, its appointed an “Historic Albina Advisory Board”—after disbanding another community advisory group which had asked too many uncomfortable questions.

Housing is essential to restorative justice in Albina

The real challenge to restorative justice in Albina is more housing.  The aerial photo here shows the Albina neighborhood as it existed in 1948; the red-lined areas are properties takes or demolished for the construction of Interstate Avenue in 1951, the I-5 Freeway in 1961 and the Fremont Bridge and aborted Prescott Freeway in the early 1970s.  Albina was torn apart by these ODOT highway projects and its housing stock decimated. Given that ODOT’s highway building triggered the destruction of thousands of homes in Albina (the neighborhood’s population declined by more than 60 percent, from 14,000 to less than 4,000, it’s hardly surprising that getting more housing built is a key priority.

 

The ODOT consultants report that that one of the key strategies for building community wealth is to create affordable housing.

ODOT’s making it look like there will be housing as part of its plans

ODOT staff and consultants have presented the HAAB with surveys and focus group information on what restorative justice might look like.  An “Independent Cover Assessment” consulting group has even prepared drawings showing alternative development plans for the area near I-5.  The drawings feature examples from other cities of Black cultural and community facilities, and prominently include diagrams showing large new multifamily housing to be built on top of or near the freeway.  Here are two such diagrams, (the yellow colored buildings are residential apartments).  Concept 1 has four large residential buildings, Concept 5 has 5 large residential buildings.

 

But who’s going to pay for that housing?  It’s going to cost $160-260 million and ODOT is offering . . nothing.

It’s all well and good to talk about housing, but how, exactly, would it get built?  These colorful illustrations are really just misleading puffery and magical thinking unless there’s a realistic plan for paying for the project.  The availability of the land is the easy part.  The hard part is getting money for construction.  To get an idea of how much it would cost, we can look just a few blocks away to the newly completed Louisa Flowers Building.  It was just finished and has 204 studio, one bedroom and two bedroom apartments.  Its development and construction cost about $71 million, and Home Forward, the city of Portland’s housing agency paid $3 million for the site.  The project cost about $380 per square foot, with the overall cost per housing unit working out to about $350,000.

The Louisa Flowers affordable housing building in Portland (Portland Tribune)

The Independent Cover Assessment shows that the residential buildings (shown in yellow) in its two concepts would make up about half to 60 percent of the 900,000 to 1.1 million square feet of buildings to be build atop or adjacent to the freeway.  Those figures imply about 430,000 square feet or about 470 apartments in Scenario 1, to 680,000 square feet or roughly 740 apartments in Scenario 5.

If you could build those apartments for the same cost as Louisa Flowers (you couldn’t, of course; costs have gone up), that means the yellow colored buildings shown in these renderings would cost between $160 million and $260 million to develop and construct.

In short, unless you’ve got between $160 and $260 million (just for the housing part, mind you), those pictures are just a fantasy.

If ODOT actually had a budget for the construction of that housing, in order to, you know, promote restorative justice, then it would be perfectly valid to include this as part of the project discussion.  But ODOT hasn’t committed a dime to actually paying to build this housing.

And you could say, in theory, (and it would have to be theoretical, because ODOT has made no such commitment), that ODOT would be contributing the land for these buildings.  But as noted in the case of Louisa Flowers, the cost of the land is less than 5 percent of the cost of constructing the project.  If housing is key to restorative justice in Albina, and if ODOT is committed to restorative justice, it seems like it ought to come up with the other 95 percent as well, rather than expecting unnamed others to do the heavy lifting for it.

Housing is essential to restorative justice in Albina.  Simply drawing pictures of housing isn’t justice, it’s cynical vaporware, an attempt to create the illusion that ODOT cares, when its only real interest is in building a vastly wider freeway.  The state highway department readily spent money to demolish housing in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but apparently isn’t willing to spend any of its money to replace that housing today. And the irony is, if you really want to have restorative justice and more housing, you don’t need to build a wider freeway.  In fact, a wider road would make the area less desirable for housing. ODOT’s plan to widen the freeway—and further inundate this neighborhood with more car traffic—doesn’t so much heal the repeated wounds it has inflicted on Albina, as it does to make them even worse.

 

The NIMBYs made $6 trillion last year

In 2021, US residential values increased by $6.9 trillion, almost entirely due to price appreciation

Those gains went disproportionately to older, white, higher income households

Capital gains on housing in 2021 were ten times larger than the total income of the bottom 20 percent of the population.

Little of this income will be taxed due to the exemption on capital gains for owner-occupied homes

Gains to homeowners dwarf the profits made by developers, foreign investors, or Wall Street home buyers.

Rising home prices are a transfer of wealth to older generations from younger ones.

So much of our housing debate is a search for suitable villains on which to blame a lack of affordability.  Our problems must be due to rapacious developers, greedy landlords, absentee speculator owners, buying new housing and holding of the market, and private companies buying up and renting out single family homes.  These are the cartoon characters who get blamed for driving up prices.  But they aren’t the ones to blame, and they’re not the ones who are making a killing in the housing market.

Housing affordability melodrama: Where’s Snidely? Sirsalem1, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The real estate speculators reaping literally trillions of dollars of gains from our capitalist housing system are millions of homeowners, who, whether they acknowledge it or not, are the beneficiaries of “Not in my back yard” policies that have driven up the price of housing.  And this surge of homeowner wealth is a rotten development from the standpoint of addressing yawning disparities by race, income and generation, as the beneficiares of these gains are statistically higher income, whiter and older than the overall US population.

Last year, according to calculations from Zillow, the value of existing residential real estate in the US grew by $6.9 trillion.  (New residential buildings—the construction and upgrading of homes and apartments—contributed about $800 billion).  The gain home values in 2021 was nearly triple the $2 trillion or or so increase in residential values Zillow reported in 2022.  In the post-pandemic era, we’re getting a bit inured to counting  “trillions.”  To put the amount of housing capital gains in perspective, the $6.9 trillion dollar one-year increase in home values is more than ten times the total pre-tax income of the bottom twenty percent of US households (about $600 billion in 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office).

Here’s another picture of how much housing wealth has been created.  The Federal Reserve tracks “homeowner’s equity”—the net amount of wealth that homeowners have after subtracting outstanding mortgage debt from home values.  After the collapse of the housing bubble, owner’s equity stood at about $10 trillion, and since then has ballooned to $26 trillion.

 

To get an idea of exactly who reaped those gains, we took a look at data compiled by the Federal Reserve Board on the demographics of homeownership. The Fed’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finance provides estimates by age, race and income of homeownership rates and the average value of housing for the nation’s households.  Using these data, we computed the number of households by race and age of the household head (which the Fed Survey tactfully calls “the reference person”) and by the income of the household.  We’ve combined the value of owner-occupied residential property with other residential property owned by households (i.e. second homes, investment houses or apartments).  The Fed’s estimates (based on its household survey) are somewhat different from Zillow’s (derived from its database of homes), but both put total value of US residential real estate in the $30-$40 trillion range.  To a first approximation, these data on the age, race and income of homeowners are our best guide to who reaped the $6 trillion in residential capital gains this year.  That assumption masks some variability in housing price appreciation across markets and classes of homes, but this should be a good rough indicator of the demographics of the nation’s housing wealth winners.

The gerontopoly of housing wealth

As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, older Americans hold most US housing wealth, and have been chalking up a disproportionate share of gains as housing has appreciated.  The latest data from the Federal Reserve show that households headed by a person aged 55 and older own 56 percent of all residential housing wealth in the US. It’s a fair guess that these older homeowners reaped most of the gain in home values in the past year.

As Ed Glaeser has pointed out, rising real housing costs are a straightforward transfer of wealth from younger generations (who must buy the now more expensive homes) to older generations (who own the housing, and will reap gains when it is sold).

The long shadow of race

For a long list of reasons—including discrimination in housing and labor markets, redlining, and segregation—households of color have been systematically denied the opportunities to accumulate housing wealth.  That pattern is still very much in evidence in the latest Fed data:  Non-Hispanic white households own almost 80 percent of all the housing wealth in the US, implying they also reaped 80 percent of the residential capital gains, or about $1.6 billion.

Rising home prices effectively increase the wealth of white households relative to households of color.

High income households own most housing 

While homeownership is touted as a means of wealth accumulation, it has mostly worked out for high income households. While the ownership of real estate is not as skewed to high income households as is the ownership of financial assets like stocks or bonds, it is still the case that the highest income 20 percent of the population owns 59 percent of all the residential housing value in the US.

These data suggest that about $1.2 trillion of the gain in home values went to the top 20 percent of the population, meaning that their residential capital gains exceeded by a factor of about two the total pre-tax income of the bottom 20 percent of the population.

Housing appreciation is untaxed, which benefits older, white and wealthier households

The skewed ownership of housing wealth means that the gains in wealth are highly concentrated in households that are older, whiter, and higher income than other Americans.  But unlike wage income, income from housing appreciation is mostly un-taxed. As a result, the capital gains exclusion for housing is regressive and inequitable.  The capital gains exclusion for owner-occupied real estate,is much more valuable to high income households because they are more likely to own homes, own more expensive homes, and generally face higher tax rates that low income households.

In reality, the $2.2 trillion in capital gains that US residential property owners reaped in 2020 will be lightly taxed, to the extent they are taxed at all.  Federal law exempts from capital gains the first $500,000 in gains on the sale of owner occupied property (for married couples filing jointly).  That is to say that you would need $500,000 of appreciation to have any capital gains liability.  As a practical matter, few households pay capital gains taxes on residential real estate appreciation.  The tax-favored status of income from residential real-estate speculation is a quintessential feature of our system that attempts to promote wealth-building through home ownership.  While well intended, it systematically rewards older, whiter and wealthier households, and effectively denies opportunities to build wealth to the third of the population that is renters.  In many ways, it is the worst of all worlds, making housing more expensive for those least able to afford it, and providing most of the gains to those who are already most advantaged.

There’s one final irony here:  policies to broaden access to homeownership now, by providing subsidies or other support for lower income, younger, and minority homebuyers don’t rectify these gaps, they likely make them worse.  Steps to amplify demand in a surging market tend to drive prices up further, which further enriches incumbent homeowners at the expense of first-time buyers.  If you could enable people to somehow buy houses at 1990 or 2010 prices, they could be assured of wealth gains, but the risk is that buying now offers no such expectation of long term gains. Promoting homeownership primarily helps those who are selling homes, not those who are buying them.

The search for villains

Rather than talk about the capital gains that flow to older, wealthier, whiter households, much of the housing debate is a melodrama, looking to cast suitably evil villains on which to blame the crisis.  It’s fashionable to finger Wall Street investors (who for the past decade or so have been buying up single family homes and renting them in many US markets), foreign buyers of luxury condominiums in New York, Miami, Seattle and other hot cities (who let the units sit vacant while speculating on higher values), and greedy developers, who make excessive profits by building new homes.  None of these supposed villains accounts for more than a trivial part of the problem; at most, they’re picking up crumbs, compared to the the trillion dollar gains logged by incumbent homeowners.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests Wall Street backed investors now own as much as $60 billion in single family real estate.  That’s sounds ominous, but it’s less than 1 percent of the $35 trillion or so of residential investment in the US.  If all these investors earned a 10 percent capital gain in 2020, they would have collectively gotten about $6 billion or a couple of tenths of one percent of the $2.2 trillion in home values. It’s also fashionable to blame the construction of luxury condos in a few superstar cities—held vacant by rich, often foreign speculators.  The trouble is that such units are a tiny slice of the housing market, and there’s no evidence they affect overall housing costs.

And then there are the developers.  Supposedly they make a killing from building new housing. When housing price are appreciating, especially as fast as they have in the past year, the profits that developers earn from building new housing are dwarfed by the capital gains reaped by existing homeowners.  Our friend Josh Lehner, an economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, has an insightful study estimating the profits earned by homeowners and developers in Oregon over the past decade.  Lehner estimates, that on average, developers reap a margin of about 14 percent on new housing construction.  By comparing that total (14 percent of the value of new housing built in any year), with the appreciation of the existing housing stock in that same year, Lehner is able to show how developers profits stack up against the capital gains enjoyed by incumbent homeowners.  It isn’t even close:

Applied to Zillow’s estimates of national level new construction, Lehner’s 14 percent of building value estimate suggests that developers netted less than $40 billion nationally, an amount equal to about 2 percent of the gains that accrued to owners of existing homes.  It’s not the greedy developer that’s benefiting from rising home prices, it’s the NIMBYs next door who reap the gains.  As our colleague Daniel Kay Hertz has pointed out, we tend to conveniently forget that essentially all of the existing housing stock came into being, not by immaculate conception, but by the profit-motivated efforts of earlier generations of developers. If anything, because new development increases housing supply, it blunts housing price appreciation, so more development tends to increase affordability.

Wall Street investors, speculating oligarchs, and greedy developers all make signature villains in the housing affordability melodrama, but they really conceal the identity of those who are actually reaping the gains of rising housing prices.  It also hides the principal policy that’s driven the appreciation of residential real estate:  the dominance of a range of “Not in my back yard” policies, including excessive single family zoning, apartment bans, high development fees, parking requirements and a host of other policies that have made it harder to build housing, especially in the places people most want to live.

The experience of the past year illustrates the profoundly broken nature our current strategy of “wealth building through home ownership.”  The benefits of home price appreciation accrue disproportionately to those who already have wealth, and if anything, they tend to worsen the existing disparities of wealth among households.  As existing housing appreciates, it increases the wealth of the incumbent homeowners, who are disproportionately white, older and wealthier, and drives up housing costs for those who don’t now own homes.  And our tax system amplifies these inequities by allowing nearly all of this income to go untaxed.  The myth of homeownership as a universal wealth building strategy is the real villain here.

A version of this commentary was originally published in 2021, and has been updated to reflect the latest data on home price appreciate estimated by Zillow.

 

 

Who got trillions? We found the real speculators profiting from higher housing costs

In 2020, US residential values increased by $2.2 trillion

Those gains went disproportionately to older, white, higher income households

Capital gains on housing in 2020 were more than three times larger than the total income of the bottom 20 percent of the population.

Little of this income will be taxed due to the exemption on capital gains for owner-occupied homes

Gains to homeowners dwarf the profits made by developers, foreign investors, or Wall Street home buyers.

Rising home prices are a transfer of wealth to older generations from younger ones.

So much of our housing debate is a search for suitable villains on which to blame a lack of affordability.  Our problems must be due to rapacious developers, greedy landlords, absentee speculator owners, buying new housing and holding of the market, and private companies buying up and renting out single family homes.  These are the cartoon characters who get blamed for driving up prices.  But they aren’t the ones to blame, and they’re not the ones who are making a killing in the housing market.

Housing affordability melodrama: Where’s Snidely? Sirsalem1, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

At City Observatory, we’re proud to announce we’ve found the real estate speculators reaping the literally trillions of dollars of gains from our capitalist housing system:  millions of homeowners, who are statistically higher income, whiter and older than the overall US population.

Last year, according to calculations from Zillow, the value of existing residential real estate in the US grew by $2.2 trillion.  (New construction added a paltry $275 billion in new homes and apartments to that total).  Given current price trends, Zillow expects another $2 trillion or so increase in residential values in 2021.

In the post-pandemic era, we’re getting a bit inured to counting  “trillions.”  To put the amount of housing capital gains in perspective, the $2.2 trillion dollar one-year increase in home values is more than three times the total pre-tax income of the bottom twenty percent of US households (less than $600 billion in 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office).

To get an idea of exactly who reaped those gains, we took a look at data compiled by the Federal Reserve Board on the demographics of homeownership. The Fed’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finance provides estimates by age, race and income of homeownership rates and the average value of housing for the nation’s households.  Using these data, we computed the number of households by race and age of the household head (which the Fed Survey tactfully calls “the reference person”) and by the income of the household.  We’ve combined the value of owner-occupied residential property with other residential property owned by households (i.e. second homes, investment houses or apartments).  The Fed’s estimates (based on its household survey) are somewhat different from Zillow’s (derived from its database of homes), but both put total value of US residential real estate in the $30-$40 trillion range.  To a first approximation, these data on the age, race and income of homeowners are our best guide to who reaped the $2 trillion in residential capital gains this year.  That assumption masks some variability in housing price appreciation across markets and classes of homes, but this should be a good rough indicator of the demographics of the nation’s housing wealth winners.

The gerontopoly of housing wealth

As we’ve noted before at City Observatory, older Americans hold most US housing wealth, and have been chalking up a disproportionate share of gains as housing has appreciated.  The latest data from the Federal Reserve show that households headed by a person aged 55 and older own 56 percent of all residential housing wealth in the US. It’s a fair guess that these older homeowners reaped most of the gain in home values in the past year.

As Ed Glaeser has pointed out, rising real housing costs are a straightforward transfer of wealth from younger generations (who must buy the now more expensive homes) to older generations (who own the housing, and will reap gains when it is sold).

The long shadow of race

For a long list of reasons—including discrimination in housing and labor markets, redlining, and segregation—households of color have been systematically denied the opportunities to accumulate housing wealth.  That pattern is still very much in evidence in the latest Fed data:  Non-Hispanic white households own almost 80 percent of all the housing wealth in the US, implying they also reaped 80 percent of the residential capital gains, or about $1.6 billion.

Rising home prices effectively increase the wealth of white households relative to households of color.

High income households own most housing 

While homeownership is touted as a means of wealth accumulation, it has mostly worked out for high income households. While the ownership of real estate is not as skewed to high income households as is the ownership of financial assets like stocks or bonds, it is still the case that the highest income 20 percent of the population owns 59 percent of all the residential housing value in the US.

These data suggest that about $1.2 trillion of the gain in home values went to the top 20 percent of the population, meaning that their residential capital gains exceeded by a factor of about two the total pre-tax income of the bottom 20 percent of the population.

Housing appreciation is untaxed, which benefits older, white and wealthier households

The skewed ownership of housing wealth means that the gains in wealth are highly concentrated in households that are older, whiter, and higher income than other Americans.  But unlike wage income, income from housing appreciation is mostly un-taxed. As a result, the capital gains exclusion for housing is regressive and inequitable.  The capital gains exclusion for owner-occupied real estate,is much more valuable to high income households because they are more likely to own homes, own more expensive homes, and generally face higher tax rates that low income households.

In reality, the $2.2 trillion in capital gains that US residential property owners reaped in 2020 will be lightly taxed, to the extent they are taxed at all.  Federal law exempts from capital gains the first $500,000 in gains on the sale of owner occupied property (for married couples filing jointly).  That is to say that you would need $500,000 of appreciation to have any capital gains liability.  As a practical matter, few households pay capital gains taxes on residential real estate appreciation.  The tax-favored status of income from residential real-estate speculation is a quintessential feature of our system that attempts to promote wealth-building through home ownership.  While well intended, it systematically rewards older, whiter and wealthier households, and effectively denies opportunities to build wealth to the third of the population that is renters.  In many ways, it is the worst of all worlds, making housing more expensive for those least able to afford it, and providing most of the gains to those who are already most advantaged.

There’s one final irony here:  policies to broaden access to homeownership now, by providing subsidies or other support for lower income, younger, and minority homebuyers don’t rectify these gaps, they likely make them worse.  Steps to amplify demand in a surging market tend to drive prices up further, which further enriches incumbent homeowners at the expense of first-time buyers.  If you could enable people to somehow buy houses at 1990 or 2010 prices, they could be assured of wealth gains, but the risk is that buying now offers no such expectation of long term gains. Promoting homeownership primarily helps those who are selling homes, not those who are buying them.

The search for villains

Rather than talk about the capital gains that flow to older, wealthier, whiter households, much of the housing debate is a melodrama, looking to cast suitably evil villains on which to blame the crisis.  It’s fashionable to finger Wall Street investors (who for the past decade or so have been buying up single family homes and renting them in many US markets), foreign buyers of luxury condominiums in New York, Miami, Seattle and other hot cities (who let the units sit vacant while speculating on higher values), and greedy developers, who make excessive profits by building new homes.  None of these supposed villains accounts for more than a trivial part of the problem; at most, they’re picking up crumbs, compared to the the trillion dollar gains logged by incumbent homeowners.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests Wall Street backed investors now own as much as $60 billion in single family real estate.  That’s sounds ominous, but it’s less than 1 percent of the $35 trillion or so of residential investment in the US.  If all these investors earned a 10 percent capital gain in 2020, they would have collectively gotten about $6 billion or a couple of tenths of one percent of the $2.2 trillion in home values. It’s also fashionable to blame the construction of luxury condos in a few superstar cities—held vacant by rich, often foreign speculators.  The trouble is that such units are a tiny slice of the housing market, and there’s no evidence they affect overall housing costs.

And then there are the developers.  Supposedly they make a killing from building new housing. When housing price are appreciating, especially as fast as they have in the past year, the profits that developers earn from building new housing are dwarfed by the capital gains reaped by existing homeowners.  Our friend Josh Lehner, an economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, has an insightful study estimating the profits earned by homeowners and developers in Oregon over the past decade.  Lehner estimates, that on average, developers reap a margin of about 14 percent on new housing construction.  By comparing that total (14 percent of the value of new housing built in any year), with the appreciation of the existing housing stock in that same year, Lehner is able to show how developers profits stack up against the capital gains enjoyed by incumbent homeowners.  It isn’t even close:

Applied to Zillow’s estimates of national level new construction, Lehner’s 14 percent of building value estimate suggests that developers netted less than $40 billion nationally, an amount equal to about 2 percent of the gains that accrued to owners of existing homes.  It’s not the greedy developer that’s benefiting from rising home prices, it’s the NIMBYs next door who reap the gains.  As our colleague Daniel Kay Hertz has pointed out, we tend to conveniently forget that essentially all of the existing housing stock came into being, not by immaculate conception, but by the profit-motivated efforts of earlier generations of developers. If anything, because new development increases housing supply, it blunts housing price appreciation, so more development tends to increase affordability.

Wall Street investors, speculating oligarchs, and greedy developers all make signature villains in the housing affordability melodrama, but they really conceal the identity of those who are actually reaping the gains of rising housing prices.

The experience of the past year illustrates the profoundly broken nature our current strategy of “wealth building through home ownership.”  The benefits of home price appreciation accrue disproportionately to those who already have wealth, and if anything, they tend to worsen the existing disparities of wealth among households.  As existing housing appreciates, it increases the wealth of the incumbent homeowners, who are disproportionately white, older and wealthier, and drives up housing costs for those who don’t now own homes.  And our tax system amplifies these inequities by allowing nearly all of this income to go untaxed.  The myth of homeownership as a universal wealth building strategy is the real villain here.

 

ODOT’s peer review panel admits it didn’t validate Rose Quarter travel forecasts

ODOT has claimed a “peer review panel” vindicated its air pollution analysis

Now the panel says they didn’t look into the accuracy of ODOT’s travel forecast

Travel forecasts are critical, because they determine air and noise pollution impacts

In short:  the peers have done nothing to disprove the critiques of ODOT’s flawed traffic modeling

A key claim opponents made about the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway-widening project is that the traffic projections are wrong, over-stating baseline traffic by pretending the CRC was built in 2015, exaggerating “no-build” traffic levels by allowing link volumes to exceed capacity, and under-estimating “build” volumes by failing to account for induced demand and also modeling a 6-lane roadway rather than the 8- or 10-lane roadway they’re actually constructing.

ODOT’s defense is that their environmental modeling was endorsed by a so-called independent peer review panel.  As we pointed out when panel’s report was released, this was largely a whitewash.  As we wrote at City Observatory last June, when the Panel’s report was released, the critical problem was that the panel failed to look at the flawed traffic projections on which the air and noise estimates are based.  We wrote:

In theory, the PRP undertook an environmental review, looking at air pollution, greenhouse gases and noise pollution. But because all these impacts depend on the volume of traffic and whether the project increases or decreases traffic, they are all subsidiary to the accuracy of the traffic modeling. And the panel apparently did absolutely nothing to validate the accuracy of these traffic projections.

The air and noise impacts of the project come from vehicles using the freeway; both air pollution and noise pollution increase with the increasing number of cars and trucks on the roadway.  If ODOT got the traffic numbers wrong, then the pollution estimates are wrong as well.

The Peer Review Panel admits it didn’t evaluate the validity of traffic forecasts

Earlier this month, the leader of the peer review panel publicly acknowledged that the group she led did not take any critical look at the travel forecasts.  On April 5, ODOT consultant and panel facilitator Grace Crunican presented the so-called “peer review” panel results to the Historic Albina Advisory Board.   Board member John Washington asked about the traffic projections. Crunican  said that the peer review committee didn’t judge whether their were accurate or appropriate and only looked at whether the model’s outputs were correctly used to compute air/noise impacts.
Here’s the transcript:

John Washington  (Historic Albina Advisory Board)
We had a public announcement about some people suing us or something, right. And how closely related is what they’re talking about to what you’re talking about?

Grace Crunican  (ODOT Peer Review Consultant)
It is related. What they [No More Freeways] are saying is that the traffic data that was provided, that ODOT provided as a basis of the analysis that they did, is not accurate. We were not charged with looking at that traffic analysis original data.  We were looking at the implications of the traffic data that was there. We did ask some questions about it and we got mostly the information, some of the information, Megan gave us today.  She can say it again, but in my lay terms, she used the models from the metro area, she used Metro’s models and she used City of Portland’s model. And they did their analysis and then what we looked at is, given how much traffic was going through, and we look at the air quality analysis that was done. And that’s where our work was, and so the underlying data is what somebody is trying to challenge, the No [More] freeway people, I think are trying to challenge, and we looked at how that data was applied, and found that it was applied appropriately.

Historic Albina Advisory Board, April 5, 2021,  Meeting Video at 1:03:45.  (Emphasis added)

Crunican: “we were not charged with looking at that traffic analysis.” (Youtube)

In effect, the peer review panel simply assumed that ODOT’s traffic projections were right.  It took no independent effort to examine those projections, nor did it consider any of the technical objections that No More Freeways and other commenters offered to the model.  For reference, City Observatory has documented the critique extensively:  It includes inflated baseline traffic due the counterfactual assumption that the Columbia River Crossing was built in 2015; the over-assignment of traffic to congested road links in the No-Build scenario, and the failure to model the effects of induced demand in the build scenario, as well as the fact that ODOT modeled a six-lane freeway, rather than the 10-lane roadway that the project actually proposes to construct.
This is important because ODOT relied on the peer review panel to discredit the critique of its flawed traffic modeling. When it released the report, in June 2020, it claimed that the peer review  “supported ODOT’s findings for air, greenhouse gas and noise impacts” for the freeway widening.

 In January 2020, the Oregon Transportation Commission directed ODOT to conduct an environmental peer review associated with the project’s Environmental Assessment after hearing stakeholder concern over the potential impacts from the project related to air quality, noise and greenhouse gas emissions.  The Peer Review Report supported ODOT’s findings for air, greenhouse gas, and noise impacts for the project.

Most recently, ODOT used the peer review panel as a kind of talisman to ward off criticism after No More Freeways filed suit against the Federal Highway Administration challenging the project.  Here is ODOT spokesperson Tia Williams in Willamette Week:

“This project underwent a robust environmental assessment that showed future air quality would improve in part due to the congestion relief provided by this project. Those findings were reviewed and confirmed by a panel of national air quality and transportation experts. We are confident in the findings,” a statement from ODOT provided by spokesperson Tia Williams said.

At long last, the peer review panel has shown a modicum of independence:  It has made it clear that claims that its review “supports” ODOT’s work and “confirms” its findings are simply false.  The panel members were instructed to look only at a small, and as it turns out, derivative question, and simply ignored whether the freeway widening increases traffic.  This is hardly a reasonable basis for a claim that this project has “no significant environmental impact.”

The freight fable: Moving trucks is not longer the key to economic prosperity

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.  Upton Sinclair

It’s even harder to get a trucking industry lobbyist or a highway department booster to understand something when their salaries depend on not understanding it.

Oregon’s economy has de-coupled from freight movement; our economic success stems from doing things other that simply moving more and more freight.

State officials and the trucking lobbyists they’ve hand-picked as “public” representatives are selling myths in an effort to justify wasting billions to expand highways.

Here’s a simple fact:  Truck movements across the Columbia River in Portland are down 19 percent in the past fifteen years.  This fact comes from data tabulated by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which has automatic vehicle counters on the roadways leading up to the I-5 and I-205 bridges that connect Oregon and Washington.  Here’s the data, which is taken directly from the traffic counting website operated by ODOT.  It shows heavy freight truck movements.

For highway boosters, this simple fact is an inconvenient truth.  Here’s why:  they’re trying to justify a nearly $5 billion freeway widening project on Interstate 5 as somehow essential to accomodating a flood of trucks, which if they’re delayed even slightly, will somehow mean the demise of one of the nation’s most robust metropolitan economies.  Don’t get us wrong, traffic congestion is a routine feature of successful metropolitan economies, but there’s actually no evidence that adding a freeway lane (or three) has any measurable effect on a metro area’s economic prosperity.  But ODOT and freight industry boosters are keen to argue that freight volumes are increasing in lock step with the economy, and if they’re hindered in any way, our economic ruin awaits us.

The trouble is, as this simple chart shows, that’s not true.   Despite declining freight movement, the Oregon economy has boomed.

The Portland and Oregon economies rebounded sharply after the 2007-2009 recession, and they did so without increasing the number of heavy trucks moving across the Columbia River on the I-5 and I-205 bridges. The truckers and highway types are likely to want to blame the recession, but what’s really striking is that through 2019, I-5 and I-205 truck traffic never recovered to pre-recession levels after a decade of robust economic growth.  Not only that, but truck volumes actually declined from 2013 through 2016, as the economy was growing rapidly.  The key takeaway here is that Oregon’s economy grows just fine, thank you, even with no more trucks crossing the Columbia River.

But this inconvenient truth was treated with dismay and denial, by the Washington Trucking Association’s lobbyist, Sherri Call, nominally a “public representative” on the Community Advisory Group for what the Oregon and Washington Transportation Department’s call the “I-5 Bridge Replacement Project” but which is really meant to be a rubber stamp for a five-mile long, 12-lane wide freeway that just happens to cross a river.  We submitted the ODOT data shown in the chart above for the record at the Community Advisory Group’s March, 24, 2021 meeting.  Call was apoplectic at the idea that anyone could suggest that freight volumes were going down.  Describing a discussion in one of the meeting’s breakout groups she said:

We talked a little bit about the public comment process and I was glad to hear [Project Manager] Greg [Johnson]’s commentary on that, you know, if I share that it kind of got under my skin a little bit, a caller that called in and mentioned the reduction in freight volumes over the years and caused me to go on and do some offline research and that’s actually not the case that has increased and not only that the general traffic has increased as well. And, you know, Greg [Johnson], very eloquently I think put it there basically the people that are calling in are not held to the same standard as, as you folks in the bridge office who are accountable not just to the public but to people internally and people on both sides of the state so that, that is, you know, good for us to be mindful of.

Notably, Call didn’t cite any actual data to prove her point.  But she did confide that she shared her concerns with the project’s manager Greg Johnson, who claimed, according to Call, that “people calling in aren’t held to the same standard” as the project’s promoters in the transportation department.

For the record, it’s important to note that like Call, Johnson didn’t offer any data showing an increase in freight volumes on I-5 across the Columbia River.  Simple asserting an article of faith—and wrapping it in a little sidelong character assassination— was apparently sufficient.  As Upton Sinclair said, it’s difficult to get a person to understand a fact when their salary depends on them not understanding it.

But again, here’s the simple truth:  the volume of freight trucks moving on I-5 and I-205 across the Columbia River is, and remains, lower today than 13 years ago.  And not by a little, by a lot—almost a fifth.  The ODOT data show that there are half a million fewer trucks using the two bridges today than in 2006.

And miraculously, the Oregon economy has not collapsed.  In fact, since 2006, both the Oregon and Portland metro economies have outperformed the US economy, whether measured by employment or gross domestic product.  We’ve managed to grow our economy with less truck movement than we had more than a decade ago.  What that signals is that economic success isn’t simply a product of moving more stuff.  In fact, the most successful economies are the ones which generate new ideas and new services, not simply move more stuff. In the 21st century, success is about doing more with what we have, or even less, and that’s where Oregon has excelled. Our old, resource-based economy could grow only by cutting and shipping more trees or grain; but today, Oregon’s economic growth is driven by a range of knowledge-based industries that expand their output, income, and jobs, without moving ever more trucks.

In the end, though, this argument boils down to simple facts.  If Sheri Call and Gregg Johnson are right, that more and more trucks are needing to move across the Columbia for our economy to succeed, and that widening I-5 at a cost of billions will somehow stimulate more industrial activity, let them present the data, any data, to prove that.  So far they haven’t.  All we have so far is snide claims that they’re somehow held to a higher standard of proof, something they’ve manifestly failed to demonstrate.

 

 

 

Wholly Moses: Pave now, pay later

Oregon legislation goes whole hog on highways

HB 3065 would launch a whole new round of freeway boondoggles, and plunge the state into debt to pay for them

The classic Robert Moses scam:  Drive stakes, sell bonds

The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill, HB 3065, which while it sounds technical and innocuous, is really designed to launch a whole series of new freeway expansion mega-projects in the Portland area.  By authorizing the Oregon Department of Transportation to get started on several of these projects, and to finance them by short-term borrowing and bonds, backed with a legal pledge of both future toll revenues and other state and federal transportation funds, the bill mimics a classic scam developed by America’s original highway builder/power broker, Robert Moses, in the 1930s.

If there is a villain in American urbanism, it is Robert Moses, who for decades, guided public investment in New York, a city and state that to today, still bears the deep imprint of his choices, chief among them, the decision to remake much of the region to facilitate the movement of automobiles. Part of his legacy is the toll bridges and a network of highways that slashed through urban neighborhoods—in his words—like a meat-ax.  But there’s another more subtle, but equally enduring element of the Moses legacy:  a pattern of practice followed to this day, in one form or another, by highway departments around the country.

The latest manifestation of Moses’ malignant legacy is in the form of a bill in the Oregon Legislature.  House Bill 3065 proposes to give the Oregon Department of Transportation power start a series of expensive Portland area highway projects, and issue debt to pay for their (unspecified and unlimited costs), and in the process pledge much of the state’s future transportation revenue, including any monies raised from tolls to pay for these projects.  Along the way, the bill undoes most of the positive attributes of road-pricing authorized by the 2017 Oregon Legislature, which specifically mandated value pricing (aka “congestion pricing’ on Portland area freeways.  As we’ve frequently pointed out at City Observatory, and as born out by the experience of cities around the world and in the US, even a modest price charged for peak hour freeway use would likely resolve the region’s congestion problems.  (That conclusion was also echoed by ODOT’s own consultants three years ago).

What we have in HB 3065, however, is something that is a kind of perpetual motion road-building machine. It authorizes ODOT to issue bonds for a series of megaprojects, and to obligate current and future state revenue, including future toll revenues to pay back those bonds.  It’s a kind of “pave now, pay later” strategy that Moses would embrace, and bears two key hallmarks of Moses’ own work:  driving stakes to force funding commitments to ill-defined, open-ended projects, and using bond covenants to block any legislative oversight or repudiation of his future actions.

Moses locked up all the revenue from publicly financed bridges and tunnels, and at a time when public transit was starved for investment, plowed it all back into a steady stream of new road capacity that demolished neighborhoods, furthered sprawl and increased car dependence.  The Oregon Department of Transportation seems determined to take a page out of the Moses playbook with new amendments.

To see how these two patented Moses gimmicks work, we turn the microphone over to his biographer, Robert Caro.

The Power Broker | Robert Caro

Driving Stakes

The key techniques are two-fold:  First, just getting projects started.  Several of these projects (the I-5 Bridge replacement, and the I-5 Boone Bridge), haven’t even completed their planning, so their full costs are unknown.  The second technique is to issue bonds to pay for the project, secured by toll revenues.

Early on, Moses learned the value of starting construction of a highway—driving stakes in the ground—even if he didn’t have all the financing in place, and regardless of whether he knew (or honestly revealed) the actual total cost of the project.  Just getting something started made it almost impossible for legislators or other officials to deny him whatever resources he needed to finish the project.  Caro writes:

Once you did something physically, it was very hard for even a judge to undo it.  If judges, who had to submit themselves to the decision of the electorate only infrequently, were thus hogtied by the physical beginning of a project, how much more so would be public officials who had to stand for re-election year by year? . . . once you physically began a project, there would always be some way found of obtaining the money to complete it. “Once you sink that first stake,” he would often say, “they’ll never make you pull it up.”

And this tactic turned minimizing or hiding the true cost of a project into an indispensable means of getting things moving:

Misleading and underestimating, in fact, might be the only way to get a project started.  . . . Once they had authorized that small initial expenditure and you had spent it, they would not be able to avoid giving you the rest when you asked for it. . . . Once a Legislature gave you money to start  a project, it would be virtually forced to give you the money to finish it.  The stakes you drove should be thin-pointed—wedge-shaped, in fact on the end.  Once you got the end of the wedge for a project into the public treasury, it would be easy to hammer in the rest.  (Caro at 218-219)

Selling Bonds

One of Moses’ key insights was that municipal revenue bonds worked like an alternative, overriding form of government authority, in his case, overriding future legislative control or second thoughts. The contract between bond issuers (like a state agency) and bond buyers can’t be impaired by future legislative changes. A promise to dedicate certain revenues to an agency in a bond indenture can tie them up for years or decades, or as Moses showed, forever.  Bonds, once issued, become a virtually unbreakable contract.  Once ODOT sells bonds backed by the pledges of toll revenue (and other federal and state transportation revenues) the state is permanently, and preemptively committed to giving it all the toll revenue (and in the case of HB 3065, forfeiting other revenue to make up any shortfall).

Caro explains the original structure Moses crafted when he drafted amendments to New York statutes governing bonds issued by his Triborough Bridge Authority.

Legislation can be amended or repealed.  If legislators were in some future year to come to feel that they had been deceived into granting Robert Moses wider powers than they hand intended—the right to keep tolls on a bridge even after the bridge was paid for, for example—they would simply revoke those powers. But a contract cannot be amended or repealed by anyone except the parties to it.  Its obligations could not be impaired by anyone—not even the governing legislature of a sovereign state.  Section Nine, Paragraphs 2 and 4, Clauses a through i, gave Robert Moses the right to embody in Triborough’s bonds all the powers he had been given in the legislation creating Triborough. Therefore, from the moment the bonds were sold (thereby putting into effect the contract they represented) , the powers he had been given in the legislation could be revoked only by the mutual consent of both Moses and the bondholders.  They could not be revoked by the Authority or by the City whose mere instrumentality he was supposed to be.
(Caro, at 629-630)

The combination of these two strategies—driving stakes and selling bonds—is enough to lock the state into an expensive and environmentally destructive freeway building spree.  And once the bill passes, and the bonds are sold, future legislatures will find themselves as powerless to rein in ODOT as New York was to stop the Moses meat ax from hacking through New York City.

 

An open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission

For years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has concealed its plans to build a ten lane freeway through Portland’s Rose Quarter

We’re calling on the state to do a full environmental impact statement that assesses the impact of the project they actually intend to build.

An open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission.

Regular readers of City Observatory will know that we’ve long been casting a close and critical eye on plans to spend $800 million to widen a mile and a half long stretch of interstate freeway in Portland, Oregon.  As we’ve explained, we think this particular freeway fight encapsulates many of the fundamental urban issues of our time:  How we grapple with climate change, re-imagine our cities as more just, inclusive and accessible communities, and how we right the damage done by the urban freeway building of the past.

In its advocacy for this project, the Oregon Department of Transportation has sought to convey the idea that it isn’t really widening the freeway at all.  At worst, its PR campaign claims, they’re adding two “auxiliary” lanes.

But for years, the agency has carefully hidden the true scale of the project.  It’s never publicly released detailed plans showing the roadway’s actual width, despite repeated challenges and questions from the public.

Now new documents show the agency has long been planning a 160-foot wide roadway, more than enough for an eight or ten-lane freeway with full urban shoulders.  It’s apparent now, in retrospect, that agency staff have long known this to be the case, and have willfully concealed this information from the public through a combination of misleading illustrations and outright lies in response to direct questions about the size of the proposed freeway.

This matters because portraying this project as the addition of just two lanes dramatically understates its impact in adding traffic, increasing noise, air pollution and greenhouse gases, and impairing the health and livability of nearby neighborhoods. These are exactly the kinds of impacts that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires be revealed before undertaking a major federal project, and rather than honestly disclosing them, this agency has intentionally and aggressively hidden them.

In an open letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, City Observatory’s Joe Cortright calls for the agency to honestly disclose its plans, and to undertake a full and fair environmental impact statement that shows the traffic, environmental and social effects of the actual 10-lane freeway it is proposing to build.

Cortright_to_OTC_RoseQuarterWidth_17March

Is the pandemic driving rents down? Or up?

Since Covid started, rents are down in some cities, but up in most

“Superstar” cities have experienced the most notable declines; the demographics of renters in these cities are different than elsewhere.

Rent declines are also much more common in larger cities, with higher levels of rents.

City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest post from Alan Mallach.  Alan is a senior fellow with the Center for Community Progress, known for his work on legacy cities, neighborhood change and affordable housing. His most recent book is The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, and he is currently co-authoring a book on neighborhood change.

Alan Mallach

A lot of attention has been given to the decline in rents in a handful of high-profile superstar cities like San Francisco or Washington DC. But, as I’ve had occasion to observe in the past, those cities are only a handful among the hundreds of cities and housing markets across the United States. The real question is whether the trends observed in the superstar cities reflect broader national trends, or whether – once again – they are the outliers in a larger, more complicated picture. 

To get a sense of the trends, I looked at rental data gathered by the website Apartment List (www. apartmentlist.com) by city, pulling out those of the 100 largest cities for which data was provided, supplementing it with data from smaller cities as well as metro-level data. I looked at the trend for all rental units between January 2020 and January 2021, and for comparison purposes, the preceding year. While far from a complete picture of the rental markets in the United States or even in these cities, it’s a useful starting point for an overall perspective on what’s going on. This short piece will try to highlight some initial findings and offer some suggestions about the mechanisms behind the trends. 

The short answer is yes, they are outliers. More cities are still seeing increases in median rents than decreases in the face of the pandemic, by a ratio of roughly 3 to 2. 

Figure 1: The 100 largest cities by rent change from January 2020 to January 2021

Still, the fact that over a third of all cities saw declining rents, and in many cases significant declines, is notable. The year before, rents declined in only 6 out of 95 cities, and in no case by as much as 2 percent. 

Two clear patterns jumped out: 

  • The bigger the city, the more likely rents were to decline. Rents, on average, declined by 6 percent from January to January in the nation’s 10 largest cities. The only one where rents went up was Phoenix, while rents stayed flat in San Diego.
  • The higher rents were before the pandemic, the more likely rents were to decline. Rents on average went up 2 percent in the 10 lowest rent cities but went down by a whopping 13 percent in the 10 highest rent cities. 

Looking at the ‘top 10’ and ‘bottom 10’ in terms of rent increases or declines, and how their January 2020 rent ranked out of 100 cities, shows an interesting pattern. 

Of the cities with the greatest declines, most are recognizable as superstar cities, with Jersey City and Arlington being appendages – from a housing market standpoint – of New York and Washington respectively. Chicago and Minneapolis are less so, but both have seen extensive construction of upscale rental housing over the past 10 or so years. All but the last two are in the top rent quintile. By contrast, the cities with the greatest rent increases are medium-sized and smaller Sunbelt cities well outside superstar cities’ orbits. While these cities tend to skew toward moderately low rents, they are far from the lowest rent cities.  

The following chart (Figure 2B) shows the relationship between the change in rent over the past 12 months and the average level of rents in January 2021.  (The size of circles corresponds to the relative population of each city; hover over a circle to see the identity of each city and its rent level and rent change).

Figure 2B:  Change in rents and rent levels, 100 largest US cities

What can explain this pattern? There may be a few factors at work. A major one is the difference in the character of the renter population. The cities with the greatest declines are cities where large numbers of renters are young and affluent, a market to whom those cities’ rental developers and landlords have been increasingly catering in recent years. Many of these renters appear to be moving – in part out of these cities, but also in part to homeownership in the same cities. Notably, the 10 cities with the greatest rent declines saw a simultaneous average 6 percent  increase from December 2019 to December 2020 in Zillow’s Home Value Index. It also is likely to reflect a decline in in-migration of young, affluent renters, as suggested by recent research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, as the same reasons that have prompted out-migration have made in-migration, at least for the time being, less appealing. 

Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the declines are largely concentrated in the upscale or Class A rental market, as a recent report from WAMU in Washington DC noted,

“The drop [in rent levels] is driven primarily by price reductions in “Class A” apartments — newly-built units that have more luxurious amenities: Think buildings like The Apollo on H St. NE, or The Hepburn in Kalorama. As of October, the average rent for apartments like these dropped from $2,669 to $2,387 per month.” 

It’s not surprising.  Driven by Millennial migration, the upscale rental sector has been riding a wave for the past decade. Reflecting typical copycat developer behavior, upscale rentals have arguably been overbuilt in all of the cities seeing the sharpest declines in rent levels. Thousands of units have been built on spec, and with previous downtown workers moving out and fewer new workers coming in, vacancies increased and demand plummeted. Supply may eventually adjust to reflect lower demand, but that may take years. 

In most cities, however, renters are mostly lower to middle income, which brings in another factor. 

Upper income, highly educated workers are far more likely to have shifted to working from home during the pandemic than lower-income, less educated workers. As Figure 3 (from the Census Bureau’s Housing Pulse Survey) shows, two-thirds of workers in households with incomes over $100,000 (and nearly three-quarters of those with incomes over $200,000)  have moved to full or part time telework, compared to little more than 15% of those earning under $35,000. The education gap is similar. 

Source: Census Bureau, Housing Pulse Survey

With mortgage interest rates at all-time lows, affluent teleworkers can easily segue to homeownership. For a couple paying $2500 or $3000 in rent, a mortgage on a $600,000 house in a large, expensive city is only a moderate reach, and a $300,000 house in a smaller, attractive but more moderately priced city is a bargain.  

Low wage workers, who tend to be concentrated in service, health care, distribution or other sectors where working from home is not an option and often lack the means to become homeowners, are less likely to move. Thus, cities like Cleveland or Des Moines, where renters are predominantly lower income households, are seeing little change in rental demand. What they are likely to see, although its impact will not be visible until well into 2021 or later, is growth in rental arrears, as thousands of lower income tenants who have lost their jobs find it impossible to make rent payments. Unless forestalled by adequately funded rental assistance, that could end up creating far more dire problems for far more people than rent declines in upscale San Francisco apartment buildings. The threat of evictions, however, is unlikely to lead to declines in rent levels, at least in the short run, as landlords try to compensate for lost rental income. 

Few tears need be shed for the owners and developers of upscale apartment buildings in superstar cities. A correction was timely if not overdue. A more important question is whether the high-wage employment that drove the wave will grow back, or whether telework will become increasingly the norm. If the latter, not only are rents unlikely to revive, but the knock-on effects to the retail and service sectors supported by high-wage employment could be disastrous, with bars, restaurants, dry cleaners and other firms going out of business and thousands of lower-wage workers left unemployed. 

If the markets in these cities can be considered losers, those of the secondary cities of the Sunbelt shown in Figure 2 may be considered at least so far the winners. Not only have they seen sharp rent increases, but they saw even greater sales price inflation, with house values going up an average of 13% in the past year, well above the national average. Boise, Idaho topped the charts with a whopping 21% annual increase, while, according to Albuquerque Business First“the [Albuquerque] market shows no signs of slowing down, with homes going for record high prices and newly-listed property going under contract in less than 30 days.”  Whether what’s good for the housing market in these cities is good for the people who live there, of course, is another matter. 

Taking Tubman: ODOT’s plan to build a freeway on school grounds

ODOT’s proposed I-5 Rose Quarter project would turn a school yard into a freeway

The widened I-5 freeway will make already unhealthy air even worse

Pollution from high volume roads has been shown to lower student achievement

ODOT also proposes to build sound walls in Tubman’s school yard

Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School is one of the city’s most diverse.  Located in the heart of what historically was the center of the state’s African-American population, more than 60 percent of those enrolled are students of color. The Harriet Tubman School has long been the focal point in the struggle against racist policies.  Community activism helped save the school in the 1980s. There’s another historical legacy nearby as well:  the Interstate 5 Freeway, which, as we’ve chronicled was rammed through the neighborhood in the early 1960s, and which triggered a two-thirds decline in Albina’s population in just two decades.

We’re looking at Tubman Middle School today because the Oregon Department of Transportation is proposing to double-down on the environmental insult done to the area by widening the I-5 freeway, moving it even closer to the school.  As Oregon Public Broadcasting has reported, ODOT wants to move the freeway onto school property, and also build two 1,000-foot long, 22-foot tall noise walls between the school and the expanded freeway.   On Friday April 9, 150 community members rallied at the school to oppose the freeway widening project.  Two of the speakers were 9th grade students Adah Crandall and Malina Yuen, who had attended Tubman.

Harriet Tubman Middle School rally against the Rose Quarter freeway widening project, April 9, 2021.

Moving the freeway closer to the school

When it was built in the early 1960s, the freeway sliced through a portion of the then Eliot School’s grounds, removing a portion of both the school yard and the adjacent Lillis-Albina Park.  Plans for a wider I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway showed it would move the roadway closer to the school.  The group No More Freeways commissioned the following video showing how the freeway would cut away the hillside between the current roadway and the school.  No More Freeways filed suit in federal court to challenge the project’s environmental impact statement on April 2.

ODOT’s $800 million plan to cut away the hillside and move the I-5 freeway closer to Tubman Middle School. (Click for video).

Taking School Property

It hasn’t always been clear that the new freeway would intrude onto school property.  Newly obtained documents, released as part of a public records request, show that ODOT intends to take property now owned by the school district for its expanded freeway.  The following diagram shows the ODOT plans overlaid on a City of Portland map of property lines.  The turquoise lines on the chart correspond to property lines. The red cross-hatched area on the diagram is school property that would be taken for the freeway.

It’s a bit difficult to visualize the proposed taking of school property, so we’ve created a separate map which shows the take as a solid red area.  It’s clear that the new, wider freeway will be built by expanding on Tubman School property.  In a very real sense, we’re taking this land away from neighborhood school kids, and turning its use over to people driving through the area on the Interstate highway.

Estimated area of Portland Public School Property to be taken for freeway expansion (red).

A wider freeway will worsen already unhealthy air at Tubman Middle School

The major environmental issue posed by the proximity of the I-5 freeway to Harriet Tubman Middle School is the air pollution from automobile traffic on the roadway.  In its discussion of the issue, ODOT has been deceptive and inaccurate, both in estimating levels of pollution, and describing the standards of review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

ODOT has dramatically understated the air pollution associated with the freeway widening for several reasons.  First, as we’ve pointed out, it has modeled traffic only for a six-lane freeway, when in fact the 160 foot roadway it is building could accomodate 10 lanes, and vastly more traffic.  Second, its traffic modeling made factually false assumptions about both baseline and no-build levels of traffic on I-5 (inflating them by assuming that the Columbia River Crossing had been built in 2015 and allowing the model to have volumes in excess of capacity in the no-build scenario).  Third, it understated the amount of traffic growth (and pollution) in the build scenario, because its modeling made no allowance for induced demand from added capacity.

In addition, ODOT (and its peer review panel) engaged in a bit of regulatory sleight-of-hand in characterizing the project’s air quality impacts.  First, ODOT has repeatedly claimed that air quality in the area will be better in the future under the build scenario than it is today.  That may be true, but if it is, it is only because of factors entirely external to the project, specifically a changing vehicle mix (i.e. assumptions that fossil fueled vehicles become cleaner due to fuel efficiency requirements, and that a larger fraction of the fleet is electrified).  Whether this is true or not, it is actually irrelevant for purposes of the analysis required under NEPA.  NEPA requires a comparison of environmental effects with and without the project (i.e. “build” vs. “no-build”).  Since we will get vehicle efficiency and electrification regardless of whether this project is built or not, the fact that pollution levels are less than today (or not) are irrelevant.  The real, and unanswered (or incorrectly answered) question is whether air pollution will be higher under the “build” scenario, rather than the “no-build” scenario.  As we enumerated above, because ODOT systematically over-estimated “no-build” traffic, and systematically under-estimated “build” traffic, it got that analysis wrong.  Application of a scientifically calibrated induced travel calculator to the project shows that widening I-5 will generate millions more miles of car travel and thousands of tons more greenhouse gases and pollution each year.

The second bit of sleight of hand is claims by ODOT and its peer review panel that the project is either in compliance with the Clean Air Act or that no analysis of this project is required by the Clean Air Act (CAA).  That’s interesting information, but for the purposes of complying with NEPA, is irrelevant.  NEPA requires a disclosure of a project’s environmental impact, not simply an assurance that the project hasn’t violated some other federal law.  The peer review panel maintains that because Portland is not a “non-attainment” area under CAA, that ODOT is not required to do a “hot spot” analysis of the project.  The panel and ODOT also maintain that because no regulatory standards exist for greenhouse gas emissions, the project need not consider them.  Again, this may be true under the Clean Air Act, but by omitting this information, ODOT is failing to meet its obligations under NEPA to reveal the environmental effects of the measure.  In addition, NEPA requires that a project demonstrate conformity with applicable state and local laws; Oregon statutes call for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2050, and nothing in the project’s environmental assessment indicates how this project would comply; again, estimates using the induced travel calculator indicate the project will generate 8-15,000 additional tons of greenhouse gases annually.

Third, and perhaps most important, none of this analysis indicates whether either current or future levels of air pollution at Tubman School will be healthy or tolerable for Tubman students, staff and the public.  Even at current traffic levels, Tubman School’s air quality is problematic.  An independent assessment advised the school district to restrict outdoor activities by students.  The district spent more than $12 million of its own funds to add air filtration to make air inside the building safe for students to breathe.  Portland School Board member Julia Brim-Edwards raised exactly this issue at the March 22, 2021 meeting of the Executive Steering Committee.  In reply, she was told by members of the peer review panel that they didn’t look at that issue and that they were only tasked with judging compliance.

It is entirely possible for a freeway-widening project not to violate the Clean Air Act but also to worsen air pollution in a way that is deleterious to the health and well-being of people near the freeway.  We have a growing body of scientific evidence that higher levels of traffic near schools tend to impair student performance.  A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that after controlling for a variety of other factors, proximity to high volume roadways (like I-5) had a statistically significant negative effect on student performance on standardized assessment tests.  According to ODOT, this stretch of road carries about 120,000 vehicles per day, putting in the highest category on this chart, and the expansion project would allow even more cars in this area.

Jennifer Heissel, Claudia Persico, David Simon,
Does pollution drive achievement? The effect of traffic pollution on academic performance.
NBER Working Paper No. 25489.

A closer freeway means more noise pollution and towering sound walls

But ODOT isn’t just going to take school property for the freeway.  It is also proposing to build two 1,000-foot long, 22-foot tall noise walls between the newly widened roadway and the school.   In the following ODOT diagram—taken from the project’s 2019 environmental assessment—the two walls are shown as “2a” and “2b” and are shaded purple.

 

The exact location of these noise walls doesn’t appear to be final.  The plans are a bit vague as to whether they’ll be built on ODOT property or on the school grounds. In theory, the walls are supposed to attenuate the noise from the closer, wider freeway at the school. In fact, ODOT’s own peer review panel raised concerns about whether the walls would be effective, and recommended that the walls be moved closer to Tubman School.  This would almost certainly mean that the walls would be built on school property—so in addition to having some of its land taken for the roadway, the panel’s recommendation is that a further portion of school property be taken for the noise wall.

From the March 22, 2021, ESC meeting, slide summarizing the Peer Review:

The two twenty foot walls will be roughly as tall as the Tubman building itself (and are nearly twice as tall as the Berlin Wall), while they might reduce sound somewhat, they’ll also turn the school’s grounds into a cramped area dominated by a 1,000 foot long concrete wall, arguably more like a prison yard than a school yard.

Making a mockery of equity and restorative justice

As we’ve made clear at City Observatory, decades of highway building by the Oregon Department of Transportation decimated the Albina neighborhood, leading directly to a decline of two-thirds in the neighborhood’s population (the leading to the Eliot School—original occupant of today’s Tubman building—being merged with the nearby Boise School, because of falling enrollment.  The Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project benefits car travelers, particularly suburban commuters, while imposing significant financial, health and learning costs on Tubman students.  While the average peak hour single occupancy car commuter from Clark County Washington has a median household income of $82,000; half of Tubman students are on free and reduced price lunches.  In addition, three quarters of those commuters a non-Hispanic whites, while two thirds of the Tubman student body is children of color.  The $800 million project will subsidize these car commuters, and meanwhile Portland Public Schools has had to spend $12 million (that could otherwise be spent improving education) on making the air in the school building fit to breathe.  These stark disparities in who bears the costs and who gets the benefits of this freeway widening make a mockery of its claim to be promoting “restorative justice.”

 

 

Revealed: ODOT’s Secret Plans for a 10-Lane Rose Quarter Freeway

For years, ODOT has been planning to build a 10 lane freeway at the Rose Quarter, not the 6 lanes it has advertised.

Three previously undisclosed files show ODOT is planning for a 160 foot wide roadway at Broadway-Weidler, more than enough for a 10 lane freeway with full urban shoulders.

ODOT has failed to analyze the traffic, environmental and health impacts from an expansion to ten lanes; not disclosing these reasonably foreseeable impacts is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

For years, the Oregon Department of Transportation has represented its plans to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter in Portland as a minor addition of a pair of “auxiliary” lanes to the existing four lanes than carry I-5 through this area.  The agency has repeatedly declined to answer direct questions about the actual physical width of the roadway it is engineering, instead it relies on an incomplete and misleading illustration published in its Environmental Assessment.

Now, No More Freeways, a Portland citizen advocacy group has obtained documents showing that ODOT is actually planning a 160 foot roadway, one more than adequate to accommodate a full ten lane freeway. A story from Willamette Week, “Questions about the footprint of the I-5 Rose Quarter project intensify“, reveals that the Oregon Department of Transportation has long concealed data on the actual width of the freeway it is planning to build through Portland’s Rose Quarter.

ODOT has previously and repeatedly refused to answer basic questions about the width of the freeway.  These documents, which include detailed plans developed by ODOT and its contractors, shows the agency has long known exactly how wide a freeway it is planning, and has designed overpass structures to provide a full 160 feet of buildable space for Interstate 5 roadway at Broadway and Weidler. There’s no doubt, however, that the agency will continue to claim that it’s building a six lane freeway, but no one should believe them: there’s no reason to engineer a massive 160 foot wide roadway for only six lanes, as their own engineering documents, disclosed below show.  Moreover, this kind of deception is an established pattern for ODOT; in 2010 they assured Portland Mayor Sam Adams that they were shrinking the proposed Columbia River Crossing from 12-lanes to 10; instead, they kept the proposed bridge as wide as before and simply deleted all the references to its actual physical width from final environmental documents

Misleading and incomplete information in the Environmental Assessment

The only information provided about the width of the Rose Quarter Freeway was included in a single illustration contained in the project’s 2019 Environmental Assessment.  This illustration, which omits the overall width of the project shows only the dimensions of travel lanes and shoulders.  Together these add up to 126 feet.  That width, as we’ve pointed out at City Observatory, would easily hold an eight-lane freeway.

ODOT’s Misleading EA Illustration:  Six lanes in 126 feet

The following illustrations are taken from the Rose Quarter Environmental Assessment’s Right of Way Report.  We have added the black annotation with arrows indicating the width of the roadway; ODOT’s original illustrations do not provide this information, but we have calculated it from aerial imagery (existing) and by summing the lane and shoulder widths indicated on ODOT illustration (proposed).

What really fits in ODOT’s 160 foot roadway: 10 lanes of freeway 

We’ve drawn a new version of ODOT’s illustration that shows the actual size of the roadway they are proposing to build (on approximately the same scale as ODOT’s illustrations -above).  We’ve also shown how many lanes of traffic this roadway will accommodate.  Our diagram also shows the dimensions of travel lanes, and inside and outside shoulders an allowance for the freeway median and its structures.  This illustration makes it clear that ODOT is building a roadway that will easily accommodate a full ten-lane freeway.

ODOT’s actual freeway cross section at Broadway-Weidler

The undisclosed evidence of the 160 foot roadway.

Throughout the environmental review process and afterwards, the Oregon Department of Transportation has repeatedly declined to disclose the actual width, in feet, of the roadway it is planning to build through the Rose Quarter.

We’ve independently verified ODOT’s decision to engineer a 160-wide roadway based on three different documents.

File 1:  HDR Cover Analysis Memorandum, 2016

In April 2016,  ODOT consultants HDR prepared this memorandum to provide design parameters for the development of a proposal to construct covers over the freeway.  Figure two of this diagram shows the cross section of the freeway as proposed to be built under Broadway and Weidler overpasses.  The measurements on the diagram show two 80 foot spans on either side of a median support structure for a total width of 160 feet.  The detailed roadway section shows six 12 foot travel lanes, four 12 foot shoulders, and two unlabeled, vacant 17′ sections on either side of the outside shoulders.  The measurements on this diagram help explain the 126 foot section shown in ODOT’s illustrations above:  The illustration excludes the two 17 foot sections; adding back these sections brings the right of way to its full 160 foot width (126+34=160).  This detailed plan shows that actual travel lanes (36 feet; three 12 foot lanes on each side of the freeway) utilize less than half of the 80 feet of roadway under the overpass, with more space devoted to shoulders (24 feet in two shoulders) and an unlabeled 17 foot section (41 feet total).

Memo, April 7, 2016. From Andy Johnson (HDR) and Ron Hughes (AECOM), to Mike Mason and John Makler (ODOT), Subject:  Broadway/Weidler Lid Structure Design Concept Feasibility Analysis.

File 2:  CAD-Design Files

No More Freeways obtained a set of ODOT Computer Aided Design (CAD) files showing the plan for the proposed freeway.  We opened this file in a CAD program and used the file’s internal scale tool to measure the total distance of the roadway section as it crossed under the Broadway and Weidler overpasses.  The roadway section is shown in green; the total width of the roadway is 160 feet.

File 3:  Landscape Plans

ODOT hired landscape architect Marianne Zarkin (as a subcontractor to Nelson Nygaard and HDR) to develop a landscape plan for a proposed freeway cover.  Her firm’s website contains a plan of the proposed hardscape and landscaping for the freeway cover, and an included cross-section diagram illustrates the width of the freeway.  The files are un-dated.  While the diagram itself lacks a scale, it does show the size and location of freeway lanes.  Based on the nominal 12′ width of these lanes, the plan shows that the Broadway-Weidler overpass would span a distance of more than 150 feet.

Editor’s Note (February 25, 2021):  After this commentary was originally published, these images were removed from the publicly accessible location on Zarkin’s website. The link that directed to the image shown above now shows as “not found,” as shown below:

City Observatory retains copies downloaded from the website on 24 February 2021.

Why this matters:  More traffic, more pollution, an invalid environmental assessment

ODOT has attempted to minimize the traffic, environmental, health and noise effects of its freeway widening project by representing it as the addition of only two “auxiliary” lanes to the existing four-lane freeway.  These newly revealed plans show that ODOT is actually planning a ten-lane freeway, which would accommodate vastly more traffic, and as a result would have far different and much greater impacts on the area’s livability, safety, and environment.

Constructing additional lanes will induce additional traffic demand, leading to large increases in vehicle miles traveled, air pollution emissions and greenhouse gases.  A ten-lane freeway will, for example, increase the air pollution exposure of students at Harriet Tubman Middle School, which abuts the widened freeway.  The traffic from the ten lane freeway will flood adjacent city streets, making them more hazardous for cyclists and pedestrians.  A higher level of traffic through the Rose Quarter will also make sites on or near the freeway (like the proposed caps) noisier and more polluted than revealed in the Environmental Assessment.

 

Inclusionary Zoning: Portland’s Wile E. Coyote moment has arrived

Portland’s inclusionary zoning requirement is a slow-motion train-wreck; apartment completions are down by two-thirds, and the development pipeline is drying up

This will lead to slower housing supply growth and increasing rents for everyone over the next two to three years

Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) creates perverse incentives to under-utilize available land

In December 2016, Portland’s City Council enacted a strong inclusionary housing requirement.  Henceforth, all new apartment buildings in Portland would have to set-aside a portion of their units for low- and moderate income housing. Unlike other cities that either made compliance voluntary, or largely (or entirely) offset the cost of the added units with density bonuses or subsidies (or other quid pro quo), the Portland ordinance applied to nearly all apartment buildings larger than 20 units. The new requirement didn’t kick in until February 2017, and there was a land rush of developers who filed under the old rules.  That produced a temporary flood of new apartment buildings, that have, over the past four years, mostly been built.

Investment markets work with lags for a variety of reasons.  It takes time to plan, obtain permission for, and actually build new housing, and multi-family housing takes longer than single family housing.  As a result, there’s a multi-year pipeline.  When there are housing shortages, as there were in the early days of the recovery from the Great Recession, supply can’t expand as rapidly as demand, and rents get bid up.  The reverse is also true; a glut of building in good times produces new apartment supply that holds down rents, at least for a while.  That effect has concealed the negative consequences of Portland’s inclusionary zoning policy.

As we observed in May of 2019, the initial implementation of inclusionary zoning resulted in a kind of counter-intuitive acceleration of apartment construction.

. . .  the first two years of inclusionary zoning in Portland have been a game-theory win-win for housing affordability. The threat of tougher future requirements prompted a whole lot of investment to happen much earlier than it otherwise would have, and new developments, added to those already under construction, have helped deliver a lot more new apartments in Portland.

Portland reaches its Wile E. Coyote moment

Back in 2019, we said that Portland’s apartment market was in the midst of the “don’t look down” portion of its Wile E. Coyote experience. The momentum from pre-IZ housing applications filled the construction pipeline, and led to a steady increase in the number of new apartment completions.  And, as we’ve noted, the increase in supply pushed up vacancy rates, and rent increases, which had been in the double digit range in 2015, fell to just 1-2 percent per year, according to Apartment LIst data.

But now, Wile E. Coyote has looked down, and seen nothing holding him up. Data compiled by local economic consulting firm ECONorthwest tracks the number of apartment permits issued in Portland over the past 15 years.  It shows the surge in new apartments in 2017 largely holding up in 2018 and 2019, but then plummeting by roughly two-thirds in 2020, from an average of 4,500 new apartments per year to fewer than 1,500.

The ECONW analysis of the building permit data is echoed by other market analysts.  Noel Johnson’s website, EnvisionPDXtrends also has data on Portland’s development pipeline showing a diminished volume of new apartment construction activity since the inception of the city’s inclusionary housing requirements.

Portland apartment completions (EnvisionPDXtrends)

Similarly Patrick Barry, of the Barry Apartment Report, says that there’s been a sharp fall off in the number of new multi-family building permits applied for in Multnomah County (which contains the City of Portland).  New apartment permits in the county have fallen more than 60 percent in the past year, from  5,165 units in 2019 to 2,043 in 2020.

By all measures, Wile E. Coyote is plummeting to the desert floor.

Lean years ahead for apartment deliveries

What’s even more ominous, though, is a parallel decline in new projects in the application process.  It takes time (two or even three years) for a project to go from permit application to “for lease,” so much of Portland’s apartment supply for 2022 and 2023 (when, by all accounts the economy is expected to be booming again), is essentially already baked into the cake of filed permit applications.  Again, ECONW tracks these new permit applications using city data.  Entry into the pipeline is defined as “set up” activity, when an applicant pre-files or files for a new building permit.  The number of set ups for apartment units peaked in 2016 and 2017 at slightly more than 6,000 new units per year.  Since then, new setups have declined by a third in 2018 and 2019 to about 4,000 per year.  In 2020, new setups were about 2,600, less than half their 2017 level.

Just as the past two to three years have produced a kind of temporary win-win of greater apartment deliveries and slowing rent inflation, the next couple of years seem almost certain to have exactly the opposite:  declining numbers of new apartments, and rising rents.  Already, national forecasters like Zillow are predicting a rapid rebound in demand for urban markets in the post-pandemic period.

Developers will likely wait for the City of Portland to realize the devastating effects of these burdensome IZ requirements and to relax them, or wait for rents to rise enough to support the costs of building new apartments and covering the cost of subsidized units, or simply resign themselves to building smaller, 20-unit buildings, that do much less to expand housing supply and may mean permanently under-utilizing sites that are well-situated to accommodate even greater density.

The Mansard effect

Some of the effects of Portland’s IZ requirements will be quirky and permanent changes to the building stock  For example, one key feature of Portland’s inclusionary zoning rule is that it exempts buildings with 20 or fewer apartments from the inclusionary housing requirement, apparently based on the assumption that such a requirement would make these smaller projects uneconomical.  But what that exemption has done is to prompt many developers to shift to these smaller buildings.  Over the past couple of years, data from the city show that the number of 16-20 unit apartments has (red line) while the number of 21-25 unit buildings (green line) has disappeared.  The number of 16-20 unit buildings in 2020 was 143 percent higher than the 2014-2016 average; the number of 21-25 unit buildings was 100 percent lower (zero) than its 2014-16 average.

For reference, as noted above, total apartment completions declined about 67 percent over this time. The 20-unit and under exemption essentially incentivizes developers to build fewer apartments, and because residential structures tend to be long-lived, once a site is built out at 20 units when it could have been 25 or 30 units, that additional housing will be foreclosed for 50 or 100 years.

Also, developers have noted that the inclusionary provision applies on a building-by-building basis, so by dividing a development project up into a series of 20-unit or smaller buildings, a developer can build many apartments without having to comply with the inclusionary requirement.  That shows up, for example in a recent development in Northwest Portland, where developer Noel Johnson is building eight five-story residential buildings, with a total of 145 units on a small urban infill site.  Again, because each building is 20 or fewer units, the inclusionary requirements don’t apply.

Northbound 30 (Jones Architecture and Waechter Architecture, via Next Portland).

Doing this development as eight different buildings may not the most efficient arrangement, but (to this economist’s eye) the result isn’t unaesthetic.  Johnson points out that dividing the project into multiple buildings assures that each apartment is a corner unit (dual-aspect to you English housey types), which make them more desirable.  It’s an example of how regulation can prompt innovation.

The effect of restrictive land use regulations on urban architectural form has a long history. Mansard windows, now a cherished hallmark of Parisian architecture, soared to popularity as a dodge on city building restrictions.  Buildings in Paris were limited to just 20 meters (about 65 feet), but the rules provided the height would be measured at the building’s cornice.  As a result, a floor or two stepped back behind a steeply angled gambrel roof didn’t count against the height limit.  (Fun fact: back in the days before elevators, apartments on the top floors of buildings commanded rents because tenants had to walk up every flight of stairs; the mansard-enabled apartments essentially functioned as a kind of affordable housing bonus).

Paris builders used Mansard roofs to evade the city’s 20 meter height limit

While the Mansard roofs are endearing, they’re a visible and enduring symbol of the power of regulation to alter the housing market.  And more significant than the changes to the housing that gets built, are the ways that regulations cause new housing not to be built at all can have even greater, but unfortunately largely unseen impacts.  The new apartments that aren’t being built now in Portland will almost certainly lead to higher rents and less affordability in the years ahead—exactly the opposite of the expressed intentions of those who enacted this policy.  It’s the apartments that aren’t being built that are the real legacy of inclusionary zoning.

Editor’s Note:  Thanks to Mike Wilkerson of ECONorthwest and Noel Johnson of EnvisionPDXtrends.com for sharing their tabulations of Portland apartment permit data.  Opinions and analysis presented here solely reflect the views of City Observatory.

The Fundamental, Global Law of Road Congestion

Studies from around the world have validated the existence of induced demand:  each improvement to freeway capacity in urban areas generates more traffic.

The best available science worldwide—in Europe, Japan and North America—shows a “unit-elasticity” of travel with respect to capacity:  A 1 percent expansion of capacity tends to generate 1 percent more vehicle miles traveled.

The fundamental law of road congestion requires us to fix broken traffic models and stop widening highways in a futile effort to reduce congestion.

Call it what you will:  Jevons Paradox, Braess Paradox, Marchetti’s Constant or Downs’ Triple Convergence, the science confirms them all.

Induced demand:  More road capacity produces more traffic

At City Observatory, we’ve related the classic example of North America’s widest freeway, the 23-lane Katy Freeway in Houston.  It’s been successively widened many times, most recently at a cost of $3 billion, and within three years of its expansion, commute times were even longer than before.

But there’s much more than anecdotes like the Katy Freeway to buttress the observation of induced demand.  Sophisticated, in-depth studies of transportation infrastructure and traffic levels, that look at entire nations and measure traffic changes over decades find what is now being called “the fundamental law of road congestion.”  An increase in road capacity directly generates a proportional increase in traffic, with the effect that congestion and travel times quickly return to (or worsen from) pre-expansion levels.  Simply put, expanding road capacity is a futile, and self-defeating effort.  Urban highway expansion is the labor of Sisyphus.

Two recent and definitive studies are Duranton and Turner’s “Fundamental Law of Road Congestion,” and more recently Kent Hymel’s “If you build it they will drive” both of these studies use data for the US and find a unit elasticity of traffic with respect to roadway expansion. Hsu and Zhang found a nearly identical result for roadway expansion projects in Japan.

Europe:  Still more evidence Induced Demand and the fundamental law of road congestion

The latest evidence of the universality of the fundamental law comes from Europe.  Three researchers from the University of Barcelona use two decades of data for hundreds of European cities to replicate the methodology used by Duranton and Turner and Hymel in the U.S.  They find very similar results, confirming the fundamental law of road congestion.  The best estimate is that the elasticity of travel with respect to capacity is essentially unitary:  a one percent increase in highway capacity generates a one percent increase in vehicle travel.

We use data for the 545 largest European cities to estimate the elasticity of a measure of congestion with respect to highway expansion. The results indicate that this elasticity is in the range close to 1. This suggests that expansion of the highway network induced the demand for car travel, and so, on average, the level of congestion remained roughly unchanged in the period 1985–2005. In other words, we show that investments in highways did not effectively relieve traffic congestion.

Congestion in Edinburgh (The Herald)

Tolling is the only way to avoid the induced demand trap

Garcia-Lopez, Pasidis and Viladecans-Marsal examine how the prevalence of tolled roadways affects the induced demand effect.  Cities that toll a higher proportion of their highway system have a much smaller induced demand effect.  Their analysis concludes that traffic is highly elastic in response to capacity expansions in cities with no tolls (each 1 percent in capacity results in a nearly 2 percent incrase in travel; which traffic is highly inelastic in cities with 100 percent tolled highways (a 1 percent increase in capacity results in a 0.3 percent increase int raffic:

(1) highway improvements increase congestion, (2) the effect is smaller in cities with tolls, and (3) the fundamental law is mainly related to cities without tolls or with a low percentage of tolled highways. In particular, and focusing on our preferred specification in column 3 (using a continuous interaction), a 1% increase in lane kilometers increases congestion by 1.9% in cities without tolls and by only 0.3% (=1.9-1.6) in cities with tolls in all their highways (100% share of tolled highways). Some simple computations show that the fundamental law applies to cities with a share of tolled highways below 56%. These results can be regarded as novel evidence in line with recent literature suggesting that the solution to traffic congestion is the adoption of ’congestion’ pricing policies.

Policy implications:  Fix broken traffic models; Stop widening highways

The fundamental law of road congestion is a demonstrated scientific fact, with unambiguous implications for public policy.  First and foremost, the fundamental law signals that the folk wisdom (repeated by highway boosters) that we can somehow “build our way out” of traffic congestion is utterly false.  More roads simply generate more traffic and more sprawl.  Cities and states should stop spending money on road widening projects to reduce congestion.  There’s a second, more subtle and technocratic point as well.  The fiction that more capacity will somehow reduce congestion is actually hard-wired into many of the “four-step” traffic models highway departments use to plan (and justify) highway widening.  The models are calibrated in a way that either ignores or denies the existence of induced demand, usually by simply assuming that the level of traffic demand is fixed, and unaffected by either journey times, delays or congestion.  At best models may crudely re-route traffic in response to congestion, but they fail to alter aggregate trip demand, especially in the long run.  As a result, as Jamey Volker, Susan Handy and Amy Lee show, most existing travel models create the false illusion that a wider road will lead to faster traffic.  Transportation planners–and funding entities, like the Federal Highway Administration—should insist that transportation models be updated to reflect scientific reality. The induced travel calculator shows how this can be done, now.

A truth with many names and discoverers

While this new study from Barcelona, and the similar papers by Duranton & Turner, Hymel, and Hu and Zhang all elaborate in great statistical detail on this finding, the basic concept is well understood, and has been for decades (or longer).  The scientific validation of the phenomenon of induced demand buttresses a series of related explanations:  the Jevons Paradox, the Braess Paradox, and Marchetti’s constant and the Triple Convergence.

Jevons Paradox holds that an increase in efficiency in resource use will generate an increase in resource consumption rather than a decrease.  English economist William Stanley Jevons predicted greater efficiency in using coal would increase its use in 1863.  The efficiency gain seems paradoxical, if one assumes that demand is unaffected by the lower price of a more efficient process, but by making something more efficient, we generate additional demand.

Braess’s Paradox is the application of this general idea specifically to traffic.  German engineer Dietrich Braess postulated exactly this in 1968.

Marchetti’s constant is a corollary to these paradoxes:  It observes that the amount of time human’s devote to daily travel remains constant regardless of improvements in transportation technology. Whether walking, riding horses or streetcars, or driving cars, we devote about an average of an hour a day to travel.  Marchetti’s constant means that we use improvements in transportation to travel further, rather than saving time, a result fully consistent with the fundamental law of road congestion. (The observation has been made independently by many observers including Bertrand Russell as early as 1934.

Down’s Triple Convergence, in his 1992 book Stuck in Traffic, economist Anthony Downs described the existence of a “triple convergence” in which changes in road infrastructure prompted changes in the mode (i.e. transit to car), time, or destination of trips in ways that would lead to congestion reappearing even after an expansion of road capacity.

Miquel-Àngel Garcia-López & Ilias Pasidis & Elisabet Viladecans-Marsal, 2020. “Congestion in highways when tolls and railroads matter: Evidence from European cities,” Working Papers wpdea2011, Department of Applied Economics at Universitat Autonoma of Barcelona.

 

 

Oregon’s I-5 bridge costs just went up $150 million

Buried in an Oregon Department of Transportation presentation earlier this month is an acknowledgement that the I-5 bridge replacement “contribution” from Oregon will be as much as $1 billion—up from a maximum of $850 million just two months earlier.

The I-5 bridge replacement project (formerly known as the Columbia River Crossing) is a proposal for a multi-billion dollar freeway widening and bridge-expansion program between Portland and Vancouver.  The original CRC project died after costing nearly $200 million for staff and consultants in 2014, but has been revived in the past year.

The cost to Oregon of reviving this boondoggle just jumped to $1 billion.

Late last year, we took a close look at the project’s initial financial plans, which show the project could cost as much as $4.8 billion (and considerably more if more realistic inflation estimates are used). We also identified a fundamental math error in the estimation of the project’s financial gap, i.e. the difference between expected costs and potential revenues.  The Oregon and Washington transportation departments—ODOT and WSDOT—understated the maximum size of the funding gap (i.e. what happens in the two state’s realize the low end of expected revenues and incur the high end of expected costs), by more than $1 billion; the total gap the two state’s face is $3.4 billion.  That hole will have to be filled for the project to move forward.  While both states have indicated an interest in reviving the project, neither has committed funds, so a big question now is, how much will they have to contribute.  The Oregon Department of Transportation was telling legislators one thing a couple of months ago, and something a good deal more expensive now.

December 2020:  Oregon contribution $650 to $850 million

ODOT has been including its estimates of Oregon’s share of these costs in its presentations to state legislators.  On December 10, 2021, ODOT testified to the Legislature that Oregon’s contribution to the I-5 bridge project would be $650 million to $850 million.  (The second colored bar on this chart is identified as “Interstate Bridge Replacement Contribution”

February 2021:  Oregon contribution $750 to $850 million
That estimate is no longer operative.  In a presentation to the Legislature on February 4, 2021, the Department included this diagram, showing the state’s contribution to the project was now $750 million to 1 billion.  The chart is almost identical to the chart presented in December, only the price tag of the I-5 bridge project has changed.
In presenting this chart to the Joint Transportation Committee, ODOT’s Brendan Finn made no mention of the increase in Oregon’s expected contribution.  Instead, he drew the committee’s attention to the timetable for implementation of tolling, and didn’t discuss any of the budgetary amounts listed on this chart.  No one on the committee commented on or questioned the budget amounts.
By comparison to financial plans for the original CRC, this represents essentially a doubling of the state contribution to project costs.  The adopted CRC finance plan called for Oregon and Washington to each chip in $450 million, with the balance of the project to be paid for by tolls, federal transportation funds, and hoped for earmarks.  This change in Oregon’s contribution also implies that the total cost of the project has likely increased by between $200 and $300 million since December, as project costs are divided evenly between the two states by agreement of their state transportation commissions.
Steadily escalating project costs, with under-estimates early on, and cost-overruns later are a routine feature of ODOT projects.  Just a year ago, after long telling the Oregon Legislature that the Rose Quarter freeway widening project would cost $450 million, ODOT raised the project’s price tag to as much as $795 million.  Cost-overruns of 200 percent or more have been common on large ODOT highway projects like the Highway 20 Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville segment, the Newberg-Dundee bypass and Portland’s Grand Avenue Viaduct.
While the allocation of much smaller amounts to bicycle, pedestrian and safety projects generates substantial debate and visible resistance from ODOT, the implied decision to increase the allocation for a major freeway-widening project doesn’t even merit a mention to the Legislature, and is accomplished, seemingly, with a deft change to a single powerpoint slide.  This is typical of ODOT budget practices which conveniently find “unanticipated” revenue whenever it’s time to fund a major highway project.
Even though Oregon and Washington have already spent nearly $200 million on the CRC, and committed another $50 million to the planning effort to revive the project, there’s still considerable uncertainty about the project’s actual dimensions, costs, and revenues.  All one can say with any confidence, based on long experience, is that the project’s total price tag is likely to go even higher.

Equitable Carbon Fee and Dividend

An equitable carbon fee and dividend should be set to a price level necessary to achieve GHG reduction goals; kicker payment should be set so 70% of people receive a net income after paying carbon tax or at least break even.

By Garlynn Woodsong

Editor’s note: City Observatory is pleased to publish this commentary by Garlynn Woodsong. Garlynn is the Managing Director of the planning consultancy Woodsong Associates, and has more than 20 years of experience in regional planning, urban analytics and real estate development. Instrumental in the development and deployment of the RapidFire and UrbanFootprint urban/regional scenario planning decision-support tools while with Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley, CA, his focus is on making the connections between planning, greenhouse gas emission reductions, public health, and inclusive economic development. For more information, or to contact Garlynn, visit this website.  Earlier, Garlynn wrote “A Regional Green New Deal for Portland” at City Observatory.

 

One thing that has been made abundantly clear during the pandemic of 2020 (and beyond) is the importance of making social payments to help people deal with a difficult and shared transition. During 2020, this transition was due to COVID-19, and involved large portions of the population ceasing to commute or otherwise engage in normal activities outside of the home that involved other people or indoor spaces. There was wide recognition that payments needed to be made to help everyone cope with the expense of the pandemic, as mitigation for a shared national social emergency.

As I write this, Congress is currently debating the right size and number of payments to send, and to whom they should be sent, in order to mitigate for some of the personal impacts of this long and drawn-out national crisis. There is wide recognition that, in this context, it is in everyone’s best interest to make sure all of us have the resources we need to survive; the debate is over the details.

We must now also contend with the transition from a fossil-fuel-dominated economy to a post-carbon economy in order to stave off the worst potential impacts of climate change. Climate change is, in many ways, like a much slower moving pandemic, one  where the majority of the body counts still lie years, decades, or centuries in the future, rather than right now (with fears of potential consequences a few weeks from now flowing from any poor decision-making in the present). Yet, we are beginning to see that, even now, the demands for some kind of restitution are being made for those who face potential job or gig losses due to fossil fuel pipelines being canceled under the Biden administration.

These demands are not wrong. 

If we are to be successful in enacting a just transition away from a fossil-fuel-powered economy to a carbon-free economy, there will be a steady decline in job opportunities in occupations tied to fossil fuels, such as coal mining, oil drilling, and fossil fuel pipeline building. We must therefore construct a framework to provide climate adjustment aid payments to individuals, to help pay for retraining, retooling, investments, and for equity reasons. I would argue that this should come in the form of a carbon dividend that is paid for by a carbon fee.

For decades, economists have recommended the use of a carbon tax to achieve the necessary GHG emissions reductions we need to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Yet, within the United States, carbon taxes have not yet been deployed broadly. Most recently, a proposal for a carbon tax was defeated at the ballot box in Washington State, thanks to heavy spending by fossil fuel interests.

To date, however, we have not yet seen a proposal at the ballot box for an equitable carbon tax, which I would argue should instead be called a carbon fee-and-dividend program. This is what we need, however, to power our just transition away from fossil fuels, and to “build back better” the carbon-free economy of the future that we need — without leaving anyone behind.

A carbon fee will necessarily impose additional costs on households and businesses. To ensure that it is not regressive, it must thus be paired with a carbon dividend payment, so that lower-income households are not unfairly burdened by the expense of the fee. That’s a baseline: that the dividend for the average person should cover (or more than cover) their costs of reducing carbon emissions; they could either spend their dividend to lower their emissions and avoid the carbon fee, or if they didn’t have a good way to do that, the dividend would at least cover the costs of the fee of the typical person. We might fund additional benefits, providing higher payments to folks within certain targeted communities, such as those that experience disproportionate burdens from an economic transition away from fossil fuels. These could include both a sort of extended unemployment payments to individuals, as well as a kind of climate loan (perhaps modeled after the Paycheck Protection Program [PPP]) to finance businesses that convert to carbon-free processes.

Affordable, zero-emission homes could be financed with low-interest loans.

Here are the elements that such a program should contain, whether enacted by local municipalities, regions, states, or at the national level:

  • The carbon fee should be applied upstream, that is, at the level at which fossil fuels or fossil fuel-derived products enter the economy of the taxing jurisdiction, based on the amount of embodied carbon they contain (their carbon emission potential), as well as the amount of carbon used to produce them.
  • The price of the carbon fee should be set at a meaningful level to begin with, such as $15 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions potential (a level proposed by Brookings); not so low as to be completely ineffective, and not so high as to provide a shock to the economy.
  • The price of the carbon fee should escalate steadily over time, at a rate that is estimated to deliver the emissions reductions we need to achieve our climate goals.  Estimates vary widely on how high the fee would need to go in order to put us on track to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5C by 2030.  The IMF estimates it would need to rise to $75 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 2030; other estimates are higher.  But once we are on track, the carbon fee (and payments) would flatten out automatically. 
  • A robust modeling and monitoring program would need to accompany the program, to ensure that the tax rate is set properly to deliver the needed emissions reductions from all sectors of the economy; for instance, if Vehicle Miles Traveled doesn’t decrease by an amount that, combined with the penetration of electric vehicles and blending of renewable fuels, delivers the necessary carbon emissions reductions by a certain year, then the carbon fee should be automatically adjusted upwards to a level estimated (using best available evidence as to the elasticity of demand for fuel containing carbon based on changes to its price) to deliver the necessary emissions reductions by an agency with authority to do so without political interference.
  • Some of the revenue from the program should be returned to individual households on a sliding scale, with no revenue returned to households making 200% or more of median income (currently about $140,000 per year), but sufficient revenue returned so that 70% of households making less than 200% of median income will experience no net increase in household expenses due to the carbon fee during the first five years of its roll-out.
  • These payments to households should come in the form of a check from the government, delivered monthly or quarterly, so that there is a regular, continuing benefit that can be banked on by regular folks — the same regular folks whose support will be needed to pass an initiative at the ballot box, or support a politician taking a vote in a city hall, county seat, regional council chamber, or state or national capital.
  • The remainder of the revenue from the carbon fee should be used to finance the transition away from fossil fuels to a carbon-free economy. 
  • A public bank should be funded by the carbon fee and empowered to make low-interest loans, using a revolving loan fund, to finance investments that will reduce emissions. This could take the form of a secondary market for loans originated by private lenders; the point is to make the funding available at comparatively low interest rates. These investments could include anything from a household seeking to buy an electric vehicle and install solar/wind power generating facilities and energy storage solutions, to companies seeking to replace fossil fuel consuming processes with renewable processes. Repayment terms should be set to ensure that individuals and companies receiving financing will experience a net benefit, that is, a reduced operating cost level after participating in a bank-funded program in comparison to their previous expenditures for fossil fuel-based energy.
  • Certain public investments, such as high speed rail, electric-powered public transit, creating walkable neighborhoods, and similar public infrastructure, should be funded using carbon fee revenue through a grant program to fund the transition away from fossil fuels. We won’t be able to reduce emissions sufficiently to achieve our targets using electric cars and solar panels alone; we also need to transition to compact communities built around walking, rather than driving, in order to reduce the demand for energy to a level we can provide within the limited time available between now and 2035, and 2050. Public investments will need to be made to implement this transition, and the carbon fee can provide the funding.

The beauty of such a carbon fee and dividend program, is that it provides the funding mechanism to households and businesses to pay for a transition away from fossil fuel consumption. If a household currently owns something that requires fossil fuels, such as an internal combustion-powered automobile, then it should be able to obtain financing from the public bank to purchase an electric vehicle, with payments covered by the divided (up to a certain reasonable amount). Then, if at any point a household wants to switch from using the dividend payments to pay for gasoline, to using them to service the car payments for a new electric vehicle, it will have the mechanism to do so without impacting the balance of the household budget. Critically, the carbon dividend payments should be made first, before the carbon fee comes due, to ensure that the most vulnerable members of the community are not harmed by its initial roll-out.

Trees sequester large amounts of carbon. A carbon tax could fund activities to protect and replant forests.

If a business currently owns something that requires fossil fuels, such as a blast furnace to produce steel that is powered by coal coke, then it should be eligible for low-interest financing to replace the fuel source for the blast furnace with electric power or renewable energy.

Such a program won’t be sufficient, by itself, to achieve our total emissions reductions goals by 2050. However, as a part of a larger Green New Deal-esque program that includes investments in urbanism to reduce overall demand for energy in the transportation and building sectors, it could be the critical factor that provides financing to ensure the success of much of the balance of the policy package.

Critically, an equitable dividend as a part of a carbon fee initiative will ensure that a harsher burden is not imposed on households with lower incomes, and thus it will prove to be a progressive, rather than regressive, solution to climate change.  One valuable lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that it makes sense, in the face of a dire crisis that threatens everyone, to make payments to help those most affected or who need to adapt for the benefit of all.  We should apply that lesson to the climate crisis.

How ODOT destroyed Albina: The I-5 Meat Axe

Interstate 5 “Meat Axe” slashed through the Albina Neighborhood in 1962

This was the second of three acts by ODOT that destroyed housing and isolated Albina

Building the I-5 freeway led to the demolition of housing well-outside the freeway right of way, and flooded the neighborhood with car traffic, ending its residential character and turning into an auto-oriented landscape of parking lots, gas stations and car dealerships.

New York City’s Robert Moses is cast—accurately—as the villain who routinely rammed freeways through city neighborhoods.  Freeways, Moses said “. . . must go right through cities, and not around them, . . . When you’re operating in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack your way with a meat axe.” (Moses, 1954, quoted in Mohl, 2002).

And Moses, the subject of Robert Caro’s epic biography The Power Broker, actually wielded his meat axe in Portland. The original route of the Interstate 5, which at the time was called the “Eastbank Freeway” was recommended by none other than Moses, who came to the city in 1943 with a group of his “Moses Men,” to recommend a public works program for the region, which recommended the city be carved up by a series of freeways.

As part of its efforts to sell a $800 million I-5 freeway widening project in Portland, ODOT, the Oregon Department of Transportation, has made quite a show of acknowledging its complicity in destroying the Albina neighborhood, which six decades ago, was the segregated home of a plurality of the city’s Black residents.  But its role didn’t start with the construction of I-5 in the early sixties, nor did it end then.  ODOT has made repeatedly hemmed in and destroyed Albina, starting more than seventy years ago.

In part I of this series, we unearthed the largely forgotten—and entirely unacknowledged—role the Oregon Department of Transportation played in triggering the downfall of Portland’s Albina neighborhood in 1951, with its decision to build a mile-long extension of Highway 99W (Interstate Avenue) along the Willamette River. Of all the public “investments” that dismantled Albina, this was the first, but not the last.

1962:  ODOT’s I-5 cuts through Albina

Less than a decade later, the Oregon State Highway Department was back, with another apply another  meat axe to the Albina neighborhood, in the form of the construction of Interstate 5.  It chose a route for the new Interstate 5, largely parallel to and less than a mile east, cutting through the heart of the Albina neighborhood.  And in true 1960’s freeway fashion, the right of way wasn’t just a narrow slice of land, the highway department condemned and demolished businesses and housing for several blocks on either side of the land eventually used for the roadway.

That’s apparent in this 1962 photo showing the project’s construction:

 

In its effort to sell a new $800 million widening of the I-5 freeway through what’s now called the Rose Quarter (to build, as we’ve shown a ten lane freeway), ODOT has made a conspicuous show of apologizing for the original construction of the freeway.  But in our view, the apology has been glossed over ODOT’s role.  Their public relations materials have dramatically understated damage done to the neighborhood.

Here’s a diagram prepared by ODOT consultants, to show how the freeway affected the Albina neighborhoods as it appeared in 1954 (i.e. after ODOT had already built Highway 99W).  ODOT’s historical map shows the homes and businesses as they existed in 1954, and then overlays the I-5 freeway itself as a pair of slender pink lines.  But this significantly understates the scale of the demolition in Albina.  The freeway’s true footprint involved acquiring and demolishing property on both sides of the roadway, as shown in the solid red lines on the right.  Critically, I-5 disconnected much of the Albina street grid.

The area outlined in red on the right hand side of this diagram shows blocks where multiple structures that existed in 1948 had been demolished by 1962, as shown in aerial photographs (see below). This includes both the land occupied by the freeway itself, as well as land cleared as part of the construction process.

The I-5 Freeway Construction Footprint

To get a closer look at this reality, compare these pairs of aerial photographs taken before and after I-5 construction.  The reality is the I-5 freeway leveled whole city blocks on either side of the right of way.  This pair of images allows you to see a “before” and “after” view of the neighborhood.  The before image from 1948 shows the housing and businesses that existed prior to freeway construction; the after shows what was demolished by 1962.  We haven’t been able to obtain data showing a complete list of the properties ODOT acquired and demolished, so we’ve relied on photo interpretation to identify blocks where housing or buildings that existed in 1948 had been demolished in 1962. It may be that some privately owned homes adjacent to the freeway were abandoned by their owners and demolished.

Albina:  From the Steel Bridge to N. Cook Street

Our first pair of aerial photographs shows the entirety of Albina from the Steel Bridge on the South to N. Cook Street (just near the Boise-Eliot School) on the North.  (The original 1948 photograph is truncated on the East)

1948                         ↔                          1962

 

Close Up:  The southern part of Albina

The damage done by the construction of the I-5 freeway is even more apparent when we zoom in to the southern portion of the neighborhood, the area between the Broadway and Steel bridges, and between the Willamette River and Martin Luther King Boulevard (called Union Avenue in 1962).


1948                           ↔                       1962

 

Freeway traffic, not just the roadway, is what doomed Albina

The result of ODOT’s highway construction was to obliterate much of Albina, and to isolate the remaining parts of the neighborhood. Predictably, the neighborhood’s population collapsed between 1950 and 1970, as the area was given over to the automobile. Much of the decline in population in Albina happened years after the freeway was built. The flood of cars undercut neighborhood livability, and population steadily declined in the 60s, 70s and 80s. As people moved away, neighborhood businesses that served local residents, many owned by African-Americans, died. More cars, fewer people, fewer businesses, and a shrunken impoverished neighborhood Building the freeway clearly privileged the interests of those driving through the area, especially suburban commuters, over the people who actually lived here.

 

The construction of I-5 was the second act in a three-part tragedy that doomed the Albina neighborhood.  The first was the construction of Highway 99W in 1951, cutting the neighborhood off from the River.  The I-5 freeway construction in 1962 demolished a huge share of the neighborhoods housing, and irrevocably turned this residential area into an auto-dominated sea of parking lots, roadways, gas stations and car dealerships.  But as we’ll see, there was a third act in the early 1970s that largely completed the encirclement and destruction of the neighborhood by ODOT highways.

It’s sometimes said that what’s past is prologue.  The ODOT public relations campaign for the $800 million Rose Quarter I-5 freeway widening project aims to portray it as a mere minor tweak to the existing roadway, the addition of a couple of inconsequential “auxiliary lanes.” They’re implying that if the footprint of the freeway isn’t expanded much there are no impacts.  Not only is that not true—the hidden plan is to build a 10-lane freeway through—the Rose Quarter, but the real impacts are driven by the flood of cars this would enable.  The real problem with the Rose Quarter freeway is not so much that the project increases the freeway’s footprint—which it does, in ways that ODOT has actively concealed—but rather that by adding additional road capacity, the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project repeats the damage to the neighborhood by injecting even more vehicles into this car-dominated environment.  If we learn anything from history, this is not an error that we should allow to be repeated.

 

How ODOT destroyed Albina: The untold story

I-5 wasn’t the first highway that carved up Portland’s historically black Albina Neighborhood.

Seventy years ago, ODOT spent the equivalent of more than $80 million in today’s dollars to cut the Albina neighborhood off from the Willamette River.

ODOT’s highways destroyed housing and isolated Albina, lead to a two-thirds reduction in population between 1950 and 1970.

Demolishing neighborhoods for state highways is ODOT’s raison d’etre.

As part of its efforts to sell a $800 million I-5 freeway widening project in Portland, ODOT, the Oregon Department of Transportation, has made quite a show of acknowledging its complicity in destroying the Albina neighborhood, which six decades ago, was the segregated home of a plurality of the city’s Black residents.  But its role didn’t start with the construction of I-5 in the early sixties, nor did it end then.  ODOT has made repeatedly hemmed in and destroyed Albina, starting more than seventy years ago.

In 1950, the Oregon State Highway Department built a mile-long extension of Highway 99W that cut Albina off from the Willamette River, and began the process of destroying the housing and businesses that made up the neighborhood.

It’s lost to the living memory of all but a handful of Oregonians, but before 1950, there was no “North Interstate Avenue” between the Steel Bridge and North Tillamook Street (several blocks North of the Broadway Bridge.  In 1950, the Oregon State Highway Department leveled dozens of houses, and removed city streets.  Here’s a grainy contemporaneous news photo from the Oregonian showing the nearly completed Interstate Avenue highway.

(1951, December 23). Oregonian, p. 8

Before the highway was built, this whole area was mostly housing.  In 1950, the Oregon State Highway Department spent the equivalent of $80 million in today’s money to demolish the portion of the Albina neighborhood along the Willamette River to construct a new limited access highway.  The following map shows, bordered in red, the housing that ODOT demolished for Interstate Avenue.  This destruction has been acknowledged only in passing by ODOT in its Rose Quarter freeway widening work.*

 

Albina in 1948 and 1962

To get a sense of how the neighborhood changed, we’ve overlaid the 1948 image of the neighborhood with its 1962 appearance.  The entire area between the Memorial Coliseum and the River was cleared by ODOT for Interstate Avenue.  Albina was now cut off from the river by a state highway.

What ODOT hasn’t acknowledged as part of the Rose Quarter discussion is how its demolition of the neighborhood actually began even earlier, in 1950, when the department  built a highway extension from the Steel Bridge to Interstate Avenue.  Ironically, this highway (US 99W), was an extension of the westside Harbor Drive, which opened in 1943 and famously removed in 1974, and transformed into Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park, replete with verdant lawns and cherry trees. The city’s tonier west-side had its riverbank 99W highway turned into a park; the predominantly Black Albina neighborhood’s segment of the 99W highway remains an auto-dominated arterial to this day.

Conspicuously, the ODOT narratives about its culpability for the destruction of Albina are generally confined to looking just at current right of way of the I-5 freeway.  But in fact, its role in demolishing the Albina neighborhood began more than a decade earlier, with the construction of the Highway 99W/Interstate Avenue extension, and continued for more than a decade later—with the construction of the Fremont Bridge and ramps, which further devastated the Albina community (and which is conveniently left out of ODOT project maps—more about that in an upcoming City Observatory commentary).

But in 1950, to speed the flow of traffic in and through Portland, the State Highway Department (the more accurately named predecessor of today’s ODOT), condemned and demolished a strip of houses along the Willamette River for an  mile-long highway project.

(1951, October 25). Oregonian, p. 40

In 1950, the project cost $3,500,000.  Inflated by the Engineering News Record’s Construction Cost Index, that’s a project that would cost over $80 million today.

Prior to 1950, the dense neighborhood of Albina ran downhill from NE Grand and Union Avenues all the way to the Willamette River.  The neighborhood was a dense network of gridded residential streets, and its two Census Tracts (22 & 23) had more than 14,000 residents. By the time of the 1960 Census, the neighborhood’s population had declined by more than a third, to a little over 9,000.  The construction of Interstate Avenue (Highway 99W), an extension of Harbor Drive was just the first of a series of project that systematically demolished most of the housing in the Albina neighborhood.  In 1960, the city cleared away housing next to Interstate Avenue in part for the new Memorial Coliseum, but mostly to provide for a swath of surface parking lots around the new arena.

 

The result of ODOT’s highway construction was to obliterate much of Albina, and to isolate the remaining parts of the neighborhood. Predictably, the neighborhood’s population collapsed between 1950 and 1970, as the area was given over to the automobile.

 

The real problem with the Rose Quarter freeway is not so much that the project increases the freeway’s footprint—which it does, in ways that ODOT has actively concealed—but rather that by adding additional road capacity, the I-5 Rose Quarter freeway widening project injects even more vehicles into this car-dominated environment.  The local neighborhood association, has come to exactly that conclusion, and they’re correct: The Eliot Neighborhood Association’s land use chair has written:

The only real change the project would make to the surrounding area would be widening the highway, a car-capacity increase that will barely change travel times through the area. It would also serve to put more cars into our local street network, which has led to renderings showing even wider streets through the area than we have now. This would increase road noise and reduce the value of land around the project area.

 

* Editor’s Note:  The originally published version of this story incorrectly claimed that ODOT’s Rose Quarter analysis had not acknowledged the destruction of housing by the construction of Interstate Avenue in the early 1950s.  In fact, one table contained in the project’s environmental justice section concedes that this project demolished at least 80 homes.  Thanks to a regular reader who pointed this out.  City Observatory regrets this error.

 

How freeways kill cities

Freeways slash population in cities, and prompt growth in suburbs

Within city centers, the closer your neighborhood was to the freeway, the more its population declined.

In suburbs, the closer your neighborhood was to the freeway, the more it tended to grow.

It’s been obvious for a long, long time that the automobile is fundamentally corrosive to urban form.  Not only do roads, highways and parking lots devour urban space, they also cause the dispersion of people and activity in ways that make it impossible in many places to live without a car.  Cars, abetted by public policy, have remade cities in their image, and fostered car dependency, effectively acting as a paralytic toxin to urban living.

Even before we had good data, this was manifest to thoughtful observers, such as James Marston Fitch who wrote in The New York Times in 1960:

The automobile has not merely taken over the street, it has dissolved the living tissue of the city.  Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving and parked, it devours urban land, leaving buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous and ugly traffic.

Now, six decades later, we can look at the historic record to measure just how true this observation was. Federal Reserve economists Jeffrey Brinkman and Jeffrey Lin have looked at the historical relationship between neighborhood growth and proximity to freeways.  Their data shows freeways have decimated city neighborhoods and propelled suburban population growth.

In the center of the region, more freeways are associated with population decline, and the closer you are to the freeway, the more population tends to decline.

Freeways are toxic to urban neighborhoods and a tonic to suburban sprawl

On the suburban fringe, freeways both tend to stimulate more population growth, and the most positive effect on growth tends to be quite close to the freeway, and the growth inducing effect attenuates the further one gets from the freeway.  The devastation wrought by urban freeways isn’t limited just to knocking down houses, but extends to undermining the vitality of the surviving portion of a neighborhood.  With fewer people and more traffic, a neighborhood loses its critical mass needed to support businesses and civic institutions, triggering a downward spiral.  As images like these, from Portland’s Albina neighborhood make clear, freeways have devastating effects.

The Moses meat-ax slices hacks through North Portland (1962).

The authors’ key findings which aggregate data from 64 metropolitan areas for the period from 1950 to 2010 show the typical effects.

The authors have summarized their findings in one particularly dense graphic, which we present below.  It deserves a bit of explanation.  (For clarity, we’ve annotated it slightly with lines and shading to highlight key issues.)

First, the chart breaks all the neighborhoods (census tracts) in a metropolitan area into four columns, arrayed left to right, based on how close they are to the city center.  The closest-in urban tracts are shown on the left (above the legend “city center”) and in increasing order of distance from the city center are three other groups, 2.5 to 5 miles away, 5 to 10 miles away, and 10 to 50 miles away.  The vertical axis on this chart corresponds to the (log) growth rate of the population of neighborhoods between 1950 and 2010.  We’ve drawn a line at zero (no growth), and shaded negative values (population decline) as yellow.

Finally, each column is subdivided based on the distance from a tract to the nearest local freeway.  So, for example, the leftmost column shows neighborhoods within 2.5 miles of the city center, and the line within the column illustrates the change in population in those neighborhoods based on their distance to the nearest freeway.

Looking at that left-most column, we see that there’s nearly 100 percent decline in population in close-in neighborhoods a mile or less from the nearest freeway.  In an urban setting freeways largely wipe out population.  Population declines are less severe, but still substantial 2 and 3 miles away.  The period 1950 to 2010 was one of urban decline, but as this chart shows, the urban neighborhoods that fared the best were the ones that were furthest from freeways.

Overall, the further you move from the center of the region, the more the effect of freeway proximity becomes positive for population growth.  Population growth is negative close to city centers, split between declining and increasing 2.5 to five miles away, and increasing fastest in tracts 5-10 and 10 or more miles from the city center.

The inflection point where freeways go from being a detriment to a stimulus to population growth seems to be about five miles from the city center.  Beyond 5 miles from the city center, the localized effect of freeways shifts from highly negative, to positive.  From 5-10 miles, the highest levels of growth are neighborhoods closest to freeways.  For those areas beyond ten miles, growth peaks about 2-3 miles from the nearest freeway, but declines sharply thereafter.  Freeway access is a tonic to growth in suburbs and the metro periphery.

Brinkman and Lin’s work adds additional depth to research done on this subject by other economists. Professor Nathan Baum-Snow found that each additional radial freeway constructed through a city reduced the city’s population by 18 percent.  In urban settings, freeways are toxic to population growth.  Neighborhoods close to freeways in and near city centers suffer the most severe population decline.

Jeffrey Brinkman and Jeffrey Lin, “Freeway Revolts!,” Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia Research Department Working Paper 19-29, July 2019, https://doi.org/10.21799/frbp.wp.2019.29

 

 

Covid Migration: Temporary, young, economically insecure

There’s relatively little migration in the wake of Covid-19

Most Covid-related migration is temporary, involves moving in with friends or relatives, and not leaving a metro area

It’s not professionals fleeing cities:  Covid-related movers tend to be young (many are students), and are prompted by economic distress

From the earliest days of the pandemic, pundits predicted that the Covid-19 virus would prompt rapid and permanent migration away from cities.  First, it was the concern that city residents were somehow more susceptible to the Coronavirus—prompted by a weak correlation driven mainly by high infection rates in New York in the early days of the pandemic, but which completely reversed as rural areas now have higher rates of cases and deaths.  Then the argument morphed:  Now, thanks to Zoom and other web-technology, we can all work at home, so there’s no reason for companies to pay for expensive offices (or for workers to live in expensive cities).  We think the pessimism about cities is massively overstated for at least seven reasons.   In both cases, this theory has been fueled by anecdotes of highly paid professional workers de-camping from big cities to smaller cities, or rural ones.

But these anecdotes seriously mis-represent the nature and scale of migration.  First, as we’ve noted earlier, migrants in these anecdotes don’t usually leave metro areas at all (many examples are people who were already considering a move to nearby suburbs), but even when they do leave a New York or a San Francisco, its for another, albeit smaller, tech center, like Seattle.

Many of these journalistic anecdotes suffer from what our friend Jarrett Walker calls “elite projection“:  a tendency to view things from the perspective of the richest and most advantaged, rather from the average person. Early stories profiled Upper Eastside neighborhoods deserted by their residents harboring in the Hamptons or Adirondacks.  That genre continues in the vaccine era, as well.  Consider this gem from Bloomberg:

A new study sheds some light on who’s actually moving in the post-Covid world and why.  It’s not so much mid-career professionals moving permanently; it’s really much more economically distressed younger adults, moving in (or back in) with family and friends; movers also disproportionately people of color.

Pew Research, which bills its work as that of a “fact tank” provides some insights into the actual extent, character and motivations of the Covid-induced movement.  Their recent survey of 15,000 adults nationally included a battery of migration-related questions.  They’ve shared some of the top-line results from the survey.  Here are the highlights:

Not many people moved due to Covid. All in all about five percent of all Americans report having moved due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its related fallout. (Even that number is smaller than it seems, because it includes temporary moves.  Of the 5 percent who reported moving due to concerns about Covid (or related economic problems), about one in six said their move was so permanent that they “bought or rented a new home on a long-term basis.”  (Unhelpfully, the Pew migration question asks whether people moved either temporarily or permanently, but fails to define either of these terms. If a family spent a week or a weekend away from New York at the height of the pandemic outbreak in March, would the answer be yes?)

Economic reasons seem to dominate moves. Particularly in the past few months, it has been the economic hardship, rather than concern about the Covid-19 virus itself that seems to be prompting moves.  Financial reasons, including job loss account for a third of all moves.  The more common story is not moving to work remotely, but moving because one has no work.

The demographics: Young, Hispanic, and lower income. Overall, about 5 percent of Americans report either a temporary or permanent move, but 18-29 year olds are twice as likely as other Americans to report a move, Hispanics are nearly twice as likely.  How many of the press accounts of Covid migration speak to twenty-something people of color moving back in with their family, because they’ve lost their job?  That’s a far more representative migrant than the older, wealthier, mid-career professional who can afford to buy a new home and who’s so secure in their work that they can work at a distance.

 

Students and School Figure prominently.  A significant amount of recorded moves seem to be students unable to attend school. That’s implied by the demographic data (those 18-29 are twice as likely to move), by the places they move to (a plurality of movers go to live with Mom, Dad or another relative), and by the direct answer to the question about why people move: About one in seven who reported moving due to Covid through November said it was because their college campus or school had closed.

Few people cite more space or remote work as a motivation.  While the narrative about taking advantage of remote work to get a bigger home, and “zoom it in” figures prominently in journalistic accounts, it’s rare according to the survey.  Pew reports:

. . . people who moved due to the virus said the main reason was that they needed more space (2%) or were able to work remotely (1%).

None of these survey results seem to provide strong evidence for a re-ordering of America’s locational preferences in the wake of Covid. The fact that most moves are among young adults with lower incomes, suggests it’s not the higher income, mid- to late-career professionals abandoning cities for suburbs or rural areas that accounts for much of the reported migration.  Whether in the midst of the pandemic’s rising caseload, or waiting impatiently for the vaccine roll-out, it’s easy to make overblown predictions about urban flight.  Cities have long weathered such crises, and rebounded in their wake.  They will again.

Albina Then and Now

Albina then and now

Basically, Albina was wiped out by
Interstate Ave 99E (ODOT)   1951
Memorial Coliseum (City) 1958
I-5 1962
Emmanuel Hospital (PDC)  1970s
Blanchard Center (PPS)  1980
Convention Center 1990 (expanded 2003)
Moda Center/Rose Garden 1995
But ODOT’s two highways cut all this off from the rest of the city.  99E/Interstate cut the
neighborhood off from the River; I-5 cut if off from the rest of N/NE Portland.

Overview of Albina, 1948 versus Today

 

Memorial Coliseum 1975

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I-5


 

The I-5 Freeway’s Construction Footprint

 

Fremont Bridge Ramps

 

How housing segregation reduces Black wealth

Black-owned homes are valued at a discount to all housing, but the disparity is worst in highly segregated metro areas

There’s a strong correlation between metropolitan segregation and black-white housing wealth disparities

More progress in racial integration is likely a key to reducing Black-white wealth disparities

It’s long been known that US housing markets and policy have combined to produce a huge disparity in housing wealth between Black and white families in the US.  Andre Perry and his colleagues at the Brookings Institution, for example, have estimated that owner-occupied homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 per home on average.

The racial/ethnic home value gap

A new report from real estate analytics firm Zillow drills down on the racial/ethnic home value disparity.  Using a combination of home sales data and information from the American Community Survey, they estimate the average home value in different markets around the country for several racial/ethnic groups—Blacks, Latinx, Asian, non-Hispanic whites, indigenous people and Pacific Islanders.  Home values are systematically lower for most people of color, with Black households experiencing the biggest gap, with their homes being valued about 15 percent lower than all homes in the US.

The Zillow data also track the trends in the racial home value disparity over time.  The collapse of the housing bubble caused racial disparities to widen, but they’ve narrowed a bit in recent years.  Zillow explains:

Prior to the Great Recession, the gap between Black-owned home values and all home values was about 15% — if the typical U.S. home at the time was worth $1, the typical black-owned home was worth $0.85 — according to a Zillow analysis of home values in communities with different racial compositions. The gap grew to 20% by March 2014 after years of job losses and elevated foreclosures. Similarly, the ratio of Latinx home values to all home values hit bottom in May 2012 at 86% — down from 88% before the housing bubble. It has taken almost a decade for the typical home owned by a Black or Latinx homeowner to roughly get back to where it was relative to the standard U.S. home in 2007.

While the overall average is a 15 percent devaluation for Black-owned homes relative to all homes, there are wide variations among metropolitan areas.  As the Zillow report notes, the disparity is as little as 1 percent in some metropolitan areas (Riverside, CA) and more than 40 percent in others (Birmingham, Buffalo and Detroit).  It’s apparent that the pattern of variation across metro areas isn’t random.  Cities in the West, as a rule have lower disparities than cities in the Northeast and Midwest.

How segregation drives the housing value gap

One thing we know about race and US cities is that there is a wide variation in the level of housing segregation.  As we noted last year, some US cities have much lower levels of white/non-white segregation than others.  We investigate the relationship between segregation and racial home value disparities by looking at data for large US metro areas.  We draw on metropolitan level estimates of the black-white dissimilarity index computed by the Brookings Institution, and compare them to Zillow’s estimate of the gap between Black-owned home values and all home values for those same metro areas.

This chart shows the level of Black-white segregation on the horizontal axis (with higher levels of segregation corresponding to higher values on the index) and the relative value of Black-owned homes to all homes on the vertical axis (all the values are negative because in every market, Black-owned homes are valued at a discount to all homes.  These data show a clear negative relationship between segregation and the home value gap:  The more segregated a metro area, the greater the gap in housing values.  Black households who own homes in more segregated metro areas suffer a greater housing value gap that Black households who live in less segregated metro areas.

These data show that there are seven metro areas—Birmingham, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukie and St. Louis— that have particularly high levels of segregation and a particularly wide racial housing value gap.  These metros are clustered in the lower right of our diagram; all have Black-white segregation index values of 70 or more, and in every metro, Black-owned housing is valued at at least an 37 percent discount to all housing.

At the other end of the spectrum, metro areas with low levels of segregation have very small racial housing value gaps.  San Antonio, Riverside, Portland, and Virginia Beach have Black/white segregation scores of less than 51 and have racial housing gaps that are less than 6 percent.

But even excluding these extreme cases, there’s still a noticeable relationship between the racial housing value gap and segregation in less segregated metro areas:  In general, the less segregated a metro area, the small the racial housing value gap.

We are rightly concerned about the wealth gap between people of color and the nation’s non-HIspanic white population.  We have a system where homeownership is a large fraction of wealth for most households, especially those who do not have high incomes.  These data suggest that making continuing progress in promoting neighborhood integration is key to ameliorating the housing value gaps that underlie the observed wealth gap.

America’s K-shaped housing market

Home prices are soaring, rents are falling

The disparate impact of the recession on high income and low income households in driving the housing market in two directions at once.

Job losses have been concentrated among the lowest earning workers, who are disproportionately renters. Meanwhile high earning workers have seen no net job losses, and they are disproportionately homeowners and home buyers.

The K-Shaped Recession

When the Covid-19 virus struck in early 2020, it abruptly plunged the nation into the sharpest economic downturn we’ve ever recorded.  But job losses weren’t even distributed across the economy.  Some workers, especially those in front-line service work, were much more likely to lose their jobs (and to be unable to work-at-home), while others have pretty much kept their jobs, despite disruptions to commuting and work routines.  What we’ve observed is what many are calling a “K-shaped recession” with devastating economic consequences for some, and no change in earnings for others.

Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights have assembled an impressive array of high-frequency big data from private sources to provide an unusually detailed look at the change in the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.  Their website, Track the Recovery, has a compelling chart that shows the very different employment trajectories of highly paid and low paid workers.  They’ve broken up all US workers by earnings quartile; this chart shows the employment levels for those in the lowest quartile (annual earnings under $27,000 annually) and in the highest quartile (over $60,0000).  While employment for high wage workers is actually higher now than before the pandemic, employment for low wage workers has plummeted by 21 percent since January of 2020.  The recession is essentially over for high paid workers, but lingers on for those with the lowest earnings.

A principal reason for this divergence has to do with the differential effects of lockdowns and business closures on different occupations.  High paid professional workers have vastly more opportunities to continue their jobs by working at home.  Service and retail workers at essential businesses, meanwhile can’t “zoom it in” and have experienced much greater layoffs and reductions in hours of work.

The K-Shaped Housing Market

The K-shaped trajectory of the overall economy is mirrored in the housing market.  Home prices and rents have moved in opposite directions since the start of the pandemic.  Home price inflation (shown in blue), according to the Case-Shiller National Home price index had been in the 4-5 percent range prior to the pandemic, have essentially doubled to more than nine percent.  At the same time, the BLS estimates of rents (shown in red) paid by US city residents have fallen from a little under 4 percent year over year, to barely two percent.  (The yellow shaded area is the recession)

Other sources of housing market data confirm the K-shaped divergence in rents and housing prices since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and recession.  Here we’ve mapped monthly year-over-year changes in housing prices (from Zillow) and apartment rents (from Apartment List.com).  These data show that the rate of home price inflation, which had been ebbing for the previous two years, has essentially doubled from 4 percent annually to 8 percent annually since the onset of the pandemic.  Meanwhile rent inflation, which had been steady at about slightly over 2 percent per year has turned negative, and is declining at about a 1.5 percent annual rate.

Low wage workers are renters; high wage workers are homeowners (and home buyers).

There’s an obvious explanation for the different trajectories of house prices and rents:  Low income workers rent; high income workers own and buy homes. High income households have been barely grazed by the Covid-19 recession.  In fact, the combination of low interest rates and enforced savings (because many kinds of consumption spending, including dining, entertainment, travel and even much retail have been constrained by lockdowns), mean higher income households may find housing a much more attractive spending item.  If you can’t go out to dinner, or take a vacation, you have more money to spend on a new home.  Low wage workers are in the opposite situation.  Low wage workers have borne the brunt of the recession; they are also much more likely to be renters than higher income households.

According to data from the 2019 American Community Survey—via the indispensable IPUMS* website—among working age Americans, households with incomes of less than $40,000 a year (roughly the bottom quartile of households in this category), about 66 percent are renters.  In contrast, of households in the top quartile (with incomes of more than $100,000 per year), 78 percent are homeowners.  The decline in employment during this recession has been concentrated on those households most likely to rent.  Meanwhile, employment among those households most likely to be homeowners has actually increased.  This divergence clearly explains why rents are falling, while home prices are rising:  In the aggregate, renters are bearing the brunt of job losses while homeowners have largely avoided a decline in employment.

The distinctly K-shaped nature of the recession, and of the housing market, are closely related. This sharp and sudden divergence in the fates of high income and low income households, and rental and for-sale housing markets is clearly a product of the Covid-19 recession. Over the course of the coming year, as the Covid-19 vaccine rolls out, and the economy recovers, it seems likely that we’ll see employment gains among low income workers.  As their economic condition improves, that’s likely to diminish substantially the downward pressures we’ve seen on rents for the past year.

* – Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas and Matthew Sobek. IPUMS USA: Version 10.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2021. https://doi.org/10.18128/D010.V10.0.

Calculating induced demand at the Rose Quarter

Widening I-5 at the  Rose Quarter in Portland will produce an addition 17.4 to 34.8 million miles of vehicle travel and 7.8 to 15.5 thousand tons of greenhouse gases per year.

These estimates come from a customized calibration of the induced travel calculator to the Portland Metropolitan Area.

It’s scientifically proven that increasing freeway capacity in dense urban environments stimulates additional car travel.  The explanation is simple:

Attempts to address traffic congestion commonly rely on increasing roadway capacity, e.g. by building new roadways or adding lanes to existing facilities. But studies examining that approach indicate it is only a temporary fix. They consistently show that adding roadway capacity in congested areas actually increases network-wide vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by a nearly equivalent proportion within a few years, reducing or negating the initial congestion relief. That increase in VMT is called “induced travel.”

The phenomenon of induced demand is so well-demonstrated that its known as the “fundamental law” of road congestion.  As the experience with Houston’s 23-lane Katy Freeway shows, no matter how many lanes you add to a freeway in a dense urban setting, added capacity simply prompts more driving

Transportation experts at the University of California Davis National Center for Sustainable Transportation have developed an induced travel calculator, based on the best available scientific information on the effect of added freeway capacity on vehicle travel.  The developers of the calculator—Jamey Volker, Amy Lee and Susan Handy—have published a peer-reviewed article describing the empirical estimates in the literature showing the connection between capacity and VMT.  In their journal article, the authors find that highway departments usually only address induced demand in response to public comments, rarely apply state-of-the-art modeling to their analysis, and routinely underestimate the effects of induced demand, by as much as an order of magnitude.

The purpose of this model is to provide an independent, scientifically sound means of measuring the environmental effects of major transportation projects.

Induced Demand Calculator; Results shown for Sacramento-Davis metropolitan area.

In addition, because greenhouse gases are directly related to vehicle miles of travel—each thousand mile traveled by a typical automobile produces about .466 tons of greenhouse gases—the calculator also can be used to show the climate change impact of freeway expansion projects.

A Portland-calibrated version of the Induced Travel Calculator

After consulting with the authors of California calculator, we calibrated the calculator for use in the Portland metropolitan area.  The key variables in the calculator include the number of interstate freeway lane miles in the urbanized portion of the metropolitan area, and the number of vehicle miles of travel on those roadways.  The literature on induced demand shows that vehicle travel exhibits and unit elasticity with respect to roadway capacity:  a one percent increase in road capacity tends to result in a one percent increase in vehicle miles traveled.

Using data from the US Department of Transportation (vehicles miles traveled) and from the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation (interstate freeway lane miles) inside urbanized areas, we created a Portland-metro specific version of the California calculator.

We computed the induced travel impact of two possible scenarios for the proposed I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project using Portland-calibrated version of the calculator.  Option one was expanding the current 1.5 mile stretch of freeway from 4 lanes to 6 (which is how the Oregon Department of Transportation describes the project, although they misleadingly call the added lanes “auxiliary” lanes.  Option two is expanding the same stretch of freeway to eight lanes, which is what would easily fit in the 126 foot wide right of way that Oregon DOT proposes to construct.

The calculator suggests that the expansion to six lanes would add about 17.4 million vehicle miles per year to travel in the Portland metropolitan area, and that the expansion to eight lanes would add 34.8 million vehicle miles of travel.

These additional vehicle miles of travel have many negative effects.  As “fundamental law” suggests, they’ll entirely offset congestion reduction benefits of freeway widening.  In addition, there will be an increase in air pollution proportionate to the increase in vehicle travel.  Additional VMT translates directly into increased greenhouse gas emissions, at nearly a half ton of greenhouse gases per thousand miles, this means that the widened freeway can be expected to increase greenhouse gas pollution in Portland by between 7.7 and 15.5 thousand tons per year.

The Volker/Lee/Handy model represents the latest, independent, state of the art method for estimating greenhouse gases associated with freeway expansion projects.  This, and not the self-serving and incorrect estimates generated by the Oregon Department of Transportation should be used to define the environmental impacts of this project.

References

Jamey M. B. Volker, Amy E. Lee, Susan Handy, “Induced Vehicle Travel in the Environmental Review Process,” Transportation Research Record, Volume: 2674 issue: 7, (July, 2020) pages 468-479

The author wants to thank  Doctor Volker for reviewing the methodology and data used in the Portland version of the calculator.  Any errors are solely the responsibility of City Observatory.

 

Congestion Pricing: ODOT is disobeying an order from Governor Brown

More than a year ago, Oregon Governor Kate Brown directed ODOT to “include a full review of  congestion pricing” before deciding whether or not to do a full environmental impact statement for the proposed I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project.

ODOT simply ignored the Governor’s request, and instead is delaying its congestion pricing efforts, and proceeding full speed ahead with the Rose Quarter with no Environmental Impact Statement that would include pricing.

ODOT has produced no analysis of the effects of pricing as part of its Rose Quarter environmental review, and has said “congestion pricing was not considered” 

Congestion pricing could dramatically reduce congestion at the Rose Quarter according to ODOT’s own studies (which are not included in the project’s Environmental Assessment).  Pricing is exactly the kind of effective and also reasonably foreseeable alternative that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires be considered.  ODOT has both disobeyed the Governor and violated NEPA.

A little background.  In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed HB 2017, transportation finance legislation that raised the state gas tax and vehicle licensing fees, and which authorized several freeway widening projects, and also directed the Oregon Department of Transportation to implement congestion pricing on Portland area freeways. Pricing the I-5 freeway, rather than expanding it, could reduce or eliminate traffic congestion faster, and at far lower cost. According to the National Environmental Policy Act, that’s exactly the kind of alternative that ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration are required to evaluate and discuss in the environmental review of a project.  And ODOT’s own studies have shown that pricing the I-5 freeway would dramatically reduce traffic congestion.  But there’s simply no mention of congestion pricing in the Rose Quarter freeway widening Environmental Assessment.

Governor Brown:  “Include a full review of congestion pricing.”

In December, 2019, Oregon Governor Kate Brown instructed the Oregon Department of Transportation to include  review of congestion pricing, in its decision on how to proceed with an environmental review of the proposed $800 million I-5 Rose Quarter Freeway widening project. In her December 16, 2019 letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, Governor Kate Brown asked for a “full review of congestion pricing, and how its implementation would impact the Rose Quarter,” before the OTC made a decision on the environmental review path.

The environmental review path, in this case, consisted of a decision as to whether to move forward with a full Environmental Impact Statement, one which included a full and complete assessment of the effects of road pricing.  Despite the Governor’s explicit instruction to undertake a “full review of congestion pricing”  ODOT simply ignored this instruction, and said it would not undertake an Environmental Impact Statement at all.

ODOT:  We’re not going to look at congestion pricing in the Rose Quarter environmental review

When ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration released their FONSI—Finding of No Significant Environmental Impact—they simply ignored the Governor’s instruction, and claimed that they weren’t required by federal law to consider tolling (untrue), and that they would look at the effects of tolling later—only after they move forward with the Rose Quarter project.

On October 30, 2020, ten months after the Governor’s letter, having neither published nor provided any additional information about the impacts of congestion pricing, ODOT and its federal Partners adopted a “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI).  In the FONSI, ODOT made it clear that it would not look at the impacts of tolling on the Rose Quarter, saying that this congestion would be the subject of “further study” with analysis “expected by the end of 2022.”

Tolling: Tolling (also referred to as congestion pricing or value pricing) on I-5 was not considered to be reasonably foreseeable at the time the Environmental Assessment was being prepared because tolling on I-5 was not included in the financially constrained project list in the 2014 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP), nor is it currently included in the financially constrained project list in the 2018 RTP. Congestion pricing on I-5 is currently (as of October 2020) being studied by ODOT, consistent with Legislative direction to the OTC in House Bill 2017 “to pursue and implement tolling on I-5 and I-205 in the Portland metropolitan region to help manage traffic congestion.” During the 2018 ODOT Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis, the I-5 corridor segment between SW Multnomah and N Going was identified for further study. Managing traffic congestion and mobility through tolling on this I-5 segment could provide one of the largest benefits to the most regional travelers and the state-wide economy. Further, additional traffic and mobility analysis will be initiated that will help identify where tolling would begin and end on I-5 and the type of tolling to be utilized; this planning work and technical analysis is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. The results of this analysis will inform the starting timeframe and alternatives for a formal environmental review process.

[Emphasis added.]

In short, instead of including congestion pricing in the Rose Quarter environmental review, ODOT simply announced that it would proceed with the Rose Quarter as is, and address road pricing only after the Rose Quarter project moves forward.

ODOT is delaying action on congestion pricing until after Rose Quarter starts construction

ODOT is dragging its feet on a 2017 legislative mandate to implement congestion pricing. And contrary to the claims made in the FONSI, ODOT has no plans to even finish planning for congestion pricing before 2023.  Just weeks after issuing the FONSI, on December 10, 2020, ODOT Director Kris Strickler and ODOT Manger Brendan Finn presented a schedule to the Oregon Legislature showing that the congestion pricing planning phase would continue until the end of 2023.  The schedule also shows that the agency plans to commence construction on the I-5 Rose Quarter project a year before it even completes planning for congestion pricing in the Portland Area.

Under this schedule, Rose Quarter construction (the diagonally shaded section) would start as early as 2022, while the planning for congestion pricing would not be complete until 2024.  There’s also an ambiguous “design/build, test and implement” phase that lasts until 2027.

Congestion pricing is highly foreseeable:  It’s mandated by law

Notice that ODOT’s explanation simply ignored the Governor’s explicit instruction, and instead makes the assertion that due to federal regulations, ODOT need not address pricing, because somehow it was not “reasonably foreseeable.”  That of course, is nonsense:  congestion pricing has been mandated by state law since 2017, well before the completion of ODOT’s Environmental Assessment.  It’s simply false to claim that it isn’t foreseeable. Whether or not a project is listed in the Regional Transportation Plan or not does not determine whether it is “reasonably foreseeable.”  The legal standard under NEPA is much broader as the Environmental Protection Agency says:

The critical question is “What future actions are reasonably foreseeable?”. Court decisions on this topic have generally concluded that reasonably foreseeable future actions need to be considered even if they are not specific proposals. The criterion for excluding future actions is whether they are “speculative.” The NEPA document should include discussion of future actions to be taken by the action agency.

ODOT has been directed by law to adopted congestion pricing; it is not in any sense speculative, and it is plainly a “future action to be taken by the action agency” and needs to be addressed in the environmental review, whether or not its part of the Regional Transportation Plan.

ODOT’s other studies show pricing would reduce congestion at the Rose Quarter

The studies undertaken by the Oregon Department of Transportation conclude that congestion pricing could measurably reduce traffic congestion on I-5. The analysis concludes that the project would reduce congestion and improve travel time reliability on I-5.  It would save travel time for trucks and buses.  It enables higher speeds and greater throughput on the freeway–because it eliminates the hyper-congestion that occurs when roads are unpriced. Here’s an excerpt from page 17, of the report.  We highlighted in bold the most salient bits of the analysis:

Overall, Concept 2 – Priced Roadway, will reduce congestion for all travelers on the priced facility. This will produce overall improvement in travel time reliability and efficiency for all users of I-5 and I-205.  [Concept 2 is] Likely to provide the highest level of congestion relief of the initial pricing concepts examined. [It] Controls demand on all lanes and, therefore, allows the highest level of traffic management to maintain both relatively high speeds and relatively high throughput on both I-5 and I-205. Vehicles 10,000 pounds and more (such as many freight trucks and transit vehicles) would benefit from travel time improvements on the managed facilities.  Pricing recovers lost functional capacity due to hyper-congestion, providing greater carrying volume with pricing than without. This means that diversion impacts may be minimal, but still warrant consideration and study.

This concept is relatively inexpensive to implement, and significantly less expensive than concepts that include substantial physical improvements to the pavement and bridge infrastructure.

Oregon Department of Transportation,, (2018). Portland Metro Area Value Pricing Feasibility Analysis Final Round 1 Concept Evaluation and Recommendations Technical Memorandum #3, 2018. [Emphasis added].

Why parking should pay its way instead of getting a free ride

Hartford Connecticut considers a pioneering move to make parking pay its way

A higher parking tax works much like a “lite” version of land value taxation (LVT)

Surface parking lots are highly subsidized polluters

As Donald Shoup lays out in exhaustive detail in his 733-page masterpiece, The High Cost of Free Parking, the subsidies we provide for car storage have shredded the fabric of America’s urban areas.  By giving over so much land to cars, we weaken and undermine the things that make cities work well:  the opportunities for easy interaction. There’s  evidence that the effects of parking are causal:  from 1960 onward, an increase in parking provision from 0.1 to 0.5 parking space per person was associated with an increase in automobile mode share of roughly 30 percentage points according to a study of nine cities.  We have too much parking for many reasons:  we’ve subsidized highway construction and suburban homes, we’ve mandated parking for most new residential and commercial buildings, and we’ve decimated transit systems. But a key contributor to overparking is the strong financial incentives built into tax systems.

Parking is subsidized by our current tax system

In effect, our system of local property taxation plays a key role in subsidizing parking and car use.  In nearly all US cities, the property tax is assessed equally on the value of both land and improvements, so if one improves a piece of property (by constructing or enlarging a building), the owner’s property taxes go up.  The contrary is also true, if a property is unimproved, or just covered in gravel or asphalt, the owner typically pays lower taxes based only on the value of the bare land.  In cities with high vacancy rates, the property tax actually rewards landowners who demolish buildings. The perverse incentives created by raising taxes on those who improve their land with active uses like offices, stores and homes, led Henry George in the 19th Century to propose a “single” tax on land, what is now generally called the “land value tax” (LVT).

The Land Value Tax fixes the anti-development incentives built in to the property tax:  Constructing a new building doesn’t cause the owners taxes to rise.  And those who own valuable property can’t avoid or minimize taxes by leaving it fallow; if a downtown block is zoned for office use, for example, it pays high taxes even if it’s a vacant lot.  But despite its appeal, there’s been little enthusiasm for land value taxes in the US; only one large city, Pittsburgh has seriously flirted with the idea, for a time taxing property more heavily than improvements.  But, elsewhere, it’s been a non-starter.

Higher fees for parking as a “lite” land value tax

The City Council of Hartford Connecticut is considering an expanded fee on private commercial parking lots and structures that mimics some of the important features of a land value tax:  Call it LVT-lite.  In Hartford, as in many US cities, much of the downtown area is given over to car parking, and surface parking lots pay lower rates than those lots with improvements.  The low rate of taxation on parking lots lowers the holding costs for landowners, and makes parking a more profitable use than developing these lots for other more intensive uses. One way to change that dynamic is to raise taxes or fees on parking, which is exactly what the city’s proposed ordinance would do.

As University of Connecticut engineering professor Norman Garrick has shown, Hartford’s downtown has been hollowed out by the construction of parking.  As Garrick explains:

Since 1960, the number of parking spaces in downtown Hartford increased by more that 300 percent — from 15,000 to 46,000 spaces. This change has had a profound and devastating effect on the structure and function of the city (see accompanying maps) as one historic building after another was demolished.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of freeways and surface parking lots (shown in red) has coincided with a dramatic decline in the city’s population.

The Hartford ordinance would establish a sliding scale of fees for parking lots and structures based on the number of parking spaces.  The fee would start in 2022, and be phased in over a period of years.  When fully implemented, for large parking lots, the incremental fee works out to $125 per parking space per year, which is about 25 cents per working day per parking space.  Hartford’s proposed policy would but in place incentives to better use urban space, and to discourage excessive car travel.  As the Parking Reform Network‘s Tony Jordan told us:

. . . parking stall fees are good policy because they would contribute simultaneously to several important policy objectives. Parking stall fees, particularly surface stalls, will encourage better uses of urban space, which I think is a big consideration in Hartford. Per stall fees internalize more of the costs of someone’s decision to drive and raise revenue that can and should be used to encourage and subsidize other modes. The environmental and traffic benefits from mode shift are obvious.

Is taxing parking fair?  A parable of parking subsidies:  Stormwater

We’ll bet you didn’t know that Hartford had a multi-billion dollar subway system.

Superficially, it might seem like raising fees on parking is somehow “picking on” cars and car ownership.  There should be a rational basis for any tax, and when it comes to parking there are very good reasons to raise fees and taxes to offset for the car subsidies built into our current systems of public finance.

It’s worth stepping back a bit and considering just how much subsidy is extended to parking, and to car travel in general.  Some of the biggest subsidies are not on anyone’s radar.  Take for example the cost of dealing with stormwater.  Hartford, like many US cities, has an antiquated system of combined storm and sanitary sewers; when there’s a heavy rainfall, water from streets, roofs and—wait for it—parking lots, flows into storm sewers, overwhelms the sanitary sewer system, and produces combined discharges of untreated sewage and stormwater into, in Hartford’s case, the Connecticut River.  The city is under a court order to fix the system, and is in the process of spending $2.5 billion to solve the problem.  The solution includes building a four-mile long 18-foot diameter tunnel—essentially a subway for stormwater.  (That’s not hyperbole; single-track subway tunnels, like San Francisco’s central subway are 20 feet in diameter).

Hartford’s 4-mile cross-town subway—for stormwater

To pay for the project, Hartford and surrounding cities are charging their residents a “Clean Water Project Charge” on their water bills.  Local residents actually pay more for the stormwater system, per gallon, than they pay for their domestic water ($4.05 per hundred cubic feet for domestic water consumed, and are charged $4.10 per hundred feet of water used to pay for stormwater).  But keep in mind that the stormwater doesn’t result from domestic water use—it results from runoff from roofs, roads and parking lots.

While some cities charge based on the amount of a user’s “impervious surfaces,” Hartford does not.  As a result, neither cars, nor parking lots pay anything toward the stormwater problems they cause.  And it is these impervious surfaces, like parking lots that contribute enormously to the quantity and (bad) quality of stormwater.  Since they are large and impervious, they create the huge peak flows that cause overflows. And it’s also the case that cars—via pollution from tires, leaking engine oil and gasoline, and brake linings—produce some of the most toxic elements in stormwater runoff.

Charging residential water users, but not car users and parking lots is, in turn, an equity issue:  a Hartford resident who may not even own a car (per the US Census, roughly 23 percent of Hartford residents live in households that don’t own a car) has to pay for this problem through their water bill.  Meanwhile, a suburban commuter from outside the water district area would pay nothing toward Hartford’s stormwater system.  In short, their are good reasons of efficiency and fairness for asking parking lot owners to pay more toward dealing with the costs they impose.

For cities, imposing fees on parking makes fiscal and land use sense.  For too long, we’ve subsidized the assault on urban living by cars, and nothing has been more detrimental to cities than dedicating scarce and valuable urban land to car storage. Many of these subsidies are buried—literally and figuratively—in the way we pay for urban infrastructure, like stormwater runoff.  In Hartford, and many other cities, we have the perverse situation where carless households are taxed to cleanup runoff from streets and parking lots, while road users pay nothing for the damages they cause. Ultimately, an full-fledged land value tax would help correct the perverse incentives in the current property tax, but until then, charging a higher fees for parking lots is more efficient and fairer.

Editor’s note:  This post has been revised to correct a math error in the originally published version.  We originally reported the fee worked out to approximately 50 cents per day when fully implemented, but failed to note that the fee is biennial, rather than annual. The fee at the margin, when fully implemented in several years, will be 25 cents per working day.  The fee is phased in over a period of years.

A regional green new deal for Portland

by Garlynn Woodsong

Editor’s note:City Observatory is pleased to publish this commentary by Garlynn Woodsong. Garlynn is the Managing Director of the planning consultancy Woodsong Associates, and has more than 20 years of experience in regional planning, urban analytics and real estate development. Instrumental in the development and deployment of the RapidFire and UrbanFootprint urban/regional scenario planning decision-support tools while with Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley, CA, his focus is on making the connections between planning, greenhouse gas emission reductions, public health, and inclusive economic development. For more information, or to contact Garlynn, visit this website.

  • The Portland region should rethink its transportation vision and explicitly pursue only projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The climate emergency demands a new regional transport authority, with a clear and objective climate test.
  • This should be paired with a new regional infrastructure bank featuring a revolving loan fund for both transportation and housing projects, to provide pathways to opportunity for historically oppressed populations.

With the failure of Metro’s 2020 transportation measure at the ballot, it has become clear that the Portland region needs to take a clear, hard look at its transportation system, and how it can manage it to reduce GHG emissions, build out incomplete transit, walking and bicycling infrastructure networks, ensure that critical regional infrastructure maintenance needs are fulfilled, and address historic inequities.

The solutions that could work for Portland certainly could point the way towards models replicable elsewhere; many others regions are also experiencing the same pressures and needs as Portland and Oregon.

Need for Visionary Leadership

First off, what we need, what each place needs to implement these solutions, is visionary leadership: leaders who have the vision to see the enormity of the challenges we face, and to respond appropriately.

These challenges include those related to climate change, such as the need to reduce GHG emissions, to sequester carbon, and to engage in managed retreat from areas at risk of sea level rise or wildfire burn; those related to inequality, such as historic racial and ongoing economic segregation; those related to the economy, such as the impact of COVID-19 on our local businesses, homelessness, and the housing crisis; and those related to sustainability, including the need for municipal fiscal solvency, and access to clean air, water, and energy.

 

These challenges must be clearly stated as problem statements for strategic planning events where political leaders and senior staff from local jurisdictions and partner agencies are empowered to develop consensus around strategies to achieve solutions as quickly as possible, given the urgency of the overlapping crises we face. These strategies should guide legislative agendas, work programs, and all other related work, so there is no question as to strategic direction or how day-to-day work fits into the puzzle of implementing change for goal achievement.

(Garlynn Woodsong)

The vision that is needed to meet the moment and guide the path forward towards a metropolitan region in 2050 where our goals have been achieved must involve three basic elements:

  • A well-managed, adequately funded multi-modal transportation system that produces less than 10% of the emissions of our current system by right-sizing roadway capacity to match the lower total VMT that will be needed to attain goals, allowing for greater mobility through zero-emission transit, complete and safe bicycle and pedestrian networks, and the deployment of hi-tech mobility management solutions including on-demand transportation and ride-sharing tools
  • An equitable land use system that reduces demand for transportation system elements and energy in ways that are conducive to meeting our climate goals for 2050, by providing plentiful housing and economic opportunities for people of all backgrounds to live in 15-minute neighborhoods.
  • A sense of urgency that powers the quick implementation of temporary solutions that can evolve over time in response to lessons learned through deployment, and is facilitated by visionary leadership engaging in enlightened decision-making to deploy strategies and tools quickly that are supportive of every aspect of the vision, such as a carbon tax with an equity kicker that can serve to provide income to populations in need while taxing activities that produce carbon emissions at levels sufficient to bring down those emissions.

We need leaders who can quickly pivot to articulating and implementing this vision, and abandon the efforts that so many current leaders engage in of defending and perpetuating status quo programs that are not designed to deliver components of the vision, and indeed suck resources away from other efforts that could more quickly implement aspects of the vision. We must stop efforts to defend business as usual for government programs, such as highway expansion, that are antithetical to achieving this vision.

Declare a Regional Climate Emergency

One part of the solution is declare a climate emergency, and, using emergency powers, to re-consider all committed TIP and RTP projects, ranking each one by its estimated effectiveness. Any project that results in a net potential increase in GHG emissions must be eliminated from further consideration for funding. Of those that remain, those that should be prioritized for funding include those that will provide the most benefit to historically underserved communities, those that change the design of facilities to ensure safer outcomes, and those that will produce the greatest decrease in GHG emissions, including the build-out of historically under-built modal networks for bicycles, pedestrians, and zero-GHG-emission transit.

The project assessments that are needed to rank projects by their potential effectiveness at reducing GHG emissions and attaining other elements of the vision must be independent of agencies that have a history of pushing a single agenda, such as state transportation departments that evolved from origins as highway departments without ever shedding a single-minded focus on highways as the only solution worth the lion’s share of transportation expenditures. Project assessment must be science-based, evidence-based, and outcomes-based, and not based on results from travel models originally built for the purpose of sizing freeways to accommodate growing automobile traffic. Empirical evidence must replace model results as the gold standard, meaning that places that already embody the principles and elements of the vision should be studied and replicated.

The vision of places that achieve our goals for climate action and for equitable development is of places that are walkable, with most regular destinations accessible by foot within 10 to 15 minutes, and transit available as a pedestrian trip extending tool that allows destinations further away to be accessed. We can achieve this vision by building more such neighborhoods, by building more housing within the 15-minute neighborhoods we already have, and by ensuring that housing is provided that is affordable for people of all incomes, not just those that can be provided for by the profit-dependent sectors of the market. We can cost-effectively achieve no part of this vision by continuing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars widening and expanding our already-over-built highway system.

Regional Transportation Authority

The Portland metro region, like any metropolitan region, contains a network of arterial streets and railroads that are not currently being managed for their highest and best use: there are many ways to potentially measure this, including the maximum amount of movement of people and goods, or the greatest amount of economic activity, or the most general benefit for the most people, for the lowest amount of carbon emissions. However you measure it, the current system is weighted too heavily towards providing room for vehicles that emit large amounts of carbon emissions to transport relatively few people or goods per square foot per hour.

We can look to Translink in Vancouver, B.C.,, and to the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) and the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District in the San Francisco region, for models that show the way towards raising revenue from transportation system operations to pay for the operations, maintenance, expansion, and system completion of bridges, arterial transportation system elements, transit, and regional bicycle and pedestrian facilities including on and off street trails and facilities.

A proposal that is suggested by these examples would be to create and/or vest regional government with the authority to price and manage the regional arterial road, bridge, and trail system, as well as the regional heavy rail system, so that the right of way and facilities could be upgraded using funds from congestion pricing, tolls, and other sources to provide for a complete regional transit and bicycle/pedestrian system, while reducing the automobile capacity of facilities in line with anticipated VMT reduction goals, under a policy framework that places the highest priority on reducing carbon emissions.

The simplest path forward in the Portland region would be to create a new authority, managed by Metro, and given functions now split between ODOT, TriMet, Metro, and the transportation departments/bureaus of the cities and counties within the region. These functions would include those related to operations, management and pricing of the regional arterial road, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian systems.

Regional Infrastructure Bank

To ensure that transport projects play their part in reducing GHG emissions without causing harm to existing communities, a new regional transportation authority should be paired with a complementary new regional infrastructure bank that is empowered with seed funding for a revolving loan fund for building both new links in the transportation system and new homes nearby, to provide pathways to opportunity for historically oppressed populations to build equity and avoid displacement.

Projects needed to achieve regional goals that would be eligible for funding by a new regional Bank could include housing, transportation, or other eligible projects, such as providing seed funding for Local Improvement Districts and Tax Increment Financing efforts that otherwise would face multiple gap years following their initiation until their tax base began producing expected returns, or seed money for a regional revolving housing loan fund accessible by community land trusts, housing cooperatives, and non-profit housing developers.

Urgent Times Require Urgent Action

Finally, Portland’s Rose Lanes project points the way towards a new way of thinking about quick-build-and-deploy projects that can deliver the most benefit as quickly as possible for the least amount of up-front capital.

(NACTO)

Could regional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems be quickly deployed using existing rolling stock (at least to start off with), paint, signs, and temporary platforms, so as we all come out of COVID we emerge into a re-structured world that is hyper-focused on reducing GHG emissions as a part of a comprehensive community-building program?

Could regional protected bikeway networks similarly be completed as a part of the same or similar initiatives?

Could regional commuter rail systems be deployed on existing tracks to quickly add center-to-center zero-emission express transit connectivity, such as downtown Portland to downtown Vancouver, WA, much sooner than would otherwise be possible if dependent on traditional 8-12 year capital project delivery schedules?

A Regional Green New Deal

We need to act like our house is on fire, and this thinking needs to permeate every aspect of our collective decision-making processes. We need a Green New Deal locally, regionally, and nationally. Let’s work together to articulate what that means, and how to achieve it. If capital funds are holding us back from achieving that vision, then let’s put forth a funding proposal, such as an equitable carbon tax, that truly matches the moment.

In Portland and Oregon, much of our current success rests on the shoulders of decisions made by visionary leaders of generations past, including the vision to abandon freeway building in favor of light rail, to institute and enforce metropolitan Urban Growth Boundaries, and to embrace downtown revitalization rather than continued suburban sprawl. Portlanders are lucky to have had such visionary past leaders. It is time for the leaders of the current moment, in the Portland region and everywhere else too, to be visionary in articulating solutions to today’s problems, to build on the vision of leaders from years past in ways that advance the goals of protecting farm and forest land, reduce GHG emissions sufficiently to meet our 2050 targets, and build more equitable communities that offer housing opportunities affordable for and economic opportunities available to all residents.

Portland carbon tax should apply to all big polluters

By all means, Portland should adopt its proposed healthy climate fee, a $25 ton carbon tax

But make sure it applies to the biggest and fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases in the region

The healthy climate fee should apply to freeways and air travel, not just 30 firms who produce 5 percent of regional GHG emissions.

The City of Portland has proposed a new “healthy climate fee” on a range of businesses and organizations that it says discharge more than 150 tons of greenhouse gases in the city.  Like most economists, we’re all on board with the idea of pricing carbon.  The reason we have a climate crisis is we allow everyone to use the common atmosphere as a dump for carbon without compensating society for the damage done.  Economists are unanimous that pricing carbon is essential to avoiding climate catastrophe:  it simultaneously discourages bad behavior, rewards low polluting activities, creates incentives for cleaner investments and spurs the innovation needed to make all this happen.  And, as we’ve pointed out the price needed to trigger these changes is modest—less on a per pound basis than the fee we charge for grocery bags or the deposits charged on soda cans or indeed for disposing of solid waste.

The only objection we have to this proposed fee is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  It exempts more than 95 percent of all the region’s carbon pollution.  The proposed climate fee is targeted at those who own or operate facilities that generate 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide or more per year.

The city’s inventory lists 35 such facilities, including steel mills, bakeries, oil storage depots and other manufacturing facilities, but also universities, hospitals, and a wastewater treatment plant.  The city has used air pollution permit data to estimate the tax liability of the firms it thinks will be subject to the tax.  Collectively, it expects them to pay “healthy climate fees” of about $9.2 million annually on 370,000 tons of carbon emissions.

That seems like an impressive number, but in fact only amounts to about 5 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.  But by its own reckoning, the City of Portland (Multnomah County) produces more than 7.7 million  tons of greenhouse gases per year.  So this measure taxes small  but visible fraction the areas total emissions.  What it leaves out is revealing.

As we’ve pointed out repeatedly at City Observatory, Portland is failing in its effort to meet its climate goals because of the big increase in carbon emissions associated with transportation, particularly from increased driving.  Transportation accounts for 41 percent of county greenhouse gas emissions, and unlike emissions from residential, commercial and industrial uses, which are all significantly lower than in 1990, these emissions are increasing.  In essence, the key reason the city is failing achieve the goals laid out in its 2015 climate plan is due to more transportation emissions. The bulk of the increase is due to increased driving since 2014, when gas prices declined, so this is actually an area where some economic incentives might do some good.

If the region is going to take climate change seriously, it should be focused not just on a handful of institutions that account for less than a twentieth of greenhouse gases, and instead focus on the biggest and fastest growing part of the climate problem.  If we think about transportation as a system, it’s clear that the region’s transportation facilities, its freeways and airports are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.  If we’re going to charge such a fee at all, we ought to  include in our list of large “facilities” that are even bigger sources of greenhouse gases: the city’s interstate freeways (owned and operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation) and Portland International Airport (operated by the Port of Portland),

Carbon emissions from ODOT Interstate freeways in Portland:  550,000 tons per year

So how much greenhouse gas pollution is produced by ODOT’s interstate freeways in the City of Portland?  We don’t have exact data, but we can triangulate a reasonably good estimate.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, on an annual (Pre-Covid) basis, there are about 2.9 billion vehicle miles of travel on Interstate freeways in the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area.   We apportion this traffic proportional to lane miles of interstate freeway in each county; Multnomah County includes about 53 percent of the tri-county area’s inventory of interstate lane miles, according to ODOT.  We further assume that 80 percent of Multnomah County mileage is in Portland.  This means that driving on Portland’s interstate freeways amounts to about 1.2 billion miles per year, and at a very conservative passenger car average of .445 kilograms of carbon per mile, produces about 550,000 tons of carbon emissions per year.

Freeways are fossil fuel infrastructure. These ODOT facilities produce more carbon emissions than all the industries taxed under Portland’s proposed “Healthy Climate Fee.”

If ODOT’s interstate freeways were treated as a “facility” and paid the $25 per ton fee for the emissions from the operation of the facility, it would pay the City of Portland about $14 million per year.

Carbon emissions from Portland International Airport:  1.5 million tons per year

Air travel is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, and Portland International Airport (aka PDX), the region’s principal air terminal the facility in Portland most closely associated with those emissions. In 2019, according to Federal Aviation Administration data, nearly 20 million passengers flying out of Portland International Airport logged about 11 billion “revenue passenger miles” of travel.  Air travel produces about 88 grams of greenhouse gases per revenue passenger kilometer, which means that PDX air travel generated about 1.5 million tons of emissions  per year (88 * 11,000,000,000*1.6/1000000).  This calculation suggests that PDX is responsible for about three-fourths of one percent of all US aviation greenhouse gas emissions, which total about 200 million tons per year, a figure roughly consistent with the region’s share of US economic activity.

Air travel is a large source of global greenhouse gases.

If Portland International Airport  were treated as a “facility” and paid the $25 per ton fee for the emissions from the operation of the facility, it would pay the City of Portland about $38 million per year.

Parenthetically:  It has to be said that the Port of Portland has a profound blind-spot when it comes to its greenhouse gas footprint.  According to the Port’s environmental report, it only counts emissions from its own vehicles, utility plant and purchased electricity, and not from the travel to and from the airport.  The port owns up to just 50,000 tons per year in greenhouse gas emissions, just 3 percent of the amount attributable to air travel.  Neither does the port count the emissions from the cars that drive to park in its garages.  That’s rather like a gun manufacturer counting as “gun deaths” only those people who were pistol-whipped and excluding those killed by bullets.

Let’s have a fair and inclusive Healthy Climate Fee

Together, these two facilities (ODOT’s interstate freeways and PDX) account for more than five times as much carbon pollution than the 35 facilities inventoried by the City of Portland and included in its proposed ordinance.   (We believe the city’s own inventory of Portland greenhouse gas emissions significantly undercounts greenhouse gases associated with air travel in and out of PDX).

It’s clear that the city believes it has the authority to impose this fee on local, state and federal governments.  It’s proposing to charge the city-owned wastewater plant more than $1 million annually, and also charge state entities (Oregon Health & Science University, the Port of Portland and Portland State University), and even the federal government (the Veterans Administration, which operates a large hospital.  The Port of Portland and the Oregon Department of Transportation both own and operate facilities that emit more than 150 tons of greenhouse gases per year.  They ought to be subject to the healthy climate fee, too.

In our view, it makes perfect sense of the city to implement a carbon tax or “healthy climate fee.”  But if it does, it should do so in a way that applies it to most or all carbon pollution, not just a twentieth of all emissions.  The city’s approach to a carbon tax is indefensibly narrow.  It gives a pass to the biggest and fastest growing sources of carbon pollution in Portland:  transportation emissions.  It’s a kind of “carrotism” the notion that climate change can be dealt with without inconveniencing anyone, when in fact, it is all of our daily decisions, especially of how much to drive and fly, that is principally responsible for greenhouse gases.  It’s politically convenient to tag a few large, visible polluters, but collectively they’re absolutely smaller than just two entities we’ve identified here, and they’re not the areas where we’re failing to make progress.

A carbon tax makes a huge amount of sense, but exempting 95 percent of all the emissions in the region from the tax, and loading its cost on just a few entities is just arbitrary.  If we’re really in a climate emergency, we should apply the carbon fee broadly.

Notes:

  1.  An empty soda can weighs 17 grams; several states impose a 5 cent deposit per can; that works out to a deposit of about $2,900 per ton of can weight).  Metro will charge you about $100 ton for the non-recyclable garbage you dispose of, about 5 times what Portland would charge you if you put that same amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
  2. Carrotism is a term coined by Economist Guilio Matteoli, it is the idea is that “climate change policy should consist entirely of enticing incentives (carrots) avoiding any restriction, regulation or even monetary disincentives (sticks); I.e. we will just glide smoothly into zero-carbon without anyone being inconvenienced ever.”

Building more housing lowers rents for everyone

A new study from Germany shows that added housing supply lowers rents across the board

A 1 percent increase in housing is associated with a 0.4 to 0.7 percent decrease in rents

Housing policy debates are tortured by the widespread disbelief that supply and demand operate in the market for housing. In our view, its been a growing demand for cities and urban living, running headlong into a relatively fixed, or at best slowly growing supply of urban housing that’s been the principle reason for affordability problems in many cities.  But many housing advocates refuse to believe that increasing housing supply will have any beneficial effect on rents.

A new study from Andreas Mense an economist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, using detailed data on housing construction and rents in Germany, documents the direct and widespread effects of new market rate construction on rent levels. The paper uses variations in the completion rates of new housing units over time to tease out the effects of increments to supply on rent levels.  Here’s a typical chart showing how rent increases vary in response to additional housing completions in the month of December (the red line on the chart).  In the wake of completions (the period to the right of the red line) rent changes are negative.  The core finding is that a one percent increase in housing completions tends to be associated with a 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent decrease in rents.

 

 

Importantly, Mense’s work shows that added supply influences rents across the entire housing market.  At best, market-skeptics will aver that new market rate units will reduce rents at the top-end of the market, but can’t conceive of how that will affect lower rent units. But Mense’s work shows that it isn’t just high end rents that decline.

To the contrary, they suggest that new housing supply shifts the rent distribution as a whole. When considering the point estimates, it seems that the lower parts of the rent distribution reacted more strongly in the first months after the new units came on the market, while the upper part reacted more strongly several months later. Overall, none of the two main forces — substitutability of housing units, and moving costs —, seems to dominate. The key implication is that new housing supply provided by private developers effectively lowers rents throughout the rent distribution, shortly after the new units are completed.

(emphasis added)

One of the most helpful aspects of Mense’s paper is that it has quantitative estimates of how much additional housing a city might need to build to stave off rent increases. For example, he estimates that Munich would need to increase the number of new units built over the past seven years by about 20 percent above the actually completed levels in order to hold rent increases to zero.  Berlin, where markets are tighter and rent increases greater, would need an even bigger increase in production; most German cities would need to produce about 10-20 percent more new housing units than they actually built to hold rent inflation in check.  (Note that the required increase is not a 10-20 percent increase in total housing stock, but a 10-20 percent increase in the number of new units built compared to actual new construction).

One of the most common objections to “supply side” approaches to promoting affordability is that somehow building market rate housing only affects the price of higher priced housing.  This paper adds to a growing body of evidence that new market rate construction triggers a chain-reaction of moves and price adjustments that rapidly propagate through an entire housing market and ultimately benefit low income households. Building new housing sets of a chain of moves—the kind of musical chairs progression modeled by the Upjohn Institute’s Evan Mast—that yield increases in supply in existing units with various prices elsewhere in the region.  The vacancy of these units not only creates additional housing opportunities at lower price points, but puts downward pressure on rents.

Housing costs of the population as a whole can be reduced effectively by letting developers provide enough market-rate housing. Consequently, denser development has great potential to reduce the housing cost burden of low-income households—in addition to other possible benefits such as shorter commuting distances and larger productivity spillovers.

This is an important finding for housing policy.  Too much of the housing debate is a kind of myopic particularism, looking at whether a single housing unit is affordable, with no attention given to affordability across the market spectrum.  Too often, policies are obsessed with highly visible but microscopically small interventions, which may provide affordability for a few lucky tenants, but which do little or nothing to lower costs and increase affordability across the entire housing market. The truly pernicious part of some strategies, like inclusionary housing requirements, is that the negative effects of such requirements on new housing supply (which operate across an entire market) outweigh the benefits in terms of a few dedicated affordable units. Ultimately, housing affordability is about scale, and increasing housing supply is a necessary precondition to making sure affordability is achieved for many, rather than just a few.

Mense, Andreas (2020). The Impact of New Housing Supply on the Distribution of Rents, Beiträge zur Jahrestagung des Vereins für Socialpolitik 2020: Gender Economics, ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics, Kiel, Hamburg

The only reason some people drive is because we pay them to

Here’s an insight from tolling:  A substantial portion of the people driving on our roadways are only there because we’re subsidizing the cost of their trip.

When we charge a toll to use a road, suddenly many of those using it find they don’t value it enough to pay even a fraction of the cost of the road’s cost.

Our most egregious subsidies are to those drivers who demand to travel at the peak hour when roadway space is scarce, and which is the most expensive problem to fix.

The biggest problem with transportation is we don’t price road use correctly, to reflect back to road users the costs that their decisions impose on society and everyone else traveling.  In essence, we have daily urban traffic jams for the same reason Ben and Jerry have long lines on their annual Free Cone Day: when you don’t price something valuable, it gets rationed by queuing and patience.  What’s worse is a lot of people who are driving on many roads at the rush hour is essentially because we are paying them to do so.

Freeways are only “free” in the sense that, no matter when you drive, you pay the same marginal price:  Nothing.  Of course,  we all pay for roads through things like the gas tax and vehicle registration fees (as well as a host of other general taxes), but the point is, whether you use a road at the peak hour or not has no effect on how much you pay to drive.  Whether you use it at 2 am when there are literally no other cars on the road, or you use it when it’s jammed at rush hour, makes no difference.  And because peak hour capacity is in short supply, and is damned expensive to increase, “free” roads are a massive subsidy from the general public to the relatively few of us who use roads at the peak.

When we ask road users to pay even a modest fraction of the cost of providing that expensive peak hour road capacity, many of them tell us, by voting with their feet (or their tires), that they simply don’t value the roadway enough to pay for even a tiny fraction of its cost.

The latest example of this comes from Seattle, where Washington State has spent about $3.3 billion tearing down the old elevated Alaskan Way highway viaduct that marred the city’s waterfront for decades, and replaced it with an expensive new tunnel bored under downtown.  After the tunnel was completed, it was “free” for a while, but a year ago, the state asked users to pay tolls, which vary from $1.25 to $2.25 per trip, plus a $2 surcharge, if you don’t have a transponder.

Now keep in mind that tolling will cover less than 10 percent of the cost of the tunnel, about $200 million of the more than $3 billion cost. When the tunnel was first opened, it carried more than 75,000 cars per day.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct (Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as the state asked those using the tunnel to make a modest contribution to its cost, that number dropped to 55,000.  Here’s the official analysis from WSDOT:

Of the 20,000 trips that diverted from the tunnel after tolling began, data indicates that roughly 10,000 trips used other routes (primarily Alaskan Way, Elliott Avenue, and I-5) or switched from driving to riding transit. Ferries and water taxi ridership were largely unchanged. The remaining 10,000 trips are not accounted for using existing roadway sensors and automated passenger counters on buses, however, anecdotal data suggests that some trips were discontinued as people embraced teleworking, bicycling and other active forms of transportation, or by using an unmonitored route.

What this really means is more than a quarter (20,000 of 75,000 users) used the tunnel because only somebody else paid for more than ninety percent of the cost of their trip.  And contrary to the usual doomsday scenario’s of highway agencies, most of that traffic isn’t displaced onto city streets or alternate routes, it simply disappears.  Again, the evidence from Seattle’s tunnel has been that neither abrupt changes in capacity or tolling produced noticeable worsening of traffic elsewhere in the city.

Here’s another example, also taken from the State of Washington, although it spills over—as we’ll see—into the state of Oregon.  To set the scene: Vancouver Washington, sits just north of the Columbia River, which forms the border between the two states, and is part of the Portland Metropolitan area. Washington has a sales tax, Oregon doesn’t.  There just two bridges—I-5 and I-205—connecting the 400,000 Vancouver area residents with jobs and stores in Oregon.  Washington residents who shop in Oregon avoid state and local sales taxes of more than 8 percent, meaning a $200 shopping trip saves a resident more than $16 in sales taxes.  Washington is, in effect, paying its residents to drive to Oregon to shop.

Washington residents fill the parking lots at Oregon stores to avoid their state’s eight percent sales tax; they’re essentially paid to drive to Oregon to shop.

We’ve estimated that the average Vancouver household saves more than $1,000 in sales taxes per year by shopping in Oregon and that shopping trips account for between 10 percent and 20 percent of the traffic on the two Interstate bridges.  Not incidentally, this shopping traffic is a key reason why the two states are considering spending more than $3 billion to widen the I-5 bridge.

Want less traffic and pollution? Stop paying people to drive

This has to be the key insight for transportation policy:  The reason we have traffic congestion is essentially because we’re paying people to drive.  As soon as we ask drivers to pay even a fraction of the cost of the roads they’re using, large numbers of them find other routes, or simply take fewer trips.  In a world where we’re losing the fight against climate change principally because we’re driving more and more each year, a logical first step is to stop paying people to drive their cars.  That’s exactly what policies like road pricing, and parking pricing do:  they ask those who benefit from using their cars to pay for a larger fraction of the cost of providing the services they enjoy.

One of the fascinating, and least widely understood aspects of the science of traffic jams is that it takes only a small reduction in traffic levels to keep roads flowing freely.  As long as traffic levels stay below a tipping point where the road becomes saturated and loses capacity, the road works well. Adding (or subtracting) just a few cars when traffic is at this tipping point makes a huge difference both in travel times and how many cars a road can carry. This is just what happened during the height of the pandemic, when reduced demand kept Portland-area freeways below their tipping point, and enabled them to carry more cars at the rush hour than they did in “normal” times. Pricing a roadway causes a minority of travelers to change their trips, but it’s enough to keep the roadway flowing freely. A common argument against pricing is that some people simply don’t have alternatives to driving, or driving at a particular time; and that’s true.  But the data show that a significant minority of those on the road will immediately change their behavior given even a small financial incentive—and that segment of the population staying away is enough to make the road system work much, much better for everyone else who doesn’t have that flexibility.

The old saying “you get what you pay for” applies with a vengeance to transportation:  We pay people to drive, and so they do, with the result that we get chronic congestion, air pollution, and aggravated climate change.  A sensible policy of charging road users based on when and where they travel would both dramatically reduce traffic congestion—by encouraging those who are only on the road because someone else is paying for the trip to choose another time or destination—and also reduce pollution and greenhouse gases.  Those who paid would be getting what the British call “value for money”—by tolls would get them a quicker and more predictable trip than is possible at any price now.

 

 

Phoenix: Climate Hypocrisy

You can’t be a climate mayor—and your city can’t be a climate city — if you’re widening freeways

Phoenix says it’s going to reduce greenhouse gases 90 percent by 2050, but the city’s transportation greenhouse gases have risen 1,000 pounds per person since 2014, and it’s planning to spend hundreds of millions widening freeways.

Around the country, and around the world, leaders are pledging to solve the climate problem—someday, in the distant future.  Typically, these pledges claim that a city (or other organization) will be “net zero” by some year ending in zero (2040, 2050), or that it will reduce its emissions (or usually, some carefully selected fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions it is responsible for), by a stated percentage. These multi-decade pledges aren’t really pledges that these leaders will be responsible for achieving:  it will be their successors, several steps removed, who will be in charge when the day of reckoning comes.

One of the world’s leading climate activists is calling “BS” on this phony and deceptive strategy.  Greta Thunberg is challenging leaders to  commit to change now, rather than waiting:

“When it’s about something that is in 10 years’ time, they are more than happy to vote for it because that doesn’t really impact them. But when it’s something that actually has an effect, right here right now, they don’t want to touch it. It really shows the hypocrisy.”

“They mean something symbolically, but if you look at what they actually include, or more importantly exclude, there are so many loopholes. We shouldn’t be focusing on dates 10, 20 or even 30 years in the future. If we don’t reduce our emissions now, then those distant targets won’t mean anything because our carbon budgets will be long gone.”

“. . . we can have as many conferences as we want, but it will just be negotiations, empty words, loopholes and greenwash.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find a city that is pledging to be much, much better (in a few decades), while its current efforts are failing perceptibly, and its actively spending money that will make the problem worse.  Today, we’ll pick on Phoenix, but much the same story could be told about many other cities.  Mayors are proclaiming loudly that there’s a climate emergency, and very visibly endorsing the Paris Accords, but at the same time are planning to put vast sums of scarce public resources into building more roads that will only make the problem worse. What makes this particularly egregious is that nearly everywhere, increased driving is now the single largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.  The one thing cities can do to fight climate change is reduce the need to travel by car; and widening freeways does just the opposite:  it subsidizes driving, and promote sprawl and car dependence.

Phoenix is developing a new climate action plan, because it’s required to do so for joining the C40 cities organization

The city’s goal is to complete CAP updates by year’s end in part due to Phoenix having joined C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group earlier this year.

“One of those things that C40 cities require is completion … or an updated climate action plan by the end of this year,” Environment Program Coordinator Roseanne Albright . . .”

Like a lot of cities, it has goals of reducing climate pollution . . . someday.  Here’s the provisional goal according to the city’s website.

Headed in the wrong direction

All well and good to have a reduction goal for the next couple of decades.  But what climate data show is that Phoenix–like most cities is utterly failing to make progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.  Data from the national DARTE database of transportation greenhouse gas emissions shows that metropolitan Phoenix is rapidly going in the wrong direction.  Its GHG per capita which had been flat to trending downward in the first half of the last decade (even as the economy was recovering from the Great Recession) grew rapidly after the big drop in gas prices in 2014.  Today, the average Phoenix resident emits about 1,000 pounds more greenhouse gases from transportation than in 2014.

 

Going faster—in the wrong direction:  A wider freeway

Even as they proclaim their climate goals, the Phoenix is embarking on a massive $700 million freeway widening project, with the full support of its mayor.  The plan would widen an eleven mile stretch I-10 through Phoenix to as many as 16 lanes.

According to Planetizen, Phoenix’s Mayor is all on board:

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego is quoted in the article touting the safety benefits of the proposed project, along with its potential economic benefits. On that latter score, Mayor Gallego cites the potential for $658 million in new economic activity.

The project’s video notes that there will be as many three pedestrian and bike overpasses, but makes it clear that these are currently only conjectural:  “multi-use bridges for pedestrians and bicyclists could span the freeway.”  Plus, as we’ve noted at City Observatory, this kind of “pedestrian” infrastructure is really primarily designed to serve cars and doesn’t contribute to a more walkable city.

Finally, much of the cost of the measure is being subsidized from a regional sales tax.  So in essence, the region’s residents will have to pay for the wider freeway whether they use it or not.  This amounts to a massive subsidy to more driving, and predictably will lead to even more sprawling development, longer commutes and more greenhouse gases.

In a way, its unfair to pick on Phoenix. (For the record, we’ve been unstinting at City Observatory in our critique of Portland’s failed climate efforts).  Other cities around the country, who ostensibly care about climate change or who have endorsed the Paris accords are pursuing their own massive freeway widening projects, as James Brasuell has chronicled. The list includes projects in Houston, Los Angeles, Akron, Indiana, and Maryland.  As Brasuell says:

Some of the politicians and agencies behind these plans claim to be climate warriors without being held accountable to their promises. Others are climate arsonists, who are not being held accountable to the consequences of these actions.

Tragically, these efforts are even being promoted by the National Science Foundation, under whose auspices that Transportation Research Board published a report calling for billions more in subsidies for road construction to facilitate literally trillions of more miles of driving, building a true highway to hell.

Why—and where—Metro’s $5 billion transportation bond measure failed

Portland voters resoundingly defeated a proposed multi-billion dollar payroll tax to pay for transportation projects

The two areas slated for the biggest benefits voted against the measure:  The Southwest Corridor and East Portland both opposed the measure

A generous electorate didn’t want to spend billions on transportation

A few months back, we laid out the case against a $5 billion transportation bond measure proposed by Portland’s regional government, Metro. In the November election, voters rejected the measure by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin.

It’s difficult to argue that the measure failed because of widespread anti-tax sentiment:  Voters in the Portland and Multnomah County, in the center of the region, approved every single money measure on the ballot, except for Metro’s transportation tax.  Portland voters approved a $400 million parks levy (64 percent yes), a $1.2 billion school bond (75 percent yes), a $400 million library bond (60 percent yes). They voted to impose a new high earner tax to fund tuition-free preschool education.  These votes come on top of other measures they approved strongly in the May primary election, including multi-billion dollar regional tax to fund homeless services and extension of a 10 cent a gallon Portland city gas tax—which passed with an 77 to 23 percent margin of victory.

Opponents of the measure, chiefly the area’s business community, mounted a  $2 million campaign that mostly emphasized a series of anti-tax messages. But many in the community shared our concerns that the measure did nothing to reduce greenhouse gases. More generally, it appears that the public wasn’t convinced of the benefits of this proposed spending package, which would have been the most expensive single such effort in the region’s history. You’d think that $5 billion worth of projects, chosen after a year-long involvement process, would produce strong support, especially among the likely beneficiaries of these projects. But the evidence suggests that the measure failed to generate much support in two sets of neighborhoods that were singled out for major expenditures, in Southwest Portland and in East Portland.

The pattern of support and opposition in Multnomah County

While there hasn’t been any post-election polling to lay out the reasons for the measure’s crushing defeat, there are some clear clues in the geography of election returns. In particular, election returns for Multnomah County, which are available at the precinct level show, the distinct geography of support for and opposition to the Metro measure.  (Precinct data for Clackamas and Washington counties weren’t available as of publication date).

This map shows the overall pattern of votes in Multnomah County, with areas supporting the measure shaded green, those opposed shaded yellow, and those extremely opposed (fewer than 35% “yes” votes), shaded red.

Support came from a green core. Within the county, the precincts which voted in favor of the measure are in the city’s close-in urban neighborhoods, including downtown, and adjacent neighborhoods in Southeast, Northeast and parts of North Portland.  Outside these areas, voters were opposed. The support for the measure came from a handful of precincts on Portland’s westside, in and near downtown, and a swath of close-in urban neighborhoods in North, Northeast and Southeast Portland. These neighborhoods tend to have the highest levels of transit ridership and bike commuting in the region, as well as being politically liberal. The pattern of voting in favor of the measure closely resembles the split between incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler (who was re-elected) and his challenger, Sarah Iannarone; Iannarone, the progressive, did best in the same precincts that voted for the measure.

Source: Multnomah County Elections.

The map of the left shows the electoral split for the Metro Bond, with the light colors representing yes votes and the darker colors “No” votes.  The map of the right shows the plurality winner of the Portland Mayor’s race, with moderate incumbent Ted Wheeler in light blue, and progressive challenger Sarah Iannarone in dark gray.  The Metro measure did best in those precincts most favorable to Iannarone.  More liberal-leaning neighborhoods supported the measure, but it wasn’t enough to produce a majority even in Multnomah County.

Neighborhoods that stood to get projects voted against the measure

In theory, at least two geographic constituencies should have been big beneficiaries of the measure.  The biggest single project in the package, the SouthWest Light Rail, earmarked for nearly $1 billion of Metro money, would have built a new light rail line with stations in neighborhoods in Southwest Portland.  But apparently this area didn’t care:  All of the Multnomah County precincts through which the project would have run voted against the measure.

Another constituency that was supposed to benefit from the measure were residents of East Portland. Metro stressed that the measure was designed to improve equity, by investing in transit, safety and pedestrian improvements, especially in low income neighborhoods like those along 82nd Avenue in East Portland.  This area, formerly part of unincorporated East Multnomah County, has some of the region’s weakest transportation infrastructure, with many unpaved streets and relatively few sidewalks. In recent decades, income levels in this area have slipped relative to the region, and advocates of the measure made a particularly strong point that spending in East Portland would address serious equity concerns. But the election returns show that there was no outpouring of support from these neighborhoods. East Portland is generally regarded as the area East of 82nd Avenue.  The map below zooms in on Portland’s East side, and shows a clear dividing line at 82nd Avenue (the red line on the map). Only 2 precincts East of 82nd Avenue voted in favor of the measure; nearly all were opposed. Many of the precincts in the area were strongly opposed, with fewer than 35 percent “Yes” votes. Claims that this measure would advance equity and improve safety generated no support in the very communities would ostensibly benefit from the measure.

No support in the suburbs, either

The Metro electorate includes voters in three counties, Multnomah (which includes nearly all of Portland) and two suburban counties:  Clackamas and Washington.  The measure lost in Multnomah County by a 54/46 margin, and was defeated by an even larger margin in each of the two counties. Neither of these counties has yet released precinct-level returns through the Secretary of State’s website, so we haven’t analyzed their geography here.

 

Limits of the “Christmas Tree” approach

From the outset, the Metro measure was fashioned as a kind of giant Christmas tree, with a raft of projects each designed to appeal to a specific constituency: a billion dollars for Tri-Met’s next light rail line, a freeway interchange for the Port of Portland’s airport, new highways in suburban Clackamas County, a big contribution to Multnomah County’s plan to replace the Burnside Bridge, sidewalk and safety projects to appeal to pedestrian advocates, and transit fare subsidies for students.  Seemingly everyone participating in Metro’s process got a little something and endorsed the package. Metro’s effort’s seemed dominated by an at times cynical political perspective. Early on, they fielded misleading push-polls falsely claiming that measures to reduce traffic congestion would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It was all well and good to come up with a list of projects, but Metro’s political calculus doomed this effort when it came to deciding how to pay for it. Supposedly because a gas tax didn’t poll well, Metro’s leader’s tried to stick it to “someone else” —the someone else being the region’s larger employers. The actual funding, a selective payroll tax, was decided only at the last minute, and with little public debate, and Metro chose to exclude itself another other local governments from paying the tax. In theory, a measure that only taxed big businesses and exexempted politically popular small businesses, and which was pitched as a tax that someone else would pay, should poll well. But in the end, it generated considerable ire with the business community, which opposed it, and the “no” campaign’s messages clearly resonated with the voters.

In our view, it was unwise from a policy standpoint to choose a method of paying for this package with little or no relation to transportation. The payroll tax amounted to the equivalent of a 30 cent a gallon subsidy to gasoline purchases, compared to the more conventional way of paying for road improvements through the fuel taxes. Ironically, as the 77 percent “yes” vote for extending the City of Portland’s 10 cent per gallon just six months ago demonstrates, voters and the business community had little problem, when asked,  in paying for transportation in a direct and visible way. Moreover, Portland passed a gas tax with a margin of more than 100,000 votes, a block that would have dramatically bolstered chances for regional success even if suburbs were intransigent.

For whatever reason, 2020 was a year when Portland area voters were willing to vote for big tax increases for a wide ranges for services, from dealing with homelessness, to parks, to libraries, to schools and pre-school education. The failure of the Metro measure in this environment shows considerable miscalculation, both in terms of what the measure proposed to fund, and how it proposed to pay for it.

 

 

 

Frog Ferry: The slow boat to nowhere

A proposed Portland area ferry makes no economic or transportation sense.

Why the Frog Ferry is a slow boat to nowhere

A ferry between Vancouver and Portland would take 20 minutes longer than existing bus service

From flying cars to underground tunnels to ferry boats, there’s always an appetite for a seemingly clever technical fix for urban transportation problems.  But in the end, transportation is about performance, cost and geometry, and nearly all of these inventive ideas fail dramatically one one, two or all three of these criteria.  When it comes to making urban transportation better, what is needed, as Jarrett Walker told a recent YIMBYtown audience, is less charisma and more scale.

The latest of these transport fantasies is a Portland proposal for a “Frog Ferry”—the cute name is a dead giveaway that this idea is long on hype and short on substance.  The pitch for the ferry goes like this:

Wouldn’t it be cool, if instead of taking a bus or a car, you could take a boat from Vancouver Washington, or Lake Oswego Oregon, to downtown Portland.  Wouldn’t it be great if it was faster than driving or a taking a bus?

With a keen eye to PR, the proponents of the Frog Ferry have produced a glossy video implying the ferry would be faster than car or transit service.

Source: Frog Ferry video.

You can imagine it, for sure.  But it is imaginary.  It’s not possible for a regular ferry service to travel faster between Vancouver and Portland than a car, or even today’s bus service. In the real world, boats are slower than both cars and buses. Water transportation, especially given the circuitous water route between Vancouver and Portland, the slow speeds of even “fast” ferries, the need to minimize damaging wakes at higher speeds, and the relative remoteness of docks from actual destinations, means that ferries in Portland are an unwise, uneconomic folly.

The devilish details

What exactly, is the Frog Ferry?  The Frog Ferry is a proposal to establish water ferry service on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, connecting Vancouver, Washington, and downtown Portland and Lake Oswego and or Oregon City.  The Ferry plan is to operate 6 boats (four carrying up to 100 passengers and two carrying sixty).  With the help of the Oregon Department of Transportation and the City of Portland, ferry proponents have gotten hundreds of thousands in public funds to undertake a series of feasibility studies. So far, they’ve mostly figured out that the project would need at least $40 million to pay for boats and docks, as well as continuing subsidies to support operating costs.

In recent days, its seemed like the Frog Ferry proposal sinking fast.  Tri-Met, the region’s transit agency, charged with being fiscal agent for a grant from the Oregon Departmetn of Transportation, disputed and refused to pay invoices from the Frog Ferry organization.  The Portland City Council declined to bail out the organization.  The ferry advocates are trying to revive the project, but should anyone care?  Let’s take a close look at what’s proposed and see if it makes any sense.

Frog Ferry:  The slow boat to nowhere

As the marketing materials make clear, a faster trip is a big part of the promise here.  But would a ferry, particularly between Vancouver and Portland, be very fast?  Downtown Portland and downtown Vancouver, Washington are only about seven miles apart as the crow flies, but not as the salmon swims.  To get from Vancouver to Portland by water, you have to go west on the Columbia River five miles to its confluence with the Willamette, and then make a U-turn and go south-east on the Willamette River almost ten more miles to get to downtown Portland.  The trip by water is twice as long as the straight line distance, making for a lot of out-of-direction travel.

In New York City, ferry operating subsidies are costing the city $50 million a year.

There isn’t lots of traffic on the river, but there are still real limits to how fast ferries can go. As a practical matter they’re generally limited to top speeds of 20 to 25 knots, and often much slower.  A big problem with fast ferries is that they create a big wake, which can be disruptive to other water users, and damaging to sensitive riverbanks.  Limiting damaging wakes is a key reason that ferries travel as slowly as they do.  For example, even in Vancouver, British Columbia where ferries cross the wide Burrard Inlet Seabus, travels at about 11-12 knots.  These catamarans are capable of higher speeds, but are forced to travel at lower speeds to avoid the excess wake.  The Frog Ferry’s proponents assume their vessel will be able to cruise at 24 knots, but they’ve yet to address the damage that this high speed wake will do along the confines of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.  In addition, the ferries will have to make a 130 degree turn around Kelly Point, which would be an amusement park ride experience at 24 knots.

Today’s buses are already faster

The ferry system is actually likely to be much slower than implied by the advocate’s estimates.  The 15 mile-river trip from Vancouver with a stop in St. Johns, would take around 45 minutes according to their own very optimistic estimates, as much as 10 minutes longer than current rush hour bus service.

That’s not surprising:  by road, the distance traveled is a more than a third shorter (9.3 miles) and an off-peak car trip takes about 15 minutes according to Google.

The Frog Ferry marketing claims that the ferry would be faster, but it wouldn’t.  It’s not only not faster than driving, it’s actually slower than today’s transit.  How long does it take to get by bus from Vancouver or Lake Oswego to Salmon Street Springs, the proposed downtown Portland terminus?  Let me Google that for you.

For bus service from Vancouver to Portland its, 34 to 38 minutes:

And the ferry is just the line-haul portion of the trip:  Since almost no one lives or works right at these stops, they’ll have to walk (or drive or take a bus) onward from the place the ferry docks to their destination.  The Vancouver, St. Johns and Lake Oswego sites are remote from housing, and aren’t currently served by transit.  Downtown Portland’s Salmon Street Springs is a four minute walk from the nearest light rail stop, and about seven minutes to Portland’s transit mall.  And these are for travel to Salmon Street Springs, not to someone’s work or shopping destination. It’s a half mile, 10 minute walk up or down a steep hillside from downtown St. Johns to the river side in Cathedral Park.The C-Tran and Tri-Met buses that ply these routes actually stop at multiple locations, like downtown Portland’s transit mall, which are much closer to offices, stores and other destinations.  So if anything, these estimates understate the travel time advantage of today’s buses.

It’s almost certain that Frog Ferry advocates have overestimated how fast their ferry will be.  They told Metro to assume that the ferry had an average speed of 24 knots (27.6 miles per hour).  While high speed ferries can cruise that fast (or few knots faster), during much of their travel cycle they’re either going much slower (maneuvering into and away from docks, accelerating or slowing, or are restricted by traffic or low wake zones).  As a result average speeds are far less than cruising speeds.  Moreover, the 24 knot average speed is higher than the 22 knot “cruising speed” assumed in the Frog Ferry’s own operational feasibility plan.

Those with real world experience report much slower service speeds.  New York—which has broad experience with ferries—estimates much different speeds that the Frog Ferry’s advocates.  Its Citywide Ferry Study concluded that an eight-mile leg with a medium-sized catamaran ferry would take a total of close to half an hour, with time for dwell, maneuvering and cruising—the Frog Ferry’s estimates don’t seem to allow for maneuvering to and from the dock.  Seattle’s proposed 10.5 mile Kenmore Ferry Route, operated with a 28-knot cruising speed ferry similarly requires close to 40 minutes one-way when allowance is made for loading, unloading and maneuvering.

Between Portland and Vancouver, the Frog Ferry would travel more than 15 miles in two nearly equal segments stopping at St. Johns.  That would put its travel time close to two-legs eight mile legs by the medium catamaran (Type E), in the table above, or one full hour.

The real world performance of ferries shows that the proposed Frog Ferry simply would not  be time competitive with existing transit service in Portland.  A ferry ride between Vancouver and Portland is going to take nearly an hour—twenty minutes or more longer than a current-day bus ride.  And the ferry will pick up and deposit its customers and the river’s edge, not their final destinations, unlike transit buses which actually traverse widely patronized destinations.  As a practical matter, a boat that takes considerable longer than a bus moving in mixed traffic just isn’t going to attract very many riders.

The romance of water travel and the apparent illusion of escaping traffic has certainly charmed some into pursuing the Frog Ferry idea, but as a practical form of transportation it is far less efficient and direct that the far more humble and prosaic transit bus, which despite its boring character is still faster than the fastest feasible water transport.

The fact that ferry service would dramatically under-perform existing bus service ought to be enough to reject the Frog Ferry idea out of hand, but that’s just the most obvious problem with ferry service.  It also turns out that ferries are enormously expensive, highly polluting, and tend to principally serve higher income commuters, points we’ll explore in future commentaries.  If a community is interested in efficient, equitable and sustainable mass transportation, the Frog Ferry shouldn’t be part of its plans.

It may not float or have charisma, but it will get you to Portland at least ten minutes faster than a Frog Ferry.

 

Equity and Metro’s $5 Billion Transportation Bond

Advocates for a $5 billion transportation bond that Portland area voters will be deciding in November are making a specious argument about it being an equity measure.

Its largest single project, a multi-billion dollar light rail line serves the some of the region’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods and has as its destination a suburban lifestyle mall.

The bulk of the money in the measure supports projects in highway corridors, including a subsidy to cars driving to the Portland airport.

Because the measure does nothing according to the advocate’s own estimates to reduce greenhouse gases, it’s inequitable to the frontline communities that bear the burden of climate change.

Some of the proponents of a $5 billion tax measure being presented to Portland’s voters on November 3 are claiming that it’s a way to right historic wrongs to the poor and people of color.  CityLab published one such commentary last week, with a headline asserting that the measure will help communities of color; it features a picture of one of Portland’s right rail lines.

But if you look closely at the measure, it’s really just transportation pork barrel politics, like the days of old, and the biggest shares of the money go to projects that disproportionately benefit whiter communities and higher income households. Despite a relative handful of measures—like free and reduced price transit for school aged kids—that make sense on their own, it’s a package that consists mostly of road projects that could and should be paid for by road users through the gas tax.  Instead, car users get the equivalent of a 30 cent a gallon subsidy for driving. What’s worse, is that the measure cannibalizes the payroll tax—which the region has used for 50 years to subsidize transit operations—to fund capital expenditures, at a time when the local transit system is facing desperate financial conditions.

But let’s focus on the biggest single project in the Metro package:  roughly a billion dollars toward the local share of the costs of a $3 billion expansion of the region’s light rail system.  On paper, that seems good, but as long-time Tri-Met planner GB Arrington pointed out, this particular light rail project makes no sense as a transit or urban development measure.

The claim in the CityLab article is that the measure “invests in Black and Brown communities.” But when it comes to the single biggest project in the package, the proposed Southwest Light Rail benefits the whitest, wealthiest part of the region. The same is true of other major components of the package, which chiefly invest in highway corridors, not neighborhoods. Here are the facts.

SW light rail would disproportionately serve Portland’s whitest neighborhoods

At City Observatory, we’ve extensively studied the racial and ethnic diversity of the nation’s largest metro areas, including Portland. While Portland has fewer Black residents than most large metros, it has proportionately more Hispanic and Asian residents, and it is overall, one of the least racially and ethnically segregated metro areas in the nation. But like every large US metro area, it has a share of neighborhoods that are not diverse, and that are disproportionately composed of white, non-Hispanic residents.

As part of our study, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods, we identified all of the non-diverse predominantly white neighborhoods in the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.  We computed racial diversity using the Racial and Ethnic Diversity Index (REDI), and flagged those tracts that were among the 20 percent least diverse of all tracts in large metro areas nationally, and in which the majority racial/ethnic group was white, non-Hispanic.  Here’s a map of the Portland area’s non-diverse, white neighborhoods.

Source:  American’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighobrhoods (Red-shaded areas are low-diversity white, non-Hispanic neighborhoods.)

Red-shaded areas are low diversity, majority white neighborhoods. (Source:  America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods).

The area with the largest concentration of these non-diverse white neighborhoods is the the southwest quadrant of the city of Portland, an area running from the city’s West Hills to the city of Lake Oswego. The route of the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail line bisects this large concentration of non-diverse neighborhoods.  Here’s a close-up of the same data, with the route of the light rail line super-imposed on these low-diversity white neighborhoods.

Red-shaded areas are low diversity, majority white neighborhoods. (Source:  America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods).

 

Light Rail to Portland’s high income suburbs

Not surprisingly, these predominantly white neighborhoods are also among the wealthiest in the region. The neighborhoods of southwest Portland and the suburbs in this part of the region are hardly distressed communities.  Don’t take our word for it:  Let’s look at the Distressed Communities Index just released by the Economic Innovation Group.  It ranks all the zip codes on the US on a 100 point scale of economic distress, based on a combination of income, poverty, and employment indicators.  The proposed SW Light Rail project runs through four zip codes outside of downtown Portland:  97239, 97219, 97223 and 97224.  Three of these four are rated “prosperous”–the highest income of five categories in the EIG ranking, and one is rated “comfortable.”  None are mid-tier, at-risk, or distressed.

Source: Economic Innovation Group

The average incomes of these neighborhoods are higher than for Multnomah County, the region’s most central, urban county.  Median household incomes in zip code 97219 are among the highest in the region, at just slightly less than $100,000.  The following chart shows the county-wide median and the median incomes in the four zip codes directly served by the proposed light rail line.

Destination:  Suburban shopping mall

The southern terminus of the proposed Southwest Light Rail line is a “lifestyle center” shopping mall called Bridgeport Village.

Bridgeport Village is home to a host of national chain stores catering to high-end households.  The mall’s owners describe it as:

. . . an outstanding and enviable array of exclusive, internationally renowned stores and boutiques which include The Container Store, Anthropologie, GAP, Lululemon, Apple, Crate & Barrel, Brandy Melville, Madewell, Sephora, Sundance, Eileen Fisher, MAC Cosmetics, Tommy Bahama, Soft Surroundings and the largest Regal IMAX Theatre in the state.

They too, note the area’s high income demographics.  The mall’s primary trade area has an average household income of $89,000 compared to $74,000 in the rest of the metropolitan area.

Other projects also chiefly benefit white, wealthy populations

Another project subsidized by the bond measure is a massive freeway interchange serving Portland International Airport.  The interchange will make it quicker and easier for people to drive to the airport (and not incidentally, undercut the relative attractiveness of the already existing light rail service that goes direct to the airport terminal). And the users of facilities like the airport have higher incomes that the rest of the region’s population.  According to Statista, person with an income of $80,000 a year is about 6 times more likely to be a frequent air traveler than someone with an income under $40,000 per year.  Ironically, because the Port of Portland charges market rates for parking ($3 an hour; $24/day) it’s the one place where car users actually shoulder something approaching the cost of their trips, and the Port could easily fund this road improvement out of the fees it charges users; but it prefers to ask that the general public subsidize car trips to and from the airport.

The project proponents claim that the proposal will support investments in safety and pedestrian improvements in the region.  But the bulk of these monies are focused on highway corridors. As we’ve discussed at City Observatory, as a practical matter, “pedestrian safety” improvements in and along highways are of dubious value in creating more walkability, and are in many cases, actually highway improvements—designed to facilitate more and faster car travel.

What this tells us about equity

Urban leaders around the nation are grappling daily with the question of how to fashion policies that achieve “equity.”  There’s a cacophony of voices calling for greater equity, but no definitive yardsticks to say what this means, or measure whether we’re making progress, or even moving in the right direction.  If a light rail line through the richest, whitest portion of a region contributes to “equity” than arguably pretty much any investment could.  Likewise projects that expand capacity on suburban highways, or make it easier to drive to the airport, rather than take the light rail system we’ve already built.

There are pieces of the Portland measure that do support equity, like free and reduced price transit fares. But the most expensive items in the package hardly serve disadvantaged front-line communities. Beyond that, we know that low income communities and people of color are those most likely to bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, which means that the Metro bond measure’s abject failure to reduce the region’s transportation greenhouse gases is, itself, highly inequitable.

The point is that without a clear definition of what constitutes “equity,” this criterion is meaningless. Given our current approach to the subject, “equity” is as vague, personal, and subjective as “beauty.”

Our discussions of equity need to be far more specific and quantifiable:  Who benefits, and how much?  And how do we address the underlying inequities that are built into the existing institutional arrangements for transportation, and that are never questioned:  like virtually universal free parking, or policies that prioritize the faster movement of cars over the safety and livability of urban neighborhoods? Is there anything more equitable than adequate funding for bus operations to assure greater frequency?  We should make equity a key criteria for guiding our transportation policies, but we should do so in a way that systematically makes our overall society more equitable, rather than being a subjective talking point for a particular pet project.

It’s worth imagining what a real, equity-driven regional agenda would look like. For starters, it wouldn’t be based on the premise that everything has to be viewed through the lens of transportation. While inequity manifests itself in the transportation system, the problem is much broader and more fundamental, and is rooted in land use and housing policies, like the prevalence of single family zoning in the Southwest corridor that this proposal does nothing about. An equity focused agenda might also try to learn from and adapt based on the lessons of the Covid pandemic. Arguably right now, widespread and free or inexpensive access to high-speed Internet is a more salient equity issue. Framing this single largest investment in the region’s history solely as a transportation issue forces all communities to play a transportation game rather consider more broadly the range of investments that would provide the livability and opportunity communities are asking for.  Finally, a real equity measure should pay as much attention to how monies are raised as it does to how they’re spent, and be funded by assessing the costs to users.  People are adaptable, transportation systems much less so.  Investing in steel and concrete before investing in new patterns of cost allocation and usage is today short-sighted and should be unthinkable.

 

 

The Great Disconnect: The perverse rhetoric of gentrification

The Great Disconnect

By Jason Segedy

City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest commentary from Akron’s Jason Segedy.  It originally appeared on his blog.

 

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As this decade draws to a close, the story of urban America is increasingly about the great disconnect between a small number of large cities that are thriving, and a much larger number of cities of all sizes that are continuing to fall behind.

What’s true for a handful of large cities is increasingly untrue for the majority of cities in the vast middle of the country. Nowhere is the great disconnect more apparent than in the debate about gentrification.

Gentrification is a hot topic of conversation in coastal cities, like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, with expensive living costs that are also home to influential journalists and academics.

Writing about gentrification has become a cottage industry for many pundits and urban policy wonks.  Many of the earlier pieces penned on the topic were important, thought-provoking, and well-reasoned.

But what started as the airing of thoughtful, reasonable, and understandable concerns about displacement and inequality in a handful of coastal cities, has turned into intellectual dishonesty, irrational hysteria, and even self-parody, particularly when it is applied to the long-suffering cities of the Rust Belt.

Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City, which Josh Stephens accurately calls “an ideological rant in the guise of journalism” makes it clear that no matter how many times he mentions Detroit, it is clear that the New Yorker simply doesn’t really understand the place.  He says: “The new Detroit is now nearly a closed-loop…It is possible to live in this new Detroit and never set foot in the old one.” I’ve got news for him.  Detroit has been like that for 50 years.  It’s just that the closed-loop was called 8-Mile Road.  Gentrification didn’t kill Detroit.  Urban decline did.  And we can be confident that more decline won’t resurrect it.

A recent New York Times piece on Climate Change warns us that although Duluth may benefit from “climate refugees”, new growth raises the specter of (you guessed it) gentrification.  In case you were wondering, Duluth has been steadily losing population since 1960.

Then there’s Samuel Stein’s Capital City, which at least gets points for originality by dispensing with blaming hipsters or developers for gentrification, and aims its sights squarely on my overwhelmingly leftward-leaning profession of urban planning, even going so far as to say that “proto-planners” (whatever that means) were responsible for Native American genocide as they “enabled the country’s murderous westward expansion, and mapped the rail networks and other infrastructure that made it possible.“

There is even a movement called “Just Green Enough”, which is premised on the idea that parks in poor neighborhoods shouldn’t be made “too nice” in order to prevent displacement by gentrification. Precious energy and effort is expended on endless worry and discussion (and in some cases, active opposition) to a nice park, a new ice cream shop, or a new grocery store, because it could potentially displace someone.

Meanwhile, the poor themselves continue to languish in disinvested and actively-avoided neighborhoods, without any of the amenities or conveniences that the activists and academics have (and take for granted) in their own neighborhoods.

However well-intentioned, these efforts end up doing the same thing – ensuring that people living in poor neighborhoods continue to have the worst of everything, confined to separate and unequal places with substandard facilities and amenities, all “for their own good”.

How elitist, patronizing, and sad.

For those interested in separating data-driven fact from ideologically-driven fiction, a new report, American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century: Gentrification and Decline, provides a welcome corrective.

Anyone who is serious about understanding urban public policy, equity, and neighborhood change, should read this report.  It is an easy read.

The report examines the ways in which neighborhoods in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas are growing or shrinking; getting richer or poorer; rebuilding or disintegrating.  It quantifies the degree to which neighborhoods are experiencing economic growth, displacement of low-income people, concentration of poverty, and abandonment.

It finds that the most common form of American neighborhood change, by far, is poverty concentration, rather than wealth concentration.  Low-income residents are exposed to neighborhood decline far more than gentrification.  In fact, there was no metropolitan area in the nation where a low-income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than in an economically declining neighborhood.

The findings mirror what Alan Mallach says in his must-read book, The Divided City: gentrifying areas are rarely the most distressed areas of a city, particularly where demolition has unraveled a neighborhood’s fabric, and where few attractive homes or buildings of any kind remain; and predominately African-American neighborhoods are less, not more, likely to experience gentrification than largely white, working-class neighborhoods.

Instead, gentrification typically follows a pattern of black neighborhood avoidance.  Rather than being subject to displacement by gentrification, urban residents who are both black and poor are far more likely to be left behind in neighborhoods experiencing widespread vacancy, abandonment, and disinvestment.

Instead of displacement by gentrification, what we are seeing in most cities in my part of the country, including Detroit, could be described as displacement by decline – as middle class residents, African-Americans in particular, frustrated by the continued social and economic disintegration of their neighborhoods, are moving to safer and more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs.

While the urban renaissance in a handful of neighborhoods gets all the headlines, it is the rapid concentration of poverty and urban decline that is far more prevalent – and troubling.

I’ve lived my entire life in Akron, which, like Duluth and Detroit, has been losing population and wealth for 60 years now.  Those of us who work on behalf of (and love) these places do our best to fight poverty, abandonment, and urban decline every single day.  Living here, it is hard for me to understand getting worked up in anger at someone with some money in their pocket renovating an old house in an urban neighborhood, opening a brewery, or leasing a brand-new apartment downtown.

I hope that this new report’s findings serve as a wake-up-call to the people who worry so much about the potential downside of urban revitalization, that they are overlooking the far greater challenges of inter-generational poverty, uneven economic growth, disinvestment, abandonment, urban sprawl, and pervasive and entrenched racial and economic segregation.

I see a lot of people, even here in the Rust Belt, who are energized about gentrification, and convinced that it is the enemy.  It’s considered a sexy topic for activism.

But I don’t see the same level of passionate activism being applied to fighting the spread of concentrated urban poverty, neighborhood abandonment, or the yawning racial and economic chasm between older cities like Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, and their newer suburbs.

And let’s be honest.  Those are big, messy, complicated, systemic, extremely intractable problems, and there is nothing sexy about them.  They don’t lend themselves to clever yard sign slogans or quick-take podcasts.  Most people would rather not think about them, because there is not a lot that the average person can even do about them.

But they are the urban problems we need to face.  They are the existential challenges to our cities and to the people who live in them

New development does not always mean displacement, and revitalization is not always a synonym for gentrification.

Gentrification has become a useless word.  Words lose their value whey they no longer have an agreed-upon meaning.  No one knows what the hell that word means anymore.  It’s time to retire it.

Parking and equity in cities

The average price of a monthly parking permit in cities is $2.25, compared to $70.00 for a transit pass.

Everything you need to know about equity and privilege in urban transportation is reflected in how much we charge for parking compared to transit

The triumph of asphalt socialism is reflected in providing unlimited free or underpriced private car storage on public streets (a scarce and valuable commodity) while charging people to make use of transit, (a public good with positive externalities, and plenty of excess capacity).

The benefits of free private car storage of city streets accrue to those wealthy enough to own cars; Those