Metro’s proposed $5 billion transportation measure makes no sense for the region, for transportation, for our economy, for our kids and for our planet.
Portland’s regional government, Metro, will be asking voters in November to approve a $5 billion transportation bond measure. There’s a strong case to be made that this is a badly flawed approach to the region’s future. Today, we lay out the arguments against this measure.
- The plan is founded on a highway-oriented concept of corridors, rather than a more sensible approach emphasizing walkable centers and main streets.
- The $5 billion measure does nothing to lower greenhouse gases.
- Its wage tax is unrelated to transportation, effectively taxing those who use the system least, and subsidizes those who drive and pollute the most.
- The measure amounts to a 30 cent per gallon gasoline subsidy, encouraging more driving and increasing greenhouse gas emissions 50 times more than the amount saved by all its investments.
- The measure cannibalizes the principal source of funding for transit operations just as Tri-Met is experiencing an operating funds financial crisis.
- The plan is mired in the past, making no allowance for the changes we’ve already experienced in driving during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Metro’s plan plunges the region into debt for the next two decades, using up funds that will be badly needed to combat climate change.
- This measure makes Portland taxpayers pay for problems created by the Oregon DOT: unsafe and transit hostile state highways.
- A better approach would be to have road users to pay directly for the services they get, reducing carbon pollution, creating a more equitable transportation system.
After a year-long process Metro has sketched out a $5 billion plan, which includes investments in a number of “corridors”—we’ll come back to that term in a moment— and which would be paid for by imposing a .75 percent payroll tax on firms with 25 or more employees, roughly for the next two decades. (For the past fifty years, the region’s transit agency, Tri-Met has subsidized its operations by a similar payroll tax). The plan earmarks funds for a number of projects, most notably another leg of the region’s light rail system, this one to angle to the southwest suburbs. While there are a few set-asides for measures to promote access by low income populations (subsidized transit fares for students), the bulk of the money is allocated to capital construction.
Every part of the region gets an earmark for pet projects and/or pet corridors. Suburban Clackamas County gets money to build expanded highway capacity. Multnomah County gets a contribution to the cost of a replacement of one of its Willamette River Bridges. The Port of Portland gets a subsidy for a big overpass to speed cars to its lucrative airport parking garages. The entire process was crafted like an overloaded Christmas tree, as a political log-rolling plan to provide something for everyone, and has consequently engineered political support from local governments throughout the region and key community groups.
But while it may make sense politically, the measure is at odds with the region’s stated values and vision, and sensible transportation and environmental policy. As we’ve noted already at City Observatory, in spite of the fact that Metro claims to care about climate change (and even though transportation is already the region’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and is increasing rapidly), the plan does essentially nothing to reduce carbon emissions. But there are plenty of more reasons why this is a bad plan.
Corridors versus centers; cars versus people
The central organizing principal of the measure is investing in “corridors.” While it might have some superficial appeal, the notion of prioritizing investments around corridors is fundamentally at odds with the region’s stated planning objectives. Corridors are virtually by definition highways or major, multi-lane arterial streets that move large numbers of cars. While some of what is proposed in the plan are remedial measures to make these highways less hostile to pedestrians and somewhat more conducive to transit, the underlying planning objective is increasing throughput of people and vehicles. It’s a plan whose goal is simply moving things around, rather than improving the region’s livability.
It’s an odd choice because for decades the Metro land use plans have called for investments in “centers.” The 2040 Regional Plan, adopted in 1995, called for an emphasis on regional centers and town centers and main streets would create nodes of density and diverse commercial, economic and civic activity that would serve as destinations and anchors for walkable, bikeable, transit-served neighborhoods. In addition, if we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, facilitating more volume on corridors is actually counterproductive.
This measure makes virtually no investment in centers, and instead invests all the regions capital in bolstering transportation infrastructure in corridors. If this were a house, it would be all about hallways, and nothing about rooms.
Corridors are dead ends for community and climate
It’s a fair point that many of these corridors provide a dangerous environment for pedestrians and cyclists, and slow service and unpleasant surroundings for transit riders.
But nearly all of the major corridors included in the Metro bond measure are state highways, built, owned and managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation, an agency that has systematically prioritized car movement over all other human activity. The key corridors in the project are McLoughlin Boulevard (State Highway 99E), Powell Boulevard (State Highway 26), 82nd Avenue (Oregon State Highway 213), and the Tualatin Valley Highway (Oregon State Highway 8). As City Observatory friend and planning professor Ethan Seltzer observes:
The bulk of the money goes to putting infrastructure in places that will never be great places and that, frankly, ODOT and the State should be paying for, not Metro taxpayers. 82nd Ave, HWY 217, McLoughlin Blvd. …. these are ODOT facilities, made inhumane and inhospitable by ODOT. Now Metro is expecting the region to pay to fix a problem created by the state on state facilities. Meanwhile, ODOT gets to shift its resources to building up the system outside the Metro area, and also at metro area expense as the biggest group of gas consumers and taxpayers are in the metro region.
As Metro’s own studies have shown, these ODOT-owned roadways are responsible for a disproportionate number of the region’s roadway deaths and injuries. Why should regional taxpayers be asked to pay to fix problems that were created by a state agency, especially one which has at least $800 million for a project that most Portland residents oppose?
Pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into these corridors is likely to produce trivial improvements in transportation speed and safety, but worse, will do almost nothing to advance the region’s vision of building more robust town centers and main streets. Consider 82nd Avenue, which has been developed as mile upon miserable mile of strip commercial development featuring used car dealerships, drive through restaurants, strip malls and occasional big box stores. With between 20,000 and 30,000 cars driving up and down 82nd Avenue daily, its not an environment pedestrians want to linger in. To be sure, there are a few nodes of activity (a Portland Community College Campus at 82nd and SE Division, the Fubonn Asian Mall at SE Woodward Street, and the Montavilla business district at SE Stark Street, but every one of these places turns its back on 82nd Avenue and the maelstrom of cars it serves. Regardless of the amount invested, unless car traffic were radically reduced and calmed, 82nd will never be a street that attracts and serves cyclists and pedestrians; it will always be what it is now, an barrier between people living on opposite sides of the avenue, separated by a flood of cars.
We know how “corridor” investments like these turn out: They’re merely a highway engineer’s view of what a freeway for bikes or pedestrians might look like. Consider as an example, the “multi-use path” that was incorporated into the Interstate 205 bridge crossing the Columbia River. The path is about 10 feet wide, bordered by concrete walls, and stretching for more than two uninterrupted miles in the median of the freeway with five lanes of deafening car and truck traffic on either side.
Here’s what a “corridor” for bikes and pedestrians tends to look like, in practice.
To be sure, it is a “corridor” that enables people on bikes and on foot to cross the Columbia River, but there’s nothing along the path (or even at either end) that is a plausible or enticing destination. Exclusive, grade-separated and protected bikeways in the middle of a hostile environment and not connecting safe and interesting destinations don’t build a sense of place or create livable neighborhoods.
The focus on moving traffic and corridors undercuts community building. As Ethan Seltzer notes:
The premise of improving corridors itself is bankrupt as a corridor focus is about moving through, not about making better communities. All we’re doing is making a prettier version of a failed system. Transportation is best seen as a means, not an end. Metro’s approach only glorifies transportation rather than putting it more clearly in service to more central community aims.
As we’ve observed many times at City Observatory, what Portland and other cities lack is not so much transportation facilities, but great walkable places. People pay a premium for homes located in places with lots of common destinations within easy walking distance. Bolstering centers and main streets for people, not increasing throughput on corridors, should be the region’s investment priority.
Cannibalizing transit’s funding source
In Portland, for the past half-century, a regional payroll tax has been the revenue source for subsidizing transit operations. This proposal would more than double the payroll tax, and thereby fiscally and politically foreclose Tri-Met’s ability to raise the tax to pay for increased operations in future years. That’s already a serious issue.
The agency is already devastated by the Coronavirus, and lacks the funding to increase transit service to achieve the long-term ridership goals laid out in the Regional Transportation Plan. (The RTP assumes that Tri-Met will be able to increase its ridership from about 280,000 persons per day in 2015 to 480,000 by 2027, but that will require a massive increase in subsidies).
Its very likely that passage of the Metro bond measure will lead to capital spending for expanded light rail and bus rapid transit that the agency has limited financial resources to operate. We’ll build the rails, and maybe electrify some buses, but won’t be able to pay for drivers.
Tri-Met’s revenue and operation issues are even more stark in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and recession. The agency’s operations have been on life-support in the form of $196 milion from the Federal CARES Act, and that money will soon run out. Ridership and fare revenue is down in June was down about 60 percent from year ago levels, and Tri-Met expects to lose $61 million in its 2021 fiscal year. How long it will take to rebuild ridership, and how much it will cost, and how it will be paid for are still very unsettled questions.
Doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions
At City Observatory, we’ve already written about the Metro measure’s astonishingly feeble effect on greenhouse gas emissions. By the agency’s own calculations, the measure will reduce regional greenhouse gases by five-one-hundredths of one percent, even though greenhouse gases from transportation are the largest source of the region’s carbon emissions, and have grown by 1,000 pounds per person in just the past five years.
The agency says it cares about climate change, but its investment of $5 billion on something that does effectively nothing to reduce greenhouse gases shows the emptiness of its climate promises. This package is probably the only serious opportunity to rework the transportation system in the next decade, and it will leave the region too broke and indebted for an actual “plan B.”
Subsidizing driving, sprawl and carbon pollution
Metro’s use of a payroll tax insulates motorists from the true cost of their transportation choices. While its largely a myth, many still believe that we have a “user pays” system for the roads. The Metro bond measure would require the equivalent of roughly a 30 cent a gallon tax if it were paid for as a user fee, rather than by being charged as a payroll tax. By not insisting that car operators pay for these roadway improvements (and the vast majority of these expenditures are in the right-of-way and eligible for gas tax funding, even in the most narrow interpretation of the Oregon Constitution), we’re subsidizing additional driving. People who don’t drive at all will end up paying for this measure through payroll taxes; while those who drive a lot will get a huge subsidy. Despite its problems, the gas tax is crudely proportional to the use of the transportation system and to air pollution. Wages paid are not. The measure further insulates car drivers from the cost their decisions pose on others, and encourage additional driving. And a 30 cent a gallon subsidy to driving leads to more driving, and therefore crashes and carbon emissions, offsetting the supposed safety and environmental benefits of the package.
Essentially what this measure does is tax work to subsidize the price of gasoline. It thereby makes car travel cheaper, and encourages more vehicle use (and pollution) than would otherwise be the case. Using standard estimates of the price elasticity of demand, we can calculate how much this subsidy to car travel implied by the payroll tax would stimulate vehicle miles of travel and additional greenhouse gas emissions. The long run elasticity of vehicle miles traveled with respect to gas prices is about -0.3; a 10 percent increase in fuel prices leads to a 3 percent reduction miles driven. At current fuel prices of about $2.70 per gallon, the 30 cent reduction in gas prices enabled by financing this package from payroll taxes rather than gas taxes works out to about a 10 percent reduction in gas prices. This suggests that the measure would lead to about 3 percent more driving than would be the case if users paid directly at the pump. Metro Portland’s current transportation system annually generates about 8.4 million tons of greenhouse gases; a three percent increase represents about 250,000 additional tons of greenhouse gases per year due to the subsidy. For reference this is roughly than 50 times larger than the estimated 5,000 ton reduction in annual greenhouse gases from the $5 billion spending package, according to Metro. In addition, more driving would also result in more congestion, lower transit ridership, and more crashes.
For decades, the fiction of the “trust fund” and the state constitutional dedication of gas taxes to road improvements has created the illusion that the road system is paid for by user fees. That’s never been true. Roads and road use at every level of government are deeply subsidized. The federal government has transferred more than $140 billion in general funds to bail out the federal highway trust fund, and is expected to need to chip in a further $176 billion this decade. Oregon shields car owners from nearly $1 billion per biennium in taxes they’d pay per biennium by exempting cars from property taxes. Cars pay nothing for the cost of cleaning up the toxic runoff from tires, brakes, leaking fuel tanks and precipitated air pollution; according to City of Portland estimates, half of the cost of the city’s “Big Dig” to separate storm and sanitary sewers was attributable to dealing with road runoff. As Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly observed on June 30, 2020, “roads are the only utility we don’t charge based on usage.” The Metro bond measure is one more colossal subsidy to car driving, one that will increase sprawl and financially penalize those who choose more environmentally friendly travel and living options.
Asking Metro taxpayers to fix problems created by ODOT
Ostensibly, one of the major motivations for the package is to increase safety. According to Metro, a large fraction of the projects are reputed to be “safety” projects. But almost all of them are about doing something to reduce to the dangers that cars pose to other more vulnerable road users. Safety is a laudable reason for spending money, users of the road system should pay for the costs of making it safer, not the general taxpayer.
Nearly all of the Metro measures big ticket items are spending on improvements to the right-of-way of state highways, including the Tualatin Valley Highway, McLoughlin Boulevard, 82nd Avenue, Powell Boulevard and Highway 212. Why are Portland area residents being asked to tax themselves to pay for the fixes to these state highways? In principal part, the answer reflects the fact that ODOT would rather use state money to widen I-5, a project whose cost has already ballooned to $800 million, and which could easily exceed a billion dollars, and further billions on a revived Columbia River Crossing. While the Rose Quarter freeway widening is marketed as a “safety” project, virtually all of the other ODOT highways in the Portland are are vastly more lethal to travelers. The region should insist that rather than building an unneeded, ineffective and environmentally destructive Rose Quarter project, ODOT ought to first fix the deadly roads it runs in the region. Portlanders are already paying their gas taxes to do just that. (Moreover: ODOT has also prioritized new construction over simply maintaining and operating existing roads, and it is already asking the legislature for more money on that basis, a classic budgetary bait and switch).
In addition, many of the transit portions of the project are really costs incurred to subsidize automobile travel. The budget for the Southwest Corridor Light Rail includes more than a hundred million of dollars for the construction of garages to people can drive to take the light rail train. The cost of the Southwest Corridor is also inflated by $200 million by the decision not to reallocate some of the road right-of-way on Barbur Boulevard for transit use. Similarly, the cost of bus rapid transit on other corridors reflects a conscious decision not to use publicly owned right of way in a way that maximizes the number of people who can travel in the corridor.
Sticking the cost on our kids: A ruined climate and a load of debt
The measure’s key feature is spending the money up-front in the next few years, but passing the cost on to taxpayers over the next two decades by bonding the revenue from higher payroll taxes. It’s understandable politically that Metro would want to get the benefits now, and push the costs off to the future. But faced with the prospect of irreversible climate change before the bonds are even half paid off, its worth asking whether its in our interests, and especially whether its in the interest of our kids, to commit to spending additional billions for the next two decades to support a car-dependent transportation system and car-dependent living. Make no mistake—the billions spent on this package won’t be available to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; we’ll be stuck repaying these bonds even as the planet heats up and our state burns.
Transit: Expensive construction, nothing for operations
The biggest single project in the Metro bond package is the local share of funding for a new light rail extension through Southwest Portland to the suburbs. In theory, SW Light Rail sounds like just the sort of thing we should be doing, investing in electrified transit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But sadly the project fails to actually deliver benefits. Its ridership is expected to only modestly increase above the numbers that would be carried by buses even if no light rail system were built and earlier this year, Tri-Met has already lowered those estimates by a further 12 percent. And the agencies track record on forecasting has been bad, consistently overestimating ridership for new light rail lines. Moreover, the transit agency doesn’t have either the funds or a plan to provide the level of bus service that’s needed to carry the additional 200,000 daily transit riders called for in the Regional Transportation Plan.
Crumbs for equity
Metro has tossed in a few crumbs for expenditures that would be more just, including funding of reduced fare or free transit service for low income households. But these subsidies are a tiny part of the overall program: free transit passes for metro area students would cost only about $9 million per year. But lower fares will be of little or no value unless theres a good transit system, and this measure actually does nothing to assure buses will keep running.
A key equity consideration is that Tri-Met doesn’t have enough money to expand operations to carry all the people that Metro says will travel by transit in the Regional Transportation Plan. And Metro’s is draining the well that Tri-Met has depended upon for paying operating costs: the payroll tax. This measure more than doubles the payroll tax, and takes all that increase for the next twenty years (or more) and puts it into paying off bonds. None of that money will be available to pay for the operating costs associated increasing actual transit service. TriMet will have a new LRT line down the middle of Barbur to the Bridgeport Village lifestyle center, but it could easily have no money to pay to run your local buses.
A plan for the past, not for a post-Covid future
Covid-19 has been a major disruption to the way we get around. Many more of us are working from home and shopping on line, which may permanently change our transportation system. Automobile industry experts expect permanent and significant reductions in both automobile commuting and shopping trips—enough to reduce the numbers of cars on the road by millions. Now, mired in a recession and still fighting a pandemic, we can’t know what the long-term effects of these changes will be. Rather than borrow and spend all this money now, foreclosing its better use once we know how things shake out, we’d be well-advised to wait a couple of years, and develop a plan that works in a post-Covid world which could be very different from the one built into Metro’s models and projections.
The lesson of Covid-19 is that we can do much more to re-purpose street space for non-automobile uses, and do so quickly and cheaply, in ways that make our communities both healthier and more livable. Already, Portland has implemented a “Slow Streets-Safe Streets” plan covering 100 miles of city streets. Globally, leaders like Paris are using the pandemic to re-purpose entire boulevards for bike travel, and focus on “15-minute neighborhoods” that reduce car dependence and promote greater livability. The pandemic is an opportunity to rethink our communities in ways that make our lives better.
But that’s not what Metro is proposing. As our colleague Ethan Seltzer points out:
. . . there is little, if anything, in this measure, hatched pre-COVID, that applies in any creative way to a post-COVID world. How have transportation patterns changed with COVID? What if a significant percentage of folks continue to work at home, even with a vaccine? What kind of transportation infrastructure will we need? Is municipal broadband the transportation and equity investment most needed in the future? None of these questions have been dealt with, and won’t be dealt with until after Metro spends the money on your father’s transportation system.
If we’re going to spend $5 billion on our transportation system for the next two decades, it would be better if we waited just a short while to see how this shakes out, so we make decisions for the world we’re actually living in, rather than one that no longer exists.
A better fix: Pricing congestion and carbon pollution
What this plan overlooks—and effectively undercuts—is systematically better and more direct ways of tackling our transportation and climate problems. If people are concerned about traffic congestion, we have a globally proven means for eliminating it: congestion pricing. The Oregon Legislature has already authorized pricing on Portland area freeways, and the region and City of Portland have said they’re willing to implement it. The experience of the pandemic and of other cities, shows that transportation demand management (reducing the number of trips, and especially changing when they’re taken) allows us to dramatically reduce congestion without building more roads and creating more pollution. Likewise, carbon pricing, whether through cap-and-trade or a tax on carbon pollution, is the most efficient solution for reducing greenhouse gases and quickly facilitating the more widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Essentially all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the Portland area after 2014 was due to increased driving because of the decline in gasoline prices. The direct and indirect effects of these pricing measures also help achieve greater equity: as we’ve noted, road pricing reduces traffic congestion, which enables buses to move faster, benefiting existing transit users, and making transit more attractive for others. And the proceeds of congestion fees and carbon taxes could be used to directly underwrite transportation allowances for low income households and students.
In sum: A bad transportation package
- Metro’s proposed $5 billion measure takes Portland in the wrong direction. It’s founded on a flawed, highway-oriented concept of corridors, rather than a more sensible, human-centered idea of building walkable, sustainable centers and Main Streets, that reduce the need for car travel.
- In spite of the fact that transportation is the largest, and fastest growing climate threat in the region, the plan does nothing to lower greenhouse gases.
- It is funded from a source totally unrelated to transportation use, which has the effect of taxing those who use the system least, and subsidizing those who drive and pollute the most.
- By shifting the cost away from road users, the measure effectively subsidizes gasoline by about 30 cents a gallon, encouraging more driving and increasing greenhouse gas emissions 50 times more than the amount saved by all its investments.
- The measure cannibalizes the principal source of funding for transit operations at the time Tri-Met is experiencing tens of millions of losses, and an uncertain future of restoring existing ridership.
- The plan makes no allowance for the changes we’ve already experienced in driving during the Covid-19 pandemic–changes that even auto industry experts expect to persist well into the future.
- And the plan essentially takes all the money that will be generated by this tax for the next two decades or more and plows it into a set of short-term highway-corridor oriented projects that our children will be paying for as the climate grows steadily worse; money that will be badly needed for efforts that actually reduce greenhouse gases, and enable us to adapt to climate change.
- This measure also asks Portland taxpayers to pay for problems created by the Oregon DOT: unsafe and transit hostile state highways. Nearly all of the “corridors” slated for investment are state highways, and the bulk of all the improvements could be paid for by the Oregon Department of Transportation out of gas tax revenues.
- A plan for the 21st Century would ask road users to pay directly for the services they get, and create strong economic incentives to reduce carbon pollution, and in the process pay for a more equitable transportation system.