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On The Scene: Fixing the transportation mess

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On the Scene
Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Sellwood Bridge is deteriorating as questions arise over whether Multnomah County or Clackamas County is responsible for its replacement. The approval of funding for the Newberg-Dundee bypass is being criticized as a political maneuver. And the fate of the Columbia River Crossing remains unknown while the debate over its size, impact and whether it should even be built keeps its progress in limbo. In other words, the Portland area’s regional transportation governance is a big, gridlocked mess.

The City Club of Portland recently released a report titled “Moving Forward: A Better Way to Govern Regional Transportation.” Several members of the research committee – Leigh Stephenson-Kuhn, Peter Livingston and Richard Ross – presented the report this week as part of the “Crossing the Columbia: What Does It Mean?” forum held by PDXplore and the Architecture Foundation of Oregon. In front of a small crowd at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, the three representatives discussed the conclusions and recommendations the City Club had come up with to solve the tricky problem of moving people at the lowest cost and in the most effective way possible.

What’s tangling up transportation progress so much? The report found several problems with the current regional governance, such as the Oregon Department of Transportation’s control of most of the region’s transportation money (which gives the power to choose and fund projects primarily to state officials). A large chunk of the problem, the report says, also lies in the fragmentation of governance, with federal, state and local government and agencies all having an influence on transportation projects in the area. With so many jurisdictions with a stake in transportation, the result is a lack of clarity on which entity should be responsible for which parts of the system. Many decisions are made on a micro level, Livingston says, when transportation is really a regional issue.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the three transportation projects the City Club used as case studies: the Sellwood Bridge, the Newberg-Dundee bypass and the CRC. In the case of the Sellwood Bridge, there is a disconnect between the people who maintain the bridge and the people who actually use it: Because the bridge is operated and maintained by Multnomah County, residents of the county would pay 10 times as much to replace the bridge as Clackamas County residents, who use the bridge just as frequently.

“It seems inappropriate that a regional facility be supported to a disproportionate extent by just one part of the region,” the report says. When the Legislature earmarked funding for the Newberg-Dundee bypass and named the project a top priority, concerns were raised since the Legislature traditionally only provides funding but does not determine the priorities (critics saw it as a way to win favor from Sen. Larry George, who represents the area affected by the project). As for the CRC, it’s no secret that differing views on both sides of the river regarding land-use planning and transportation are clogging up any significant progress.

To get Portland on the right track, the report suggests a radical change in governance. Among the recommendations: Have ODOT distribute to Metro the funds it currently gives to cities and counties, granting Metro the power to determine how the money will be spent. The report also suggests Metro be able to impose taxes or tolls, take responsibility of all roads within its boundaries and form a separate bridge authority to manage most non-freeway bridges in the region. But the City Club isn’t giving Metro the whole cake. It also recommends taking voting powers away from Metro and two other agencies on the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, making city and county officials the only voting members in an effort to ensure better regional representation.

Having a single agency overseeing transportation is a system that works in other cities, with San Diego and Vancouver, B.C., cited by the City Club as successful models that Portland could follow. But with multiple changes being suggested for a complex system, Stephenson-Kuhn acknowledges that they’ll need to be implemented in the long-term. “Each is important, and each is going to have to happen on its own time,” he says.

Kevin Manahan is the online editor for Oregon Business.

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