A STANDING-ROOM-ONLY CROWD waved a sea of blue-and-white signs reading "Build It" at Portland City Council on Thursday, February 4. As the five commissioners discussed the 2030 Bike Plan that lays out 700 miles of new bikeways around the city at a cost of $600 million over the next 20 years, the sign-waving bike advocates told the council to not just adopt the bike plan, but actually fund it and build it.
While last year's transportation trope was bikes vs. cars, this winter's seems to be bikes vs. money. A Portland Tribune article earlier this week said the plan "wobbles under funding questions" while an Oregonian editorial scoffed at the plan as "riding into the future on two (expensive) wheels."
Critics of the bike plan also include the Portland Business Alliance, which penned a letter to the mayor's office expressing concern that funding bike projects could undermine freight travel.
City Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller put the bike funding question in perspective at the packed council hearing, noting that Portland has spent $60 million so far to build the best bikeway network in the entire United States. That amount of money, Geller told city council, would have built one mile of urban freeway.
The nitty-gritty of bike funding in Portland shows the city is prioritizing bikes more than ever before, but still lags behind in amassing the resources it will need to get 25 percent of Portlanders on bikes by 2030. Right now, for example, only seven out of 700 Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) employees devote the majority of their time to bike projects.
Some new money, though, is on the way. City number crunchers estimate that the extra six cents a gallon from the state gas tax increase will pump $14 million in new revenue into Portland's transportation coffers next year. In the budget PBOT has just submitted for next year, those new gas tax revenues are used to boost the amount of money spent on projects with bike elements from 1.5 percent of the capital budget (over the past five years) to 5.5 percent—just over $7 million.
During the past 10 years, the city has spent roughly three percent of its discretionary transportation fund on bike projects. In next year's proposed budget, that funding jumps to 16 percent.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman even jumped into last week's bike plan hearing with his own funding idea: directing some money from utility license fees into a bond fund to pay for the bike plan.
With that surprise, and after public testimony ran over two hours, council decided to delay a vote on the plan until this Thursday, February 11.
The city may be about to spend more on bikes than it ever has before, but that money still does not come close to covering the cost of all the projects spelled out in the 118-page bike plan. Nearly 40 percent of PBOT's funding comes from state and federal grants, so if the city aims to actually build the bike plan, it will have to aggressively seek money from those sources.
Bike Plan Manager Ellen Vanderslice acknowledges that $600 million over the next 20 years is a very high hurdle. But, she says, if Portland can dig up $148.27 million to build 3.3 miles of streetcar line and $575 million for the MAX Green Line, it should be possible to find substantial money for bikes.
"We have to counteract decades of spending that have made the roads work for autos at the expense of other modes," says Vanderslice.
If adopted, the bike plan will prioritize the cheapest, easiest projects first. Projects that are already planned for the next 12 months include: turning 15 miles of neighborhood streets into bicycle boulevards, fixing the precarious Lloyd Center intersection at NE 12th and I-84 to make it safer for bikes, and building a bikeway from NE Thompson straight to SE Woodstock.
"If we can get more family-friendly bikeways out there and get more people riding, there will be more support and demand for the projects that involve removing parking or a car travel lane," says Vanderslice.
With an eye on the hundreds of people holding "Build It" signs, Mayor Adams told the crowd at the end of last week's packed city council hearing, "I'll take money for this plan wherever I can get it."