COMMISSIONER STEVE NOVICK has had his bureau assignments for just under a week when we sit down in his office's spare conference room. We're here to talk about the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT): a sticky, often-fraught department in a city that embraces so many modes of movement, but has only so much money to go around.
Novick's proven a quick study—able to talk knowledgably and in-depth about road maintenance, the many advantages of active transportation, and the bureau's funding challenges. Especially the funding challenges, which you should count on hearing more about in the near future.
MERCURY: Mayor Charlie Hales has very publicly indicated his priorities and his ideas for the bureau of transportation. I'm curious where you agree with him and where you differ.
STEVE NOVICK: I actually think we're in total agreement, because although the mayor has said that we need to attend to basic street maintenance, he's also made it very clear that he believes in our commitment to active transportation—that he wants this to be a city where it's easy for people to walk and bike places. He wants to have a focus on street maintenance, but that doesn't mean that he thinks that's the only thing that matters. He's also made it clear that in order to do all the things we need to do, both in street maintenance and continuing our commitment to active transportation, we're gonna need more money. I do not see any daylight between the mayor and me on this.
How do you prioritize those things?
What you do is you tell people, "Here are all the things that we should be doing, here's how much they all collectively cost." You sort of develop a plan for, given X amount of money, which parts of that do you do?
That speaks to a couple of audits that came out earlier this year, and the fact that priorities have been a problem with PBOT projects.
Well, it's a matter of having a plan, and what do you do with various levels of money. I don't think the things that [former Mayor] Sam Adams did were bad things. I mean, I don't think light rail's a bad thing. I don't think that making sure the Sellwood Bridge doesn't fall down is a bad thing. Mayor Adams' problem was that he did all these things without having enough money to do that, plus keep up the basic maintenance.
I think five years ago, in 2008, he said, "Here's our plan to raise money." Then he got political opposition, backed off that plan, and went ahead doing stuff without the money, without explaining: "Well, without the money, here's what happens."
Some of your colleagues would be culpable in that as well, right? They had votes and went along with some of these things.
Well, but Mayor Adams: (A) He was the mayor. (B) He was the transportation commissioner. So I'm going to cut my colleagues some slack on that.
You've talked a lot about new sources of funding since getting the bureau. What should we expect?
I think the mayor is very interested in that conversation. I think that we're probably gonna have a combination of things. We've not sorted out yet what those are.
I think there will be more [parking] meters in the commercial areas, the retail areas of Portland—partly as a matter of raising money. But also, frankly, it's just good traffic management.
A few years ago, I read this book called Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt; one of these public-policy books that's also a very well-written page-turner. One of the things he talked about is parking, and he relied partly on the work of this guy, Donald Shoup, who's out of UCLA. When you have free parking or low-priced parking on the street in really heavy retail commercial areas, then you see a lot of congestion based on people circling around looking for the free or low-priced spot. If you know there's a meter, then you're more likely to just go to the nearest SmartPark. Or you know there's a meter and you don't want to pay so you go eight blocks away or something. Meters tend to speed traffic and reduce congestion, in addition to raising money.
And also produce a lot of passion in the populace.
Until people get used to it. What they have in Northwest now is they've implemented the permit system and a lot of people were worried about that. The Tribune had an article a few weeks ago saying: Lo and behold, it's actually resulted in more parking and less congestion.
So parking meters are on the table. Gas tax is the other big one.
A local gas tax is something I think we will soon be able to do again. We got preempted by the state. Yeah, that'll be on the table, but also there will be some revenue mechanisms on the table where everybody pays—not just the car driver.
Can you give me an idea?
[Laughs] No. No. Before we have more of an actual plan, there's no point getting people hot and bothered about something that we might not wind up seriously considering.
How urgent is the funding issue?
The auditor has pointed to a real problem, which is that in terms of the basic street maintenance, we have approximately $10 million a year [to spend]. In order for our streets to catch up to the shape they should be in, we would need to be spending $85 million a year over the next 10 years. Every year that we don't spend what we need just to catch up, we fall further behind, and the difference in cost between preventive maintenance and rebuilding is dramatic.
What I've learned over the past few days is we're doing two big things this next year. The 100 miles the mayor talked about, we're doing traditional grind and pave, where you grind down the first two inches of a street that's beginning to be in trouble and replace it. That costs $100,000 to $150,000 per lane mile, as they say in the biz. For about 15 miles, we're using this relatively new project, totally new to Portland, called fog seal. Fog refers to when you spray it, it creates a bit of a fog. It's something that you spray on top of a road that's in pretty good shape but needs a bit of touching up. What it does is it makes the road impervious to water and prevents oxidation.
What Suzanne Kahn, the maintenance director, told me last week was: Water is the enemy of pavement. And fog seal protects the pavement from water. Now, putting that substance on costs about $7,500 to $10,000 per lane mile. Suzanne also told me that if you get to the point you have to rebuild a street from scratch, which is what you have to do when it gets in really bad shape, that costs anywhere from $1 million to $4 million per lane mile.
You can do things that extend the life of a street for several years for $7,500 to $10,000 a lane mile. You can do things that prevent them from falling into terrible shape for $100,000 to $150,000. Or you can wait until the street is completely shot and spend $1 million to $4 million. So it is almost a geometric progression.
I was actually on the phone with a couple of state legislators this morning and they were saying, "You know, you're doing this preventative maintenance. What about the streets that are already shot to hell?" And I was saying, "Well, it's hard to argue with the logic that if you have just a tiny amount of money, you spend it on the preventive maintenance." We're spending to do fog seal less than one percent of what it costs to redo a street that's in total disrepair.
It seems unfeasible, though—when you talk about the numbers and the auditor report of how much it would take to repair our roads—that we would ever have a perfect system, right?
Actually, it's a lot of money, but here's my favorite statistic over the past week... We were preparing for this press conference last week and I was thinking how do we describe this preventive maintenance? How do we translate it into terms that people can relate to in their daily lives? Like doing fog seal. That's kinda like changing the oil in your car. And the grind and pave, maybe that's kind of like replacing your brake pads. You don't have to replace your entire brakes.
And I started thinking: I wonder what the people and businesses in Portland spend every year on oil changes. For that matter, what do they spend on basic repair and maintenance of their car, in general? And I called up the bureau of revenue's Thomas Lannom, and said, "Thomas, we have a gross receipts tax on all businesses in Portland. That must mean that we know their total gross receipts. Do we have that broken down into categories?" And he said, "Let me check." And then five minutes later—Thomas being Thomas and being great—he emails me back and says, "Here's all the car maintenance codes. By tomorrow, I can tell you what their total revenue is in a year." And he came back to me the next morning and said, "All right, this is really conservative, because it excludes stuff that's hard to disentangle."
At a minimum, Portlanders last year spent $244 million on car repair and maintenance. We're now spending $10 million on basic street maintenance. So my message to the people of Portland would be: The auditor has said that we need $85 million a year for the next 10 years in order to catch us up to where we should be. That's barely more than a third of what we're spending on car repair and maintenance. So it's not outlandish in my mind.
But then there's all the other things PBOT has to do.
There are other things. The estimate given for implementing the sweeping Portland Bike Plan some years back was $600 million. Now, we're not gonna get to $600 million in the next few years, but that's less than Portlanders spend on gas in a given year. So it might seem unattainable now, but these are not impossible amounts of money.
The other thing that we want to start talking to people about is: If we make it possible for people to bike and walk to work and if we work with TriMet to have an even stronger public transportation system, that saves people money in two ways. It saves people money on their cars because you're spending less on gas, you're spending less on repairs, and you're buying fewer new cars. And, frankly, if the roads are in better shape there's less wear and tear on your car. So spending more money on making this a place where you can bike and walk and take transit saves you money on your car. It also saves you money on health care.
I think people understand that most of us pay for health insurance as part of a big pool, and the unhealthier people are, the more health insurance costs for everybody. The healthier people are, the less health insurance costs for everybody.
I don't ride a bike. I never learned. Actually I told [Bicycle Transportation Alliance Executive Director] Rob Sadowsky that maybe somebody could teach me how to ride a bike now that I have this job. But whenever I get stuck behind a bicycle for a few minutes, and it does happen, I remind myself she's probably reducing my health-care premiums.
You're known as a person that gets deep into issues. How has the learning curve been?
I knew that there is a heck of a lot I have to learn quickly. But one way or another, I've run into a bunch of people in PBOT over the last year and a half and have been really impressed by how much they know, how smart they are, how good they are at communicating things. And also my chief of staff, Chris Warner, before he worked for [Multnomah County Commissioner] Loretta Smith at the county, he spent like seven years working with the state on transportation, so he can help bring me up to speed, too. Also, this is gonna sound silly but my interest in transportation has gone up in the last several years just because I found this book [Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt]. And I asked the people in PBOT, have you read this book and they haven't. I said, "Okay, somebody read it and tell me if it says things that are just totally ridiculous." Transportation's pretty fascinating stuff. It affects all of us every day.
What transportation issues have flown beneath the radar?
I actually think there's been a fair amount of attention given to most of the issues. To the extent there's been an insufficient or misleading conversation in town, I think it's been around "what costs what." I think there's a perception that in some cases we don't have enough money on maintenance because you're spending too much money on bikes. Actually, it would be a lot closer to the truth to say we don't have enough money on maintenance because we decided to help the county rebuild the Sellwood Bridge and we made these investments in light rail. And also, the gas tax is a declining source of revenue. So in terms of the relative costs of things, I think there's been some confusion.
And I don't think that there has been enough attention to the concept that we can save what people spend out of their pockets on cars and on health care by making these investments in active transportation. I think that the investment in active transportation has been perceived as a sort of feel-good environmentally friendly thing. I don't know that political leaders have done as good a job as we could making the case that it makes sense as a matter of economics.
In terms of the PBOT director search, you're fresh to the bureau and the mayor's office had been working on it well before he handed the bureaus off. Have you been brought in at all?
Yes. Definitely, and the candidates are fantastic. That decision will be made soon. Whoever we choose, I'm looking forward to making that announcement.
A lot was made of the national search. Is it reasonable to expect we'll have somebody not from the Portland area?
It's possible we'll wind up with someone who's not from the Portland area. We did a national search and we got some really good national folks and really good local folks. I think that as much as the city has been beaten up for what's gone on in transportation the last few years, nationally we still have a reputation as being a city that's in the forefront of meeting our transportation challenges, so that's why were able to get good national response.
By the way, there's something that does occasionally get attention, but is worth repeating. We already are a city where people spend a lower percentage of our income on transportation than most cities in the country because our commutes are shorter, because there's more people biking and walking and taking transit than in other places. We already are a city that's ahead of most of the rest of the country, and continually talking to people about, you know, you have more disposable income, many of us do, because we're not driving as much as other people, I think that's worth driving home.
One thing I should say is I'm an overweight middle-aged American. I'm a pretty standard-issue American. But I know from my personal experience that what you do in terms of transportation and how much you spend in terms of transportation depends on the infrastructure that's around you. I spent years in New York and mostly Washington, DC. I did not own a car because I didn't need to, because there was a subway that went everywhere. There were taxes supporting that subway but, I mean, in DC I probably spent about four dollars a day on transportation. So that's about $1,200 in an entire year. So I was richer, given a certain amount of income, than I would have been in other places.
Since I've been back in Oregon, I've driven way too much. But recently I moved to Multnomah Village and I'm, you know, a block from the bus and the bus drops me off right here [at city hall]. Lo and behold, I'm spending less money on transportation. I think that some people have the idea that, no matter what you do in terms of all this transit and bike and walking stuff, people are always gonna be driving the same amount and spending the same amount on transportation. I know from personal experience that's not true. It's not a matter of: We need everybody to get more virtuous and that's the only way. All we need to do is make other options convenient.
Let's talk about the streetcar a little bit. Obviously it's been beaten up a lot and there are some funding holes, as I understand it, coming a year out from now and PBOT's partly on the hook for that.
We're spending some city money on the streetcar. My understanding of the goal is that hopefully, in the near future, we get ridership up to a level where TriMet can justify pulling it in as part of TriMet. There's a formula that, when ridership is strong enough, TriMet can sort of fold it in. The hope is that we can get ridership up quickly enough to meet that standard.
So you and the mayor agree, and he's been very vocal on transportation, and he has a history in transportation. Is there a sense that he's going to be looking over your shoulder?
I certainly hope so [laughs], because I have a strong interest in the topic. I'm really looking forward to working on it, but the mayor has decades of involvement in it. I certainly hope that the mayor will be able to find a chunk of time to continue to work with me on transportation.