Portlands high-crash corridors, mapped.
  • PBOT
  • Portland's high-crash corridors, mapped.

When Oregon lawmakers failed to find agreement on a gas tax hike this session, it seemed to doom the Portland Bureau of Transportation's best hopes for badly needed new money. Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick in January decided to take a breather from the fire swamp that was the "street fee" fight so Salem could wrangle road money, and there's no sign they're going to pick it back up before they run in next May's primary election. (The Oregonian reports Hales doesn't want to at all.)

But! State fiscal analyses suggest PBOT might be able to scrounge millions in new yearly revenue from the session, after all, in the form of House Bill 2621. The bill allows Portland to set up 24/7 speed cameras on its high crash corridors—10 roads that make up 3 percent of the city's street system, but account for over half of its pedestrian deaths.

The authority to mount cameras is a huge change from the city's currently constrained powers. Right now, cops clock speeds with manned police vans, and are limited by state law to four hours at a time.

Number crunchers down in Salem expect the constant vigilance brought on by new, fixed cameras will have a big effect. They've estimated the cameras could generate hundreds of thousands of new speeding tickets in Portland, resulting in more than $23 million a year once the system's up and running. About two-thirds of those fines would go into a state account. The remainder goes to the city, and must be used for running the speed cameras and "improving traffic safety."

Here's the outlook the state's Legislative Revenue Office shared with lawmakers in April:


If those numbers are right, PBOT could see nearly $7 million a year from new citations beginning in 2019. The bureau's current estimates suggest its 20 planned speed cameras would cost roughly $960,000 a year to run, meaning the city might soon have around $6 million extra each year to improve the safety of Portland streets.

For a city that just formalized its commitment to Vision Zero—the notion that deaths and serious injury on city streets are unacceptable—that's potentially huge.

PBOT, though, downplays the estimates. The bureau's excited about the speed cameras, which staffers say will reduce speeds and increase safety on Portland's deadliest roads. But the bureau says it's not counting on new funding.

"My sense is that most Portlanders will adjust their behavior" rather than incur reams of tickets, says Gabe Graff, PBOT's operations and safety manager. Graff says Portland's incoming system will be the "most transparent" of any in the country. If you're speeding toward a camera, there will be signage to warn you, and even a speed reader that shows just how bad you're breaking the law.

"They’ll know what the speed is and they’ll know their current operating speed," says Graff. "It’s not going to be secret."

The state is prepping itself for a ton of tickets nonetheless, kicking in $1.25 million for extra court staff to process an anticipated 50,000 new speeding tickets in the next two years, (and nearly 220,000 new tickets in the two years after that).

But it's unclear when Portland's cameras will all be up and running. The city has to figure out what equipment it's going to buy (Graff says the current estimation is each camera will cost about $4,000 per month to operate), and meet with neighborhood associations, police, and others to figure out exactly where it'll put the things up. PBOT expects to have cameras on two of the city's 10 high-crash corridors a year from now, and add on from there.

If they're tantalized at the prospect of new, much needed money, PBOT staffers aren't letting on. Graff repeatedly hammers on the point that safety and decreased speeds are the important thing (and he's right, of course).

"From the outset our goal has been to change behavior," he says. "Hopefully that comes across."