Last week, leaked emails revealed Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) director Millicent Williams planned to spend half a million dollars to reverse safety elements on a downtown protected bike lane on Northwest and Southwest Broadway. Williams expressed urgency in her plans, while appearing to keep them obscured from the public, and asking if the changes could be made overnight.
The proposed changes—which were met with “shock and disbelief,” both from PBOT staff and community advocates—have since been reversed. But a feeling of distrust lingers. Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who oversees PBOT, maintains he hadn’t been briefed on the plan, but advocates are skeptical.
The controversy came at an inopportune time for PBOT, which is dealing with a $32.6 million budget shortfall that could result in massive service cuts and hundreds of job losses in the next fiscal year.
The community temperature was made evident at a Sept. 26 budget work session, where Williams sat in front of protest signs demanding her resignation while she asked City Council to better fund Portland’s transportation system. The protesters joined the budget work session to ask for accountability from Williams and Mapps.
Williams was hired to the PBOT director’s seat this summer, joining the bureau in July after a monthslong search for new leadership. After the public backlash against her proposed changes to Broadway, advocates began to voice their concerns about the direction PBOT is going with Williams at the helm.
The turmoil has raised concerns about how transportation leaders will handle the ongoing budget crisis. Chaotic budget management could cost PBOT capital grants in the future, cutting off yet another income stream from the financially-flailing bureau.
The story of the Broadway bike lane
Active transportation advocates have long been concerned about the direction PBOT is headed and where the bureau’s priorities lie. In recent months, conversations between Portlanders and transportation leaders about increasing traffic fatalities on Portland’s streets and budget allocation have become heated. So when word got out that newly-hired PBOT Director Williams wanted to make changes to one of the city’s longest protected bikeways, the mood was ripe for backlash.
Broadway is a high-crash street on both sides of the river. The parking-protected bike lane downtown extends more than 20 blocks between the west side of the Broadway Bridge and the Portland State University campus, offering separation between car and bike traffic— a recommended practice for making streets safer for all road users.
Previous segments of the Broadway bike lane were completed on the southern and northernmost stretches of the street in 2009 and 2020, respectively, but the middle segment—covering the corridor from SW Harvey Milk to Clay Streets—was just finalized in October last fall.
Not everyone was happy with the design change. Some business owners expressed anger about the new street configuration, especially along the southwest segment of the corridor. Management at the Heathman Hotel on SW Broadway at Salmon Street was particularly upset, airing concerns about the apparent “operational challenges” presented by the new bike lane to the media—and to PBOT leaders.
It’s unclear when PBOT first considered making changes to the Broadway bike lane. But reporting in BikePortland revealed Williams asked PBOT staff to begin working on a new design in mid-August. An email she sent to PBOT staff on Aug. 21 referenced the need to be “responsive to the concerns shared by the ‘downtown’ community” and stressed urgency, stating “doing nothing is not an option.”
PBOT staff developed a list of potential actions for Broadway. Then, in early September, they created a ‘Broadway briefing book’ for Commissioner Mapps and his staff. In a September14 email from Williams, PBOT staff were directed about the planned changes, which included returning curb-tight parking to Broadway everywhere north of SW Salmon Street. The change would require people biking to ride between moving car traffic on one side and a door zone on the other.
As behind-the-scenes information was revealed and subsequently circulated on social media, PBOT was suddenly in an unforeseen public relations storm. Ultimately, Williams issued an apology and retracted the plan, telling PBOT staff she “moved too fast…and it cost us trust.” PBOT has now announced a new plan for the Broadway bike lane that doesn’t remove the parking protection and is much more favorable to bike safety advocates.
Transportation advocates celebrated the news that PBOT won’t be moving forward with plans to roll back protection on the Broadway bike lane. But to some, the damage has been done. Advocates are skeptical about Mapps’ claims that he wasn’t informed about potential changes, and concerned about the quality of communication between City Council and PBOT.
Williams’ email detailing her plans for the Broadway bike lane states the director developed the plan “after consulting with Commissioner [Mapps].” But as soon as news of the plans got out, Mapps and his staff said they hadn’t been briefed on a plan, and maintained that position in a statement to the Mercury this week.
“I have stated from the beginning that I asked PBOT to explore options regarding the Broadway bike lane. I have received mixed feedback on the efficacy and impact of that infrastructure,” Mapps wrote in a September 26 email to the Mercury. “I have not had a formal or final briefing from PBOT about the list of options.”
Williams told the Mercury in an interview this week that she and Mapps have different communication styles.
“Because [of that], there can be the presumption that there's some conflict,” Williams said. “It's unfortunate that the interpretation of that communication… created a narrative because there were pieces of a conversation that people were not privy to.”
Bigger than Broadway
Advocates say regardless of what happened behind closed doors regarding the Broadway bike lane, there are other reasons to be concerned that Mapps and Williams aren’t strong enough advocates for transportation safety and will easily cave to business interests.
At a Sept. 21 PBOT Bureau & Budget Advisory Committee (BBAC) meeting, several members addressed Williams after she issued an apology to the committee. BBAC member Kara Helgren said she felt under Williams’ leadership, PBOT is not “really committed to finding safer ways for people to use streets.”
“I’m also really concerned about what looks like dishonesty coming out of either PBOT or out of Mr. Mapps’ office,” Helgren said. “I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to trust you that our input [on the budget] is going to be respected.”
Williams told the Mercury she “wouldn’t say the business community [or anyone else] has an outsized voice” when it comes to getting PBOT’s ear.
“But as a bureau, we do have to ensure we're thinking about every part of the community. If we find ourselves placing facilities that restrict access, or keep users from being able to park and go into a business with relative ease…there's an impact to that,” Williams said. “The goal is not to close businesses. Businesses employ people, businesses help families keep food on the table…it's a bigger conversation. It's about the social contract we have with the community to make sure that we're servicing well.”
As PBOT leaders work to figure out an exceedingly dire budget outlook, the back-and-forth about already-constructed transportation projects could jeopardize future funding opportunities.
At a City Council meeting on Sept. 20, Sarah Iannarone, executive director of The Street Trust, expanded on the fiscal ramifications of such decisions.
“Our concern extends far beyond this stretch of curb [on Broadway] to issues of governance and fiscal responsibility within the bureau as related to the grant applications under discussion today,” Iannarone said.
She elaborated, adding that PBOT is currently seeking federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) for active transportation projects on 82nd Avenue and in the Lower Albina neighborhood, including to construct protected bike lanes on East Broadway.
“The current proposal to remove the protected bike lane along W. Broadway, which directly connects to the bike lanes for which we are applying for federal funding along E Broadway, raises a significant question: why would the federal government fund infrastructure installation that PBOT might later decide to remove?” Iannarone said. “It's difficult to imagine why USDOT would entrust PBOT with their money when there appear to be issues locally with project planning and implementation as well as fiscal responsibility.”
Oregon Metro, which distributes much of the federal funds PBOT uses for new projects, may have had their interest piqued by the Broadway debacle. In a statement to the Mercury, Nick Christensen, a spokesperson for Metro, said the agency is “monitoring how PBOT implements grants awarded by Metro and paid for through federal funds.”
“These are competitive grants that help address our region’s limited transportation funding, and it’s imperative that jurisdictions that are awarded grants follow through on the grant commitments.”
The Broadway bike lane was identified in PBOT's Central City in Motion plan and funded with Regional Flexible Funding Allocation (RFFA) grants administered by Metro and matching PBOT funds. The parking-protected bike lanes on NW and SW Broadway cost $2.1 million.
Amid all the budget chaos, the city is also gearing up for government changes under the charter reform measure, which will do away with the siloed bureau form of government and give every city elected official a chance to strategize about transportation solutions.
But the changes won’t occur until 2025, and until then, people hope transportation leaders won’t abandon active transportation needs for perceived political gain.
“As the city is currently structured, the need for us to be able to get political support—literally votes in order to move something forward—is an incredibly delicate dance,” Williams told the Mercury. “That does not necessarily mean that just because the political will to do something is not there, that we won’t push for something to happen. It's a balance. Some things are easy pills to swallow and others less so.”
In an email statement to the Mercury, Mapps wrote he “understands the importance of fostering a transportation system that accommodates the needs of every road user.”
“While PBOT’s ongoing budget crisis is undoubtedly painful, and the constraints are significant, our goal remains to deliver a more accessible, equitable, and safe transportation system for all,” Mapps wrote.