PORTLAND'S NEW DIRECTOR of transportation, it seems, has something for everyone.
Portlanders who worry the city can't pay to fix its roads—let alone run a streetcar, rebuild bridges, or add bike lanes—should cheer for Leah Treat's financial background. During a stint in Washington, DC, Treat found a way to quadruple parking meter revenue, according to her boss at the time.
And Treat—introduced Tuesday, June 18, as the victor in a nationwide search for a new Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) head—says she's an avid and committed cyclist. She told reporters in a conference call that she'd like to see more Portlanders astride bikes. So mark one, too, for the city's active-transport types.
The challenge that now lies before the 42-year-old—who will pack up her family this summer and depart a high-level job in the Chicago Department of Transportation—is quickly acquainting herself with Portland's unique situation.
The city, of course, faces limited resources and competing demands familiar to governments the world over. In recent months PBOT has been hammered by audits that found it hasn't prioritized well, and has serious funding challenges.
But those are also set against a backdrop of an environmentally conscious populace, fond of its status as a smart-growth leader but loath to have its auto use curtailed.
And it's clear Treat faces a learning curve. She says she loves Portland, but admitted her experience with the city has been limited. She wasn't able to offer specifics yet on potential new funding sources—which both Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick plan to make a priority, maybe as soon as next year—or what her first priorities will be.
"I need to get there and get a better sense of what I'm inheriting," Treat says. "Right now it's like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces lying on the floor."
She did express a sense that PBOT is suffering. Its employees "are not empowered or feel disenfranchised or are disgruntled, or something is missing in terms of their morale," Treat says, conceding that might not be an accurate or complete appraisal. "I think I'm going to be able to stand up the transportation department pretty quickly."
Originally from New Mexico, Treat forged her reputation as a financial wonk in DC—where she held various city jobs from 1999 to 2009. That year, she joined DC's department of transportation, helping then-Director Gabe Klein manage a $1.5 billion portfolio while leading a team charged with generating revenue.
In 2011, she followed Klein to Chicago, where she serves as his chief of staff and as a managing deputy commissioner of transportation. According to her résumé, Treat manages $1 billion in transportation projects—including installing 30 miles of bike lanes and awarding a 4,000-bike contract to Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share.
"She's been integral to the success we've had in DC and Chicago," Klein, with his own formidable national reputation, told the Mercury.
Treat's financial background held sway with Novick, who listed it first in a list of attributes he'd keyed in on. He joked it doesn't hurt Treat is "somebody with a bit of a gritty, non-Portland edge, frankly. It's an extra bonus to be able to steal someone out from under [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel."
PBOT's been without a permanent leader since January, when Hales pushed out Director Tom Miller, who'd served as former Mayor Sam Adams' chief of staff, and announced a national search. Former Maintenance Director John "Toby" Widmer has filled in since.
The director search drew 44 applicants, eventually whittled to Treat and Ruben Anthony, a former high-level staffer at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation who currently works for Milwaukee-based engineering and architecture firm Bloom Companies, LLC.
Klein says Portland has made the right choice.
"I think you guys really scored."