Charlie and the Cagers

Poor Charlie Hales.

He once was anointed by the media as the prime mover behind Portland City Council’s embrace of the streetcar.

He reveled in the naming of BridgePort Brewery’s Streetcar Ale.

“Whoever named a beer after a bus?” he crowed. (See “A Streetcar to Admire,”The Columbian, Sept. 14, 2003.)

Back then, Charlie called streetcars a catalyst for urban development. He even resigned in the middle of his third term as a Portland city commissioner to work as vice president for transit development for HDR, a national architectural and engineering firm that promotes streetcars.

“With his prized Portland streetcar in place, he was ready to move on,” wrote Brad Schmidt in The Oregonian.

Charlie envisioned streetcars booming in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Tacoma, maybe Spokane some day – even Vancouver, Wash., the burg across the Columbia River that some Portlanders regard as a suburb.

That was in 2003. Now mayor of Portland, Charlie is trying to avoid explaining how it is that Portland spent so much money on streetcars and other forms of public transit (light rail, tram and bike lanes) that the city let its streets deteriorate so badly.

Streets – that’s where Baby Boomers and Republican suburbanites drive their 3,000-pound steel cages, right? (The first time I heard a driver referred to as a “cager” was in Portland.)

Like it or not, many people in Portland still use cars. Goods and services are still often delivered on four – or more – wheels. So what happened to street repair? The money went elsewhere.

“We don’t get to revisit the past,” Charlie told the audience at the Jan. 9 council meeting after one speaker then another kept asking him what happened to all the millions of dollars that were supposed to go for street repair.

Typical of the criticism leveled against Charlie was this comment from resident Joe Walsh: “We don’t trust you. … We didn’t get an answer (on) what you did with the money.”

After attending several council meetings and seeing Charlie in action, I can’t call him Mayor Hales or even Hales. He’s Charlie, a diminutive.

He isn’t brave enough to honestly confront a problem he helped create. Now that the streets are in dire shape, Charlie and Commissioner Steve Novick – who’s in charge of the city’s Bureau of Transportation – have floated various fees, taxes and schemes to raise more money.

In a transportation class I took at Portland State University, Novick told students, as if this were something to be proud of, “We may become the first city in America to raise money for transportation … with an income tax.”

He quipped that his mistake in trying to sell the tax was thinking people understood fractions. Then he joked that someday the city council may have to decide each year which street to preserve: “We can only preserve one street in Portland … which street will it be? Burnside?”

For now, he and Charlie are off the hook. Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked Charlie to set aside his latest desperate idea (a city-wide advisory vote on which funding option to pursue), and let the Oregon Legislature work on a transportation plan that could produce an increase in the state gasoline tax. That could send some money Portland’s way towards street repair.

It will do nothing to change the political mindset that allowed the City Council to allocate $4.6 million to the Regional Arts and Culture Council while at the same time claiming it couldn’t afford a necessity like street repairs.

How do they get away with this?

That transportation class I took at Portland State University where Novick spoke offered some clues.

This class, called Portland Traffic & Transportation, has been around for more than 20 years and is offered by the Portland Bureau of Transportation.  It’s free to Portland residents, who must apply for admission, and is available for credit to PSU students. The course is coordinated by Rick Gustafson, former Metro executive officer, and retired executive director and chief operating officer of Portland Streetcar Inc.

The class I took was held Fall Term at PSU. Each week Gustafson invited various city department heads and professionals to cover subjects such as “History of Transportation Shaping the City,” “Mt. Hood Freeway and Light Rail Decisions in the ‘70’s,” “TriMet,” “Regional Planning,” “Bicycles,” “Transportation Systems Management,” “Portland Streetcar,” “Land Use and Transportation.” The students – about 40 – were encouraged to pursue a transportation-related project in their neighborhoods.

The 10-week course is especially designed for neighborhood activists and is an education in how things get done at City Hall. Gustafson makes the history of how Portland looks the way it does entertaining and relevant. But the propaganda was occasionally as thick as an oil slick. Each invited speaker found some way to convey: Cars bad, bikes good. Cars bad, light rail good. Cars bad, streetcars good. Cars bad, buses good. Cars bad, walking good.

Cars are not bad. Owning one makes it a lot easier to enjoy other forms of transportation. Choosing to ride the bus (which I do every week) makes for a different experience than being forced to take the bus. Choosing to walk errands (which I do as often as possible) is also a different experience when it’s a choice, not a necessity. Having a car can be a time-saver. A car still bequeaths a sense of freedom. More than anything, Americans love freedom.

When Commissioner Novick spoke to the class, he was accompanied by Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat. She mentioned the importance of planning, and how Portland had done extensive planning for bikes and public transit.

Then Novick followed with an overview of transportation issues, including his proposed street fee. I asked him if the city council had done as much planning for street maintenance as it had for bikes.

He laughed and acknowledged that’s the problem: “That’s why I get after (former Mayor) Sam Adams sometimes. … Charlie is part of that past.”

Novick, the newest member of the council, inherited these crumbling streets. However, his predecessor and patron saint, former Commissioner Randy Leonard, is also part of Portland City Council’s profligate past. Novick should have come clean early on with residents about mistakes of the past. He should have risked the wrath of former leaders like Adams and Leonard. Instead, he has flacked for them.

Yet many of the students in the PSU class seemed willing to go along with Treat and Novick: Tax the hell out of cars and drivers, but spend more revenue on public transit.

A young woman asked if Portland had considered “reducing the auto network” and letting streets turn to gravel.

Treat said it has been discussed. Texas, she added, is letting some of its streets turn to gravel. Her department receives about 2,000 requests a month for service, such as potholes.

Is this what Portland will come to? Gravel roads where once there were paved streets?

A student suggested taxing not only people who live here but those who work in Portland and live somewhere else.

Yes, said Novick. Technically the city could go that extra step. But he cautioned that people’s wages are going down. He cited a recent study that showed families living on $30,000 a year and singles living on $20,000 a year make up 41 percent of Portland’s population. People who earn more than $500,000 a year comprise 16.6 percent of population in Portland.

A young man pointed out that for being poor, Portland has “tons of Starbucks here, and people keep going there.”

Other students suggested raising parking meter rates and charging residents for on-street parking in front of their homes.

“We are working on parking needs for Portland for the next 20 years. Part of that is getting rid of surface parking,” Treat replied.

In this ideal, car-less utopia, on-street parking will be turned into “parklets” for non-automotive uses. 

“How do you future-proof any tax that you institute … how do you make sure we stay ahead of rising costs?” one young woman asked.

Charlie and Novick are counting on voters like the students in this class to turn out in 2016 during a presidential election, which attracts a larger turnout, and vote for whatever funding option they put on the ballot. They are taking for granted Portland’s predominantly liberal and Democratic electorate.

They are presuming that most citizens won’t have time to read former Auditor Lavonne Griffin-Valade’s detailed investigation of how the city council deliberately allowed Portland streets to deteriorate while investing in other transportation projects.

They are presuming that most citizens won’t read Griffin-Valade’s audit of Portland Streetcar, which revealed exaggerated rider-ship numbers and on-time service claims.

Streetcars haven’t lived up to Charlie’s hype. Yes, they’re fun. Tourists like them, and they’re great for downtown bar-hopping. As Willamette Week said in its Finder Guide last year, use the streetcar “when you want to get from your South Waterfront abode to the Pearl but don’t feel like calling your chauffeur.”

Even Charlie owns a car. (After he resigned from the City Council in 2002, he lived in Washington state to avoid Oregon income taxes and commuted to Portland.)

Maybe one of the speakers at a recent council meeting could entice Charlie to consider his next post-political venture: “Toyota is developing a hydrogen fuel prototype,” the man told the council. “The fuel system is going to change. You can’t depend on gas taxes forever.”

If automakers create a more environmentally friendly vehicle, some of today’s most dedicated bike riders might be tomorrow’s cagers.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

Related:

Portland’s Call-and-Response

Streetcar to the Loony Bin


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