PBOT budget shortfall puts infrastructure, safety at risk

By Margaux Mennesson

Crumbling bridges. Unfilled potholes.  Restricted emergency vehicle access. Bike lanes filled with debris. Sidewalks in disrepair.

These are some of the conditions we can expect to see more of when the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) cuts services and lays off employees to account for a $16 million shortfall in revenue forecasts.

The budget shortfall is a direct result of our transportation funding structure’s overreliance on gas tax revenue. Revenue from the gas tax — the state’s single largest source of transportation funding — has fallen far short of expectations for the past five years, forcing budget analysts to revise expectations for years to come.

The city saw the steepest drop in 2009, at the height of the recession. High unemployment means fewer people are driving. More households are doing whatever they can to reduce expenditures and save money. People are registering fewer vehicles, driving fewer miles, purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles and, increasingly, turning to alternative transportation like public transit, biking and walking.

While these figures point to some positive and lasting changes in our individual transportation habits, they also create an alarming crisis for a transportation bureau that relied too much on an unstable funding stream.

In 2009, the Oregon state legislature approved a measure to raise the gas tax by six cents per gallon. The City of Portland has attempted to increase revenue through parking fees, extending pay-to-park hours to 7 p.m. and on Sundays. But these efforts haven’t come close to making up for the losses.

City and state governments say they have few options in the face of dried-up funding sources. PBOT says that filling these gaps “will require that cuts be permanent and ongoing, as opposed to one-time spending cuts that expire once revenues rebound – that will fundamentally restructure the organization.”

The union representing a portion of PBOT employees, Laborer’s Local 483, warns that “the city’s backlog in road maintenance will increase, eroding the condition of our roads, sidewalks and bridges.”

Will our leaders sacrifice safety and basic infrastructure on our city streets and neighborhood sidewalks, while they continue to pursue the $4 billion, regressive, auto-centric Columbia River Crossing project that has already cost the public over $100 million? Or will they work harder to come up with a mix of strategies that puts our region in a stronger position for the next generation of Oregonians?

That’s the challenge facing the city’s Budget Advisory Committee, the stakeholder group tasked with discussing permanent cuts and layoffs to help PBOT fill the holes without cutting essential services that keep us safe on the roads today and prepare us for the future of transportation.

The community needs leaders to prioritize projects that make our roads safe for everyone, increase access to affordable transportation choices, and connect people to jobs, services and neighborhoods.

Last year, 15 people were killed while walking on our roads — a 36 percent jump from previous years. Three bicyclists were killed in a two-week period in the Metro area this summer, after zero bicycle fatalities last year. The number of serious or fatal crashes involving people walking and biking is on the rise, even while the total number of traffic fatalities is declining.

Leaving safety needs unaddressed shifts the burden onto the public, with an estimated $6 million cost in health care and lost wages for every traffic fatality in the Portland-Metro area.

Recently, the Oregonian reported that 58 miles of major city streets lack sidewalks on either side. Future cuts to public transit service will likely impact those neighborhoods with the most dangerous streets for walking. Yet already, in anticipation of further cuts, the bureau has postponed $3.2 million in new sidewalk construction that was supposed to go toward improving those high-crash neighborhoods.

We need to find more stable sources of revenue. And we need to prioritize smart, cost-effective, sustainable transportation projects that keep our roads safe and our community healthy.


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