Portland Meeting w/ The City on Street Deaths, Maintenance and What To Do

Thursday night at 6:30 kicked off a public meeting at the Sunnyside Environmental School. This topic concerns everybody from the motorist who wants better roads and roads to last to the cyclist who wants to be able to ride peacefully down a greenway into work to the pedestrians who would like to walk down the street with their children and not fear that one of them may be killed or maimed by an errant driver. Ok, so a few stats to start this article off. The first are few from this image and derived information (ie, I did some simple math after speaking with one of the street engineers on hand and also others that work for the city, they know this material very well).

Portland General Fund (Click for full size image)

Portland General Fund (Click for full size image)

First thing to note, because it escaped me for about 2 seconds until my friend Tony pointed it out, public safety actually translates to police and fire. So let’s just put that out of our minds as anything that we’re allowed to be “flexible” with. But the real kicker, is we get down to actual road budgets in the general fund. The transportation and parking budget is a mighty whopping 2% at $8.7 million dollars. When it comes to road maintenance and other such things, that isn’t a lot to work with. Now keep in mind there is still the gas tax, which in Portland isn’t a huge amount of money but it adds a few million more. But a lot of that goes to other roads too. ODOT takes a cut, the Feds of course take a cut of gas taxes, etc. The gas tax however is NOT a large amount of money and does NOT fill the gap between needed roadway work and related things. The simple fact is, gas tax plus general budget funds don’t really cover but about 20-30% of our roadways. More on that in a moment. The second image I took is of a little budget pie chart split out.

Pavement System (Click for full size image)

Pavement System (Click for full size image)

Up in the left hand corner (click if you can’t see it in the regular sized image) of the image you’ll see a few stats.

  • 4,827 lane miles in Portland’s road system. (that’s 1 lane that is 1 mile long, it does not include ODOT roads like 82nd, Powell and others, nor does it included Interstates (federal/state/ODOT) or related roads that happen to come into Portland)
  • 1,871 of busy streets. These are basically arterials where there are buses, trucking, etc. These are the arterials, sometimes including neighborhood arterials like Division, Hawthorne and other such extremely busy streets.
  • 2,971 lane miles of neighborhood streets.
  • $5~ about 5 billion in value.
  • 52% of busy streets are in fair or better condition.
  • 46% of neighborhood streets are in fair or better condition.

Simple Math, We’ll Have to Give Up Some Roads Soon

As I spoke with one of the city engineers about this information I asked, “based on the budget or even doubling the budget, how many lane miles can the city of Portland maintain?” He did some quick math in his head. I then confirmed that number based on some extremely conservative estimates the city could maintain about 1300-1500 miles of roads. As shown above on the chart, there are 4,827 lane miles in Portland, which leaves somewhere between 3,327-3,527 that can’t be maintained. Looking at things another way, Portland has enough money to cover most of the maintenance of the busy streets in the city but not the neighborhood streets. The city has 3,327 to 3,527 miles of streets that will continue to fall into disrepair.

But what about the unpaved streets? They measure approximately 60 miles of unpaved streets in the city. Most cities have somewhere around the same to dramatically more unpaved streets than Portland. Many of the streets are short blocks that lead immediately into a paved street, alleviating much connectivity issue. All of the unpaved streets are used rarely by anybody but the people that live on the street or a few others that might pass by. Emphasis on a “few”. So the question really is, “so what about em’?” With that I’m going to drop this point for a few, because while a few people fuss about 60 miles of unpaved streets there are 3,327-3,527 miles that are merely years away from becoming unpaved. Priorities here people, priorities.

So there seems to be some options here that are going to take place no matter what we do. No significant money is going to become available. The feds aren’t exactly swooping in to save the disappearing gas tax revenue. It’s up to the cities, and the only options on the table for streets are to let some of them disappear from the cities list of streets to maintain. In New Orleans I recall seeing those notorious signs “This Street No Longer Maintained”. That sign meant the city of New Orleans was done with that street, it was up to the local community to do anything with it. Most people on the street and surrounding areas were actually fine with that. They didn’t care.

What to do with all these streets we can’t maintain? As road budgets get strained even further there is going to be increasing pressure to abandon the notion that a street must be provided to every single doorstep in America. It just isn’t possible, never was, and never will be.

So the question is, with well over 3,327 miles of of road miles about to be left untouched, why keep wasting them as mere roadways. What should we do with them? Some neighborhoods have even reclaimed low yield streets and planted mid-road gardens, turned them into neighborhood parks and other such wonderful additions. Why not officially start declaring some streets as off the books and let the neighborhoods really, truly take back their streets!

There’s a lot of potential in this issues to reclaim the streets and make our neighborhoods more livable, safer for our families, friends and children and make our city more efficient in the process. What are your ideas for these 3,327 miles of roadway?

NOTE: The Oregonlive also published a wrap up with some good quotes from attendees @ http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/02/city_asks_residents_where_do_w.html

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