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Friday, August 1, 2014

ODOT Settles With Angry Campers, Once Again. That'll Be $60K.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Fri, Aug 1, 2014 at 6:04 PM

Portland police help with a campsite cleanup, on city property near the Springwater Corridor.
  • Dirk VanderHart
  • Portland police help with a campsite cleanup, on city property near the Springwater Corridor.

For the second time since 2011, the Oregon Department of Transportation has settled a lawsuit with homeless campers who claimed the department unlawfully confiscated their personal items.

Under the agreement, ODOT will pay out $60,000 and faces additional rules for how it can expel campers from its property. Those rules will have ramifications for Portland's homeless, since ODOT owns land around bridges and along the Springwater Corridor, both areas ripe for enforcement.

Despite the $60,000 in damages, the settlement (like most settlements) finds no fault. Both sides say they're pleased.

"Our reading of this is it’s a win-win," says ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson. "It carefully sets out what people's rights are."

Those rights were supposed to be hammered out already.

Back in 2011, under pressure from a suit filed by the Oregon Law Center, ODOT crafted agency rules that dictated how much notice it would give before dismantling campsites on its property. Campers were to have between 10 and 19 days' notice before a site was cleaned up, according to that settlement. And ODOT said it would store confiscated valuables for a month.

But just two years later, the Oregon Law Center sued again on behalf of five homeless Portlanders. ODOT had disregarded its own rules, the plaintiffs said in a class-action suit, giving campers in a plot of land near the I-205 bike path a mere three days before cleaning up their belongings in early October 2013. That action was contrary to what campers were told they could expect, the suit said, and resulted in some people losing much or all of their belongings when ODOT didn't properly document and store valuables. One man even died shortly after the cleanup, the suit said, suggesting his already frail health was made worse by the shock of losing his possessions.

ODOT claimed it had the authority to subvert the rules because the campsites, along Johnson Creek, were an "environmental emergency," and because police were on hand to explain the campers were violating trespassing laws. Neither of those provisions was in the first settlement agreement, however.

So now we have a second settlement [pdf], signed on Tuesday. Under the agreement, ODOT will pay $60,000 to the Oregon Law Center, money that will be used to help compensate the plaintiffs. And the agency once again has a complicated set of new rules it must follow when cleaning campsites off its many properties.

A rundown, after the jump.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

At Least One Labor Union is Helping Pay for Steve Novick's Latest Street Fee Survey

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 5:25 PM

Taxpayers aren't the only ones footing the bill for a recent telephone survey that seemed to magically unearth support for higher income taxes to pay for Portland roads—a plan previously dismissed as unfeasible.

At least one local labor union confirms it's arranged to kick in $1,000 for the $16,500 survey commissioned by Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick last month. The City of Portland Professional Employees Association (COPPEA) The Professional Technical Employees Local 17, COPPEA Chapter had discussed helping fund the effort before Novick paid for the late June poll, says union rep Amy Bowles, but hadn't formalized the arrangement until this week. The union represents 132 Portland Bureau of Transportation employees.

"As far as we’re concerned, it’s because we represent PBOT members," Bowles said on Monday. "We want a stable funding source."

Laborers' Local 483 has also talked about chipping in, though it's unclear if those arrangements have been made. Scott Gibson, former union president and current board member, says the labor group supports "looking at a more progressive way" to fund road improvements, so showed interest when Novick asked. He wasn't sure if anything ever came of it, though, and calls to the union's president and business manager have not been returned.

The June poll found fairly robust support for upping the income tax of wealthier Portlanders—those with salaries of $125,000 a year and up—by 1-3 percent. Roughly 60 percent of those surveyed supported such a plan, which officials said could raise more than $50 million a year. Participants were evenly split on another proposal that would have taxed Portlanders making under $100,000 by .25 percent.

Those findings run contrary to a $28,000 survey released by Novick this spring, which said 52 percent of Portlanders support an $8 a month flat fee to pay for the city's roads, and found far less support for tax increases.

Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales have used that first poll to justify putting forward a flat fee that would be assessed on many Portlanders, along with a sliding scale charge for businesses. But similar proposals have failed twice since 2000, and outrage quickly fomented around the "transportation user fee" proposal, causing Hales and Novick to regroup. Three separate workgroups are looking into the matter, and there are plans to have a proposal before city council later this year.

Neither Hales nor Novick has formally supported the tax-the-rich idea that suddenly seems so palatable to Portlanders.

The mayor "has said all along and continues to believe that he’s not a particular fan of a street fee," Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, tells the Mercury. "We haven't been able to find a better way to do it. If in fact we found that there's a better mechanism out there and it’s popular enough to pass, hallelujah."

Current estimates suggest Portland's roads would need more than $90 million in repairs each year for a decade to catch up on deferred maintenance.

Washington Post Columnist Calls Bicyclists "Bullies," Makes Joke About Hitting Them with Cars

Posted by Paul Constant on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 9:44 AM

Take heed, automobile enthusiasts! Car drivers in other parts of the country are being crushed beneath the bootheels of bicyclists in a terrifying War on Cars, too. In a piece headlined "Bicyclist bullies try to rule the road in D.C.," Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy delineated the lengths to which those bicycle bullies will go to oppress the noble few who choose automobile transportation:

They fight to have bike lanes routed throughout the city, some in front of churches where elderly parishioners used to park their cars. They slow-pedal those three-wheel rickshaws through downtown during rush hour, laughing at motorists who want them to get out of the way.

Not the elderly! Dear God, is there any way for vulnerable car owners to strike back against these two-wheeled overlords?

It’s a $500 fine for a motorist to hit a bicyclist in the District, but some behaviors are so egregious that some drivers might think it’s worth paying the fine.

Yes! Wait, no. Don't do that! Is...is that supposed to be satire?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Portland 2035: The Theoretical Map

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Tue, Jul 22, 2014 at 9:59 AM

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As the Oregonian pointed out Monday evening, the city's released a new interactive map containing all potential projects that might make the cut as part of the seemingly never-ending process of creating a new Comprehensive Plan.

The map has tabs for transportation, zoning and infrastructure projects put forth by various city bureaus, and it'd be pointless trying to summarize them—or even using the map to try and get a good enough handle on them all that you could summarize. But click around, and you'll find plenty of interesting possibilities.

For instance:

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Would the city really pull the trigger—in the next 20 years—on new car-free bridges over I-84? The city's bike lobby has been hoping so for a while now.

Less expensive and just as hotly coveted: The first winding segment of a multimodal trail along the railroad tracks of Sullivan's Gulch that could give cyclists, pedestriants, and Razor scooterers a breezy east-west commute.

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Also, here are the initial outer limits PBOT has apparently designated for Portland's long awaited, twice-delayed bikeshare system:

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We've always known the first phase of the system—if/when it arrives—would be focused on the city's relatively prosperous center, with potential subsequent expansions moving share-bikes closer to populations that might need them more (though those areas aren't necessarily magnets for the tourists that can make or break a bike share system). I'm not sure i'd seen the system so starkly limned, though. It's clear there's demand for bike share outside those boundaries.

Anyway, have at it. See what's maybe coming to your neighborhood. Go NIMBY.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Obama Wants Private Business to Invest in Public Infrastructure

Posted by Paul Constant on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 10:02 AM

David Ludwig's story at The Atlantic Wire about a new federal initiative makes me feel bad:

The Build America Investment Initiative will establish a committee to look for ways private businesses can more easily invest in American infrastructure projects. A new center at the Department of Transportation will be tasked with the initiative. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew will oversee a committee within the center to help find ways to eliminate the barriers that private companies face when investing in public works projects.

The White House released a fact sheet about this program. And on the one hand, you know, I'm a realist and good job for trying to get something done. Apparently, Denver has constructed a couple light rail lines by partnering with business, and I guess you can't argue with those results.

But what happened to taxing business to pay for this stuff? Are we ever going to get out of this Ronald Reaganesque pit where everyone agrees that taxes are automatically evil and the free market is the solution to everything? Why do businesses get to pick and choose where their "tax" funds go, but I still have to pay for the Department of Defense and the NSA and bullshit programs like the Build America Investment Initiative? Isn't anyone else concerned that an infrastructure constructed at the whims of the corporate class might become an infrastructure that favors big business and that ignores the poorest, most powerless Americans? Doesn't anyone else think this program sounds like a monumentally bad idea?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Let's Make Airplane Seats Even More Uncomfortable!

Posted by Paul Constant on Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 3:14 PM

You weren't using that whole seat, were you? The Washington Post reports:

Airbus has filed a seat patent that appears to pack people in without all the clunky cushions and awkward folding tables, in an apparent bid to save valuable space on its aircraft.

Its cushions are shaped liked bicycle saddles, and when the seats aren't being used, they fold vertically to save space. Cutting down all that "bulk," as the patent application puts it, lets you do a lot more with the limited real estate on board.

Go take a look at the whole patent. It just looks terrible.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Town Hall on Street Fee (the One for Businesses) Moves to Larger Location

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 4:24 PM

Unsurprisingly keen interest in the future of Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales' proposed new "transportation user fee" has forced city officials to relocate one of two town halls on the fee scheduled for next week.

Instead of meeting to talk about the non-residential portion of the proposed fee at Venture Portland's headquarters next Tuesday, the Bureau of Transportation has obtained a much larger meeting at the Oregon Convention Center. Venture Portland, an umbrella group for neighborhood business districts, had made some sense as the host. On paper. But critics of the proposed fee quickly complained that space at Venture Portland would be limited.

Hence today's announcement that the meeting was being moved:

• Town Hall on Business and Non-Residential Fee: 8 to 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, June 24, at Oregon Convention Center, Portland Ballroom 255, 777 NE MLK

• Town Hall on Residential Fee: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 25, at Kaiser Permanente’s Town Hall, 3704 N Interstate

That's a generous move. Although—in looking at the time the meeting's scheduled to start, 8 AM? On a weekday?—is it fair to wonder if that gesture will go for naught? That maybe it's such an unfriendly start time for owners of small businesses, wage slaves, and families on summer break... that a lot of people who might want to show up won't be able to show up?

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Street Fee Isn't Dead. (It's Just Resting With Its Eyes Closed.) Cue More Town Halls!

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Jun 16, 2014 at 11:44 AM

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  • illustration by ashley-renee cribbins
One of the loudest complaints in this month's since-delayed rush by Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales to pass a $12 transportation user fee was an overwhelming sense of shock.

Despite a series of town halls on the city's transportation funding ills—both before and after Hales and Novick held their noses and settled on a regressive utility-style fee—residents and business owners still felt blindsided by the reality of that proposal once the time came for a vote. Sensitive details had been allowed to dribble out in piecemeal fashion, with the final proposal coalescing only a week or so before it was scheduled to go before council. And Novick and Hales only compounded the public's queasiness with a series of late alterations and tweaks.

Which is partly why (there also was the matter of securing a third vote...) the whole thing was put off until November, in part to hear from surprised residents and smooth out some remaining kinks.

So why rehash the history? The Bureau of Transportation appears genuinely and deadly serious about making sure no one can play the "panicked surprise" card ever again. It's just announced two more town hall meetings on the two facets of the fee and how and whether to improve them.

• Town Hall on Business and Non-Residential Fee: 8 to 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, June 24, at Venture Portland, 1125 SE Madison St., Suite 112.

• Town Hall on Residential Fee: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 25, at Kaiser Permanente’s Town Hall, 3704 N Interstate Ave.

The release includes some other notable details.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Street Fee Charter Amendment Will Also Be Delayed—But Just For a Week

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 12:19 PM

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  • illustration by ashley-renee cribbins
Yesterday's announcement pushing back a vote on Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick's residential street fee until November 12, joining the previously delayed non-residential portion of the fee, wasn't quite the last of the 11th-hour tweaks by the Portland City Council.

Hales' proposal to amend the city's charter, meant to limit how the city might spend money from a potential street fee, has been delayed for a week amid some lingering dispute over how those aforementioned limits are spelled out. And other legal language spelling out the promise to vote again November was altered to reflect the chance some other funding mechanism replaces the street fee.

"There's still some more work that needs to be done fine-tuning the work of that charter language," Hales said during this morning's council meeting. "The sense of that [amendment] is not going to vary."

The proposed ordinance creating what's technically called the "transportation user fee" said 80 percent of the $40 million to $50 million expected to have been raised annually was supposed to be spent on maintenance and safety projects. The charter amendment said only "half" of those revenues would be spent on those needs—a disconnect raised by both Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, who looms as the third vote for the fee.

Fritz seemed ready to have actually proposed that language change during the meeting, reading her preferred language out loud, into the record. Novick and Hales both said they thought the current language was adequate but said they wouldn't necessarily oppose clarifications. (Hales even betrayed his inclination to formally support it: Late during the hearing, he misspoke and said Fritz's suggested modification had already been approved. Fritz gently corrected him.)

Regarding the other technical changes, in a resolution intended to bind the council into passing both pieces by November or none at all, Novick offered new language acknowledging the delay in the residential fee and realizing that the council may not pass a straight-up street fee at all. (He said he was inspired, in part, by Fish.)

As the Mercury first reported Friday, he's considering some mechanism for looking at small businesses' profits—saying, this morning, that the city's current business license tax could offer an entrée into that arrangement. Yesterday, Novick wrote on his blog that he's also open to considering sales and income taxes.

"It's appropriate to give our advisory committee and ourselves more combinations of options," Novick says.

Hales said yesterday, and repeated the sentiment today, that he's still in favor of a street fee. But if some other mechanism arises—through work groups announced yesterday—and it raises sufficient funding and doesn't unduly burden any group? Then Hales would be open to considering it.

"This is a constructive opening," he allowed, "and may even produce a new idea."

And, true to form during this whole debate, this chapter of the saga also included a mite of drama near the end. Fish, in what was likely a symbolic measure of collegiality, signaled he'd refrain from being as pointed about his heartburn over still-living decision not to put the fee before voter first—allowing that the whole thing might dramatically evolve over the next five months.

"My general preference," Fish said, softening his tone, "is to refer it to the voters for the final say."

Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who opposed a mere council vote on this fee despite voting in 2008 to pass a smaller fee without sending it to voters first, kept much quieter than his remarks during last week's public hearing where he thundered not so much about dollar amounts but about the need to trust voters. Asked to vote on one of the amendments, all he mustered was "no."

And Hales challenged Salem to join the city with revenue measures in 2015—which he said will be easier if the city does its part first, in the name of "credibility." And he got in a veiled shot at Sandra McDonough of the Portland Business Alliance, who told the Oregonian she welcomed the slowdown but still had lingering overall questions about the fee.

"Understand," Hales said. "We have to pay our bills. And now we have to start paying our street bill."

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

UPDATED: Street Fee Delayed... New Vote Maybe by November

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Tue, Jun 3, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Commissioner Steve Novick has confirmed rumors flying through city hall yesterday and first put into print last night by the Oregonian: The residential part of his and Mayor Charlie Hales' proposed street maintenance and safety fee is on hold "indefinitely."

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Novick's comments came during a spot on Jefferson Smith's "Thank You Democracy" radio program on Xray.fm. On Monday, Novick had insisted, when I asked, that the residential fee was "steady as she goes" toward a promised vote this Wednesday.

Novick, who started Monday by tweaking Commissioner Nick Fish with a Casablanca reference, clammed up later in the day, refusing to answer more questions about the timeline potentially changing after word began leaking out about discussions in city hall leaning that way. Those hints took on new vigor after Fish, a staunch opponent of just having a council vote on the street fee, made his own Casablanca joke on Twitter—suggesting he and Novick had reached an ending as mutually agreeable as the one in the movie.

Sources say Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the swing vote on the fee, was involved in discussions over the delay.

Novick has yet to return a call this morning asking for more information about his decision and the implications for his plan. Hales' spokesman also has yet to acknowledge several messages seeking comment, first left yesterday morning and again this morning.

Citizens, businesses, and lobbyists took turns over five and a half hours last week complaining at a hearing about both the mechanics of the proposed fee—up to $12 for families every month and thousands a year for businesses, raising up to $50 million—as much as an approval process that saw several late amendments and a rush to a council vote this month.

Before that hearing, Novick and Hales confirmed plans to cleave off the nonresidential portion of the fee, pushing that off until November to refine it. Then, during the hearing, Novick and Hales announced plans to phase the fee in over three years. Fritz modified that plan with her own amendment calling for fees of $6, then $9, and up to $12, with proportionate two-thirds discounts for low-income families.

Novick and Hales said they were pushing so hard for a June vote out of concern whatever was approved would be referred to the ballot by lobbyists and others, a promise repeated at the hearing by Paul Romain, hired hand for the Oregon Petroleum Association, the group that killed the city's last stab in 2008. Novick and Hales said going early would get the fee in front of voters during this November's higher-turnout general election.

Fish and Commissioner Dan Saltzman, and several people who testified, suggested commissioners, in that case, should just refer the fee to the ballot themselves—and tamp down fluoride-style anger over the process.

Whether that might happen still remains to be seen. Presumably we'll see some statement soon on what's next.

UPDATE 10:50 AM: That statement has arrived, and it clarifies, as expected, what's next. A vote on both sides of the fee will come in November, the same time a vote had been set on the nonresidential fee. That plan, ironically, is similar to what Fish proposed at the end of last week's council hearing—except it still indicates Hales and Novick won't call for sending the fee to voters.

The council will still vote this Wednesday on sending voters a charter amendment, this November, that would bind the city's use of the revenue raised by the fee. More public forums will be held. And "work groups" will be convened to talk about two issues: how to ease the burden on small businesses, and how to better extend discounts on all utility payments to all low-income customers. The fee would still take effect July 1, 2015.

”The last street free proposal in 2008 was derailed by a lobbyist filing a referendum petition,” said Commissioner Novick. “This one has been temporarily delayed due to concerns voiced by small business owners and low-income people and advocates. We are in a hurry to get to work, but if we’re going to be delayed, it’s for the right reasons.”

“Think of this as a track race,” Hales said. “We haven’t moved the finish line, which is July 2015. But we’re moving the starting blocks. We heard from the community: We are taking our time to hear a more robust debate on the details of this fee. But we have not wavered in our resolve. It is our intention to finally address our deteriorating streets.”

The full statement is here (pdf).

Update 12:43 PM: Fritz's hand really was important in shaping this delay. She tells me she now firmly agrees with Novick and Hales that a referral to voters would be a bad idea—but she made it equally clear that the angst and sadness that had been pouring into city hall meant more time was needed to work out details and ease concerns and fears.

"I'm now convinced a referral by the council is not in the best interest of finding a good solution," she says. "I am very happy we're spending more time getting to a proposal that if it is referred, by voters, will be a lot better."

She gave two reasons for her decision. The first is the complexity of the eventual proposal—and a concern that nuance and flexibility aren't a part of what happens at the ballot box. A referendum, she says, is "just yes or no," compared to a council discussion in which a "yes, but what if" vote that improves a proposal is possible. She also cited the arts tax. That was approved by voters and council shied away from improvements, like making the thing more progressive, because they worried about changing the will of the voters.

Fritz also floated her strong preference converting the residential street fee into a tax—so that it can be less regressive.

"I'd like to see that on the table," she says.

Novick, meanwhile, has posted a lengthy piece on his blog discussing the delay—and the relative benefits of surging toward a June 4 deadline—"focus," especially—even if that deadline had to slip to get the proposal in better shape. The post addresses his obvious crankiness with Fish over his concerns, especially involving low-income residents, but says a good idea may have emerged to address them: using the city's arts tax exemption to extend discounts to more low-income utility customers, across all utility bureaus.

But crankiness doesn't solve problems. It makes sense to delay a vote while we search for a way to make low income discounts fully accessible to people in multifamily housing. The difference between the proposed fully-phased in 'regular' multifamily fee of $7.05 per month and the proposed discounted fee of $4.93 per month is only $2.12 per month, but every dollar matters for someone living paycheck to paycheck.

And, although I'm not sure yet if it will work, I came up with an idea late Sunday night that I'm rather excited about. The City’s existing process with the arts tax allows people who are living below the poverty line send in some paperwork and get an exemption. Maybe we could use that process to provide rebates on water, sewer and transportation fees. You would send in your arts tax exemption form and get a check equal to the annual total of the utility fee discounts you're entitled to. I've asked Thomas Lannom in Revenue to think about whether we can make this idea work.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Novick Answers Captain Renault's Fish's Questions on Street Fee

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Jun 2, 2014 at 10:59 AM

Last week's lengthy Portland City Council hearing on a proposed "transportation user fee," AKA "TUF," turned extra tense sometime in the middle of its fifth hour.

That's when Commissioner Nick Fish pressed the fee's sponsors—Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales—on how he might offer some suggested changes before this Wednesday's vote, only to find out that Novick and Hales weren't much interested in entertaining those changes. Undeterred, the next day, Fish emailed Novick a list of 11 questions that, at first, drew a snarky response—before giving way to a more substantial conversation on Fish's concerns (and several other issues raised by critics) alongside declarations of peace and love and renewed mutual goodwill.

This morning, Novick sent reporters (us, Willamette Week, the Tribune, and the O) a longer, point-by-point reply to Fish's questions. And maybe things have cooled a bit. Or maybe not.

Novick addressed his reply to "Captain Renault," making the point that the city's sewer and water commissioner, Fish, is somehow "shocked, shocked" that low-income Portlanders are struggling with utility bills.

"I think it's appropriate," Novick says.

UPDATE 4:45: Fish sportingly acknowledged Novick's Casablanca tweak, reminding Twitter this afternoon how the movie ends.


Novick's answers are on the jump.

Continue reading »

Friday, May 30, 2014

Street Fee: Novick Willing to Weigh Low-Income Discount for Businesses, Too

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Fri, May 30, 2014 at 4:30 PM

Activist Joe Walsh, before yesterdays hearing on the street fee: Et tu, Novick!
  • denis c. theriault
  • Activist Joe Walsh, before yesterday's hearing on the street fee: "Et tu, Novick!"
With flashbacks from yesterday's tense, six-hour hearing on a citywide road safety and maintenance fee still dancing through his head (he was reading our live blog when I phoned him), Commissioner Steve Novick this afternoon still managed to speak candidly on the state of his proposal—after a busy 24 hours of amendments, overhauls, and major pushback from his colleagues.

Novick unsurprisingly confirmed his commitment to a city council vote on one part of that plan next week—a fee for residences—even if it turns out he and Mayor Charlie Hales somehow don't have the votes to push it through. He mentioned a return to peace between himself and Commissioner Nick Fish after Fish raised serious questions about procedure and substance late last night, a conflict that briefly spilled into an email exchange this morning.

But, perhaps most importantly, Novick said his office is interested in exploring deeper changes to the nonresidential fee he's promised to put forward by mid-November. If his staff can make it work, they'll consider a discount for struggling businesses—based on revenues—similar to the discount he's already suggested for low-income families. Current estimates would see some businesses on the hook for thousands of dollars a year.

Novick stressed that the idea is extremely tentative and may not be feasible without being worked out further (among the issues? how the discount would affect overall revenues). But he nonetheless sketched out one possibility: Businesses whose revenues fall under a certain threshold would pay a flat fee instead of a fee based on their type and size.

"Can we get away with it, and still have it be a fee, having a small business version of a low-income discount," he asks.

That kind of change could go a long way toward easing the ire of business owners, many of whom showed up at last night's hearing and have been flooding city hall inboxes with emails warning about having to hang up their shingles for good. Business outcry was strong enough that Novick and Hales announced, hours before the hearing yesterday, that they'd take a few more months to work out kinks in the fees facing businesses and other nonresidential outlets.

Novick, however, also said he's still slightly skeptical.

"The way to charge businesses based on sales is to have a sales tax," he says. "If you really want the revenues generated by businesses to be based on sales, you should have a sales tax."

The détènte with Fish, meanwhile, came after last night's issues briefly carried over into an email back-and-forth this morning.

Continue reading »

Thursday, May 29, 2014

LIVE BLOG: The Very Controversial Street Fee Comes to City Council

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, May 29, 2014 at 2:31 PM

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  • illustration by shawn dicriscio
For the third time in 13 years, Portland City Council—this afternoon—is debating some form of a street fee—a way to raise millions meant to ease the city's nearly billion-dollar, 10-year backlog of road maintenance.

And for the third time in 13 years, Portlanders from all kinds of backgrounds and political stripes—business owners, lobbyists, social services advocates, etc.—seem to be decidedly angry about the prospect of having to cough up that money. Angry enough that this attempt could be doomed to the same fate as the other two, in 2001 and 2008.

Already, the plan put forward by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick just a week ago—$11.56 a month for most families, potentially thousands of dollars a year for businesses, city agencies, nonprofits, churches, and schools—has been cleaved into two. As announced earlier this morning, the residential fee will go forward next month to a council vote. The nonresidential fee will wait until at least November to be further refined.

But that news doesn't seem to have immediately cooled hot feelings. The hearing started at 2, and the council chambers are packed.

"The hard truth is we've got to pay for our own stuff," Hales said in forceful remarks that kicked things off. "We've got to start now. And we've got to do that for a long time."

The mayor gave us a look back to 1993, the last time Congress raised the gas tax (without indexing to inflation)—the main mechanism, without a street fee, for funding the city's transportation needs. He listed the 28 other Oregon cities who've raised their own revenues. And he said he regrets the reason Portland is even having this conversation, and offered his sympathies.

"We all wish we weren't here today having this discussion," he said. "We don't like the idea of one more fee. We don't like the idea of raising the cost of living for families who've gotten through tis recession or who are in many cases still hurting."

Novick, the city's transportation commissioner, followed him, talking about the $91 million a year the city needs to spend just to catch up on its deferred maintenance. (That's up from $75 million, a number supplied n in a stinging city audit last year.) He said he worried none of the possible alternatives proposed would be any more popular.

"This is the kind of issue where politicians lose elections," Novick says. "I'd rather solve these problems and lose the next election than not solve them."

Then came Dan Saltzman, who supports the interest in solving the problem—just not the method. He wants to go to voters directly. He won applause.

"I do want to state unequivocally I can't support enactment of the street fee," he said. "I can only support a public vote for a street fee."

Stay tuned and hit the jump. PBOT director Leah Treat is up now.

Continue reading »

Novick Offers November Deadline to Firm Up Street Fee for Businesses

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, May 29, 2014 at 12:05 PM

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  • illustration by shawn dicriscio
Commissioner Steve Novick announced this morning he supports Mayor Charlie Hales' plan to split up their proposed "transportation user fee"—moving forward on an $11.56 monthly fee for most homeowners, but pulling back on a fee for businesses—but with a pledge to scrap the whole idea if both pieces aren't in place by November 14.

The slowdown follows a swift and apoplectic backlash among business owners in the week since the road maintenance and safety fee was formally announced last Thursday. Opposition from big business lobbyists, like the Portland Business Alliance, was expected. But far more surprising was fury from small businesses and nonprofits, some of whom faced the possibility of paying thousands of dollars a year. In all, the fee could raise up to $50 million a year.

Beyond the obvious sticker shock, many complained the city's fee calculators for helping businesses estimate monthly payment, based on how many trips generated, were imprecise and opaque—and even altogether flawed. That sustained outcry, coming in wave after wave of calls and emails, resonated with the mayor and Novick, forcing their hand just hours before a public hearing on the proposal at 2 this afternoon.

The proposed pullback was first reported last night by Willamette Week. Looming over all of this is the serious fear opponents of the fee will be seriously motivated try to refer it to the ballot. Mollifying the business community and prolonging the debate seems to be a good way to sap some of that energy.

"This does not mean that we are planning to have a fee for residents but no fee for businesses," Novick says in his announcement today. "In fact, we are putting language in the residential fee ordinance that says that if the council does not pass a nonresidential fee by this November, the residential fee will be cancelled. Both residential and nonresidential users would start paying as of July 2015. But we do think there is reason to do more work on the business/nonresidential fee."

According to the Oregonian this morning, the plan to split the street fee will pass muster with Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the swing vote Novick and Hales need to put their plan in place. Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish have already said they'd prefer to immediately go to voters.

Novick's statement got into the weeds of the debate over the business/nonresidential fee, in an attempt to shed some light on the city's thinking. He repeated that the city is building from the Institute of Traffic Engineers’ “trip generation” model. And he said the formula used this year resembled the one used by then-Commissioner Sam Adams in 2007. Adams' street fee plan wasn't targeted by small businesses—political skullduggery by then-Mayor Tom Potter and opposition from the Oregon Petroleum Association helped doom it instead.

But Novick acknowledged that Portland's calculations based on those rules are different from those used in other cities, including Oregon City, which already charges homeowners $11.56 a month.

Over the past week, however, reading numerous emails from small business owners, it became clear to me that many business owners were not part of that 2007 process, and have a lot of questions. Some are not sure which of the ITE categories they fit into; some question the fairness of applying the ITE model to their particular business. And it wasn’t just business owners; religious organizations and other property owners have concerns about the application of the ITE model.

We still believe that the ITE manual is an appropriate basis for computing nonresidential fees. But again, other cities have developed variations on how to use the ITE. We think it is appropriate to take a few months to give business owners and other nonresidential parties who may not have been involved in the 2007 process to ask questions about and help shape our particular formulation.

So, the Mayor’s and my plan is to move forward with a vote on a residential fee, and set a deadline of November 14, 2014 for the City Council to pass a nonresidential fee. Both fees would take effect as of July 1, 2015. If Council does not pass a nonresidential fee by November 14, the residential fee would be cancelled.

Stay tuned this afternoon. We'll have updates from what's looking to be a packed, raucous hearing—late changes notwithstanding.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Do You Think of Google's Self-Driving Car?

Posted by Paul Constant on Wed, May 28, 2014 at 10:14 AM

Yesterday, Google released a video of its new self-driving car design. The car has no steering wheel or pedals, it seats two, and it's powered by an electric motor.

I'm on the record as being a big fan of these cars. I think they'll forever change the idea of car ownership and transportation in America. But what do you think?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

It's Not A "Street Fee." It's a "Transportation Utility Fee." Here's What it Looks Like.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, May 22, 2014 at 11:40 AM

Mayor Charlie Hales makes his pitch. Others squint into the accursed sun.
  • Mayor Charlie Hales makes his pitch. Others squint into the accursed sun.

If you read the Mercury's post from earlier this morning, you already know a lot about the fee Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick will propose to city council next week.

As described this morning— on a sun-kissed knoll in SE Portland and with a backdrop of police officials, business owners, active transportation types and various dignitaries— it's now officially being called a "transportation user fee," or TUF. And Hales and Novick say they've got the votes to put it into place in July 2015. (Denis wrote this week that Amanda Fritz is looking like the crucial third vote.)

As the Mercury was first to report yesterday, the proposal involves an $11.56 monthly fee on single-occupancy households, with a $8.09 monthly charge to low-income households. There's also a fee of $6.79 per month for households in apartment and condo complexes (with a corresponding $4.75 charge for low-income households). And businesses, other governments, nonprofit associations and, as the Oregonian first pointed out, even other city bureaus would be assessed a fee based on the trips they generate. Here's a calculator the city is urging people to use.

Singled out for not having to pay the fee? Parking lots, which the ordinance says "are not associated with services other than parking" and "do not generate traffic themselves."


PBOT's official handout on the fee says it will average about $40 million a year over the first five years, but Novick says that's a very conservative estimate, relying on a sort-of abysmal collection rate. He hopes the real number will be closer to $50 million a year.

That $10 million gap in certainty comes from the fact the proposal doesn't have any collection mechanism attached to it. Novick says everyone's "agnostic" at this point. But he and Hales both noted in the press conference how efficiently the city collects money via utility bills—which are roughly 98 percent effective, they said, compared to the much less successful arts tax collection. And the ordinance they've written is explicit that the proposal is a "utility fee," with "utility customers" on the hook to pay. So even though Novick's been up-front in recent months that attaching the fee to water/sewer bills was anathema to many Portlanders, it's clearly still a possibility.

"That will be part of a conversation that will extend beyond the next couple of weeks," he said.

Continue reading »

The Best Airport Bar in the World

Posted by MJ Skegg on Thu, May 22, 2014 at 9:59 AM

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The search for good food and drink at an airport is usually a tale of woe and misery: tacky bars with uninspired tap lists, crowded and overpriced restaurants—generally chains—that you would never walk in to if it wasn’t for the fact that you’re stuck in a rotten concourse with no place to sit. (O’Hare, LAX and Dulles step forward for your prize.)

Fortunately Portland has an ace airport—PDX is frequently ranked among the nation’s best—and offers excellent local eateries and drink spots from the likes of Laurelwood Brewery, Rogue Ales, Rose’s Bakery, Petite Provence, Gustav’s and a recently opened Burgerville.

And then there’s Beaches. A tropical-themed bar complete with palm trees, fire pit, and a beach (natch). It must have taken some kind of genius to put that in a Pac NW airport. (What? No logs, no checked shirts, no hipster servers?) But somehow it works, with its two happy hours a day, mimosas served with breakfast from 5am, mild reggae covers playing non-stop and super-friendly staff. It’s perfect whether you’re headed to the beach (great, get the party started) or stepped off the Oakland commuter flight (Jesus, I need a drink). Perhaps being such an anomaly—it’s so unlike the Portland blueprint—is what makes it a great airport bar. A place neither here nor there.

Best of all, it’s available to rent—what better place to have a party than at the airport? You’re always guaranteed a taxi home. Beaches, PDX, 5 am-11 pm

Is This the New "Street Fee" Proposal?

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, May 22, 2014 at 8:00 AM

Remember yesterday, when we said a PBOT draft document indicates Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick will propose a $11.56 per month street fee? It's still too early to say whether that will indeed be the number. Hales and Novick will formally unveil their proposal at 9 am. But here are some shots of the document we were talking about to give you a sense—or maybe an exact picture—of what's coming.

Of note in this draft: Even though it doesn't suggest a $12 fee—and would generate something like $13 million less a year than the $12 formula PBOT had talked about—it hews to the same spending ratio: 53 percent for street maintenance, 44 percent to safety initiatives, 3 percent for other stuff. Under the $8 per month ratio PBOT had also come up with, safety improvements got a smaller piece of the pie.

We'll update when we know more.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Document Suggests Street Fee Proposal Will be $11.56 Per Month

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 2:42 PM

Well, we've confirmed, through an earlier misunderstanding, that Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick won't be proposing a $12 monthly "street fee" on households tomorrow. But now it looks like it'll be close enough.

Information from a document obtained by the Mercury suggests the proposal unveiled at a Thursday press conference will involve a $11.56 per month fee on single-family households, and $8.09 a month on low income households. Units in multi-family buildings, the document said, would be charged $6.79 per month ($4.75 for low income households). Not much more is clear about the proposal—including how much the fee structure would raise for Portland transportation funding.

To date, officials have only discussed fees of $8 or $12 per month for single family households, saying they would raise between $34 million and $53 million a year.

Chris Warner, chief of staff to transportation commissioner Novick, would neither confirm nor deny the newly obtained figures, saying an announcement will wait until tomorrow.

Update, 4:25 pm: Looks like the "street fee" proposal, as it will be proposed, would raise about $40 million a year for the first five years, well under PBOT's $53 million a year estimate for a $12 fee. It's possible that indicates a modified fee structure for businesses and local governments, but that's not clear right now.

Mercury News Editor Denis C. Theriault contributed to this report.

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Hales, Novick to Unveil $12 Monthly "Street Maintenance Fee" Proposal Tomorrow

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 12:00 PM

UPDATE: Chris Warner, chief of staff to Steve Novick, now tells the Mercury there was a misunderstanding in an earlier conversation. The street fee will not be $12, he says. Despite a conversation about the $12 mentioned in the fee sheet, Warner had meant to say only that the amount generally will be shared tomorrow. He's not saying what the amount is.

ANOTHER UPDATE: It now looks like the actual proposal will be $11.56 per month.

Original post:

To date, discussion around a potential "street maintenance fee" has centered around two options— an $8 monthly fee for households (with an attendant cost for businesses) or a $12 monthly fee. Mayor Charlie Hales and city Commissioner Steve Novick haven't indicated which they'll put before city council next week.

But the Mercury's learned Hales and Novick have settled on the $12 option. .

Chris Warner, Novick's chief of staff, confirms a $12 fee proposal will be announced tomorrow, with a discounted rate of $8 a month for low income households.

That's borne out by documents that the mayor and Novick have been circulating around town. The president of the St. John's Boosters is sharing a fee schedule he says the pair of officials gave him just yesterday. Here's the top of that document, dated May 14, which sets out the residential fees Hales and Novick have in mind.

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Check it out here and here.

"I attended a meeting with Mayor Hales and Commissioner Novick this morning to discuss the proposed 'street fee,'" Derek Shaw posted on a Facebook page for St. Johns residents. "Currently this decision is going to be made by the mayor and council without a vote of the citizens. They are trying to move quickly (and quietly) to make a decision and may do so before the end of the month."

As Willamette Week reported yesterday, Hales and Novick plan to put a proposal before city council next week.

It's tough to say whether the fee structure for businesses presented on the new documents is different from one PBOT's handed out in recent weeks [PDF]. Businesses are classified differently in each. Warner says the document is only to give business owners an idea of the range they might pay. The city will unveil a fee calculator tomorrow that will offer a more-concrete notion.

"The important thing is the calculator," Warner says.

Continue reading »

The Petroleum Lobby's Eyeing the "Street Fee" Proposal. It Killed the Last One.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 10:14 AM

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  • Illustration by Shawn Dicriscio

By now, plenty of folks have weighed in on the "street maintenance fee," being pushed by Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales.

The pair, along with Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat, held a series of town hall events beginning in April, pitching citizens on a plan that would levy flat fees on households and businesses to shore up PBOT's hurting revenues.

So citizens have had their say. The city's business lobby had input, too, though through less public channels.

But there's a voice that's not been part of the discussion: The state oil lobby, which killed Portland's last legitimate shot at a street fee.

Those folks are watching the current debate, their chief lobbyist tells the Mercury, and weighing whether to take up the fight against a fee once more. If they do, it's possible the street fee proposal could, once again, die on the vine.

In many ways, the current debate is a near-perfect replica of the one Portland had seven years ago. Back in 2007 and 2008, then-Commissioner (and mayoral candidate) Sam Adams arranged various city stakeholders around a plan he called Safe, Sound and Green Streets. The 15-year, $454 million proposal wasn't exactly like the one Novick and Hales are pushing, but it was close.

And Adams' plan involved more public process and stronger support. While digging through the Mercury archives (well, this one filing cabinet that's in the office that past reporters used and never purged) we came across old polling numbers from David, Hibbitts & Midghall, the same firm that recently carried out telephone surveys around the current street fee proposal.

Continue reading »

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Also Paying Novick and Hales' Street Fee? City Bureaus

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Tue, May 20, 2014 at 4:28 PM

The list of people or agencies expected to pitch in for a proposed (and controversial) Portland street fee is already pretty comprehensive: Homeowners, businesses, and other local governments—all of whom use the city's roads and would face potentially big bills for the privilege of bringing those roads back up to snuff.

But they're not the only ones who will be forced to dip into their pocketbooks. City Commissioner Steve Novick— transportation commissioner and a leader of the street fee push alongside Mayor Charlie Hales—tells the Mercury that the city's own bureaus also will be sent a bill.

"The city bureaus themselves would pay the street fee," Novick says.

It's unclear how much the city will pay itself overall. But the amount, especially for major road users like the city's utility, parks, fire, and police bureaus, could amount to an immodest hit that would come at the expense of other programs already budgeted.

The parks bureau alone is facing a $60,000 to $90,000 annual bill, the only estimated bill Novick said he had time to provide this afternoon.

Maybe that's a big deal. But maybe it's not. Presumably bureau directors and city commissioners have been briefed on the payments—especially since Novick and Hales, as Willamette Week reported today, are moving forward on approval of a street fee ($8 or $12 a month for homeowners, no matter how wealthy) as soon as next week. (Nothing will be assessed until July 2015).

But with all the sudden movement, and with news of a city payment dawning just as suddenly as news last week that partner governments will have to pony up (also first reported by WW), Novick and Hales may have to be careful. Lest they give critics two arguments: one on the merits of the regressive plan (which, yes, would raise money for a host of noble maintenance and safety projects) and one on process, a la fluoride.

Polling wasn't so hot on the street fee. But even still, Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman already think the council should directly refer a street fee to voters—in part because they think critics will put it on the ballot anyway, and if the city does it first, that will inoculate the council against accusations it's trying to rush something through.

As a side note, something you can read more about in my upcoming Hall Monitor column, all that leaves the city's current parks commissioner, Amanda Fritz, as something of a swing vote. Sources say Novick made sure to back a budget priority of Fritz's, full funding for enforcement of the city's tree regulations, in case it maybe helped nudge her into his camp.

Fritz says she's not so certain. Not yet.

“I'm waiting for the hearing to see what's proposed and what people say about it,” she says.

Novick tells me he knows Fritz doesn't make deals. Everybody knows.

"Sometimes it might make life easier if she did," Novick says. "But she doesn't."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Seattle's Bike Share Purchase Can Tell Us About Portland's Situation

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, May 8, 2014 at 5:17 PM

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  • Puget Sound Bike Share


UPDATE, Friday, 8:37 am: Holly Houser, of Puget Sound Bike Share, writes to correct my calculations. She clarifies that the $2.7 million figure for bike share she gave me includes $265,500 in sales tax, which she points out changes this whole scenario.

Houser says: "That said, if you do the math, the total cost for Portland’s equipment would actually come in at $3,665,250 – a mere $20,667 more than what was quoted in their contract with Alta and actually $24,323 less if you factor in the 7-speed upgrade."

In light of that information, I've changed the headline on this post.

Original post:

News emerged Monday that Seattle's got a shiny new bike share system on its way in September. Who cares, right? Seattle can have its ocean vistas and bike share and plentiful mountains, and we'll be happy with all the things Portland's got going for it.

But Seattle's experience can also offer some insight into what's been a super-secretive process lately. Since the supplier Portland was counting on went bankrupt early this year, no one's even saying how much the 750-bike system we hope to buy might cost. Alta Bicycle Share, tapped to launch the program in Portland, is touting its own system—a partnership with Canadian parking meter company 8D Technologies—but the Portland Bureau of Transportation says we're considering all options.

Say for a second we did go with the Alta/8D equipment, like Seattle did. How much might that cost? PBOT won't offer up estimates, and even invited the Mercury to pay for a records request that was a single sheet of paper with all useful information blacked out.

And Puget Sound Bike Share, the organization that will manage the Seattle's Pronto! system, is being cagey, too. Executive Director Holly Houser said she couldn't give the cost of the docking stations, or of the bikes Seattle purchased to fit into them. Houser was able to offer the total cost of equipment for the system, though. Fifty docking stations and 500 bikes cost $2.7 million.

Portland hopes to buy 75 stations and 750 bikes. If we got the same basic deal Seattle did, our equipment for the system would cost a little over $4 million—roughly $400,000 more than the cost of basic equipment assumed in Portland's contract with Alta (and about $200,000 more expensive if we wanted the deluxe bikes).

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Much of the system, when we get it, will be paid for in sponsorships and user fees. There's not currently any plan to use city funds on bike share, though officials are toying with idea of fronting the system money while sponsorship cash trickles in.

PBOT has yet to announce any sponsorship deals, and is still considering its options for equipment to buy, spokesman Dylan Rivera said this morning.

"We've known that Seattle might launch this fall and that’s great," Rivera said. "We’re looking forward to continuing to learn from them."

City Hall's Flogging A "Street Fee" Poll. Is It Any Good?

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, May 8, 2014 at 1:29 PM

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  • Shawn Dicriscio

In this week's issue, we take a look at the latest proposal for shoring up Portland's transportation finances. For months, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick have been beating the drum for a "street maintenance fee"—a monthly amount households and businesses would pay into a special pot, that would then be used on road maintenance (most of the money) and safety projects (less of the money).

The notion of the street fee has people torn. Even those who really want to see the Portland Bureau of Transportation get more money are sort of disgusted by the fee mechanism. That's because it's regressive, assigning the same charge ($8 or $12) to households regardless of income (though there is a low-income discount). Even Novick says he's holding his nose over the fee idea.

So it's worth asking: Where did the fee idea come from?

The most immediate answer is: People like it best! That's been Novick's argument, and he's got some numbers to back it up. In late March, PBOT paid $28,000 for a poll of 800 Portland voters, gauging how likely they'd be to support a street fee. The pollsters described all the bells and whistles the fee would help pay for—sidewalks, paving, crosswalks—and offered up options for how it might be collected.

Then, at the VERY end, polling firm DHM Research tacked on mention of six other possible funding mechanisms: a sales tax or income tax increase, for instance. According to the survey: between 51 and 52 percent of respondents said they'd support a monthly fee of $8 or $12. Between 50 and 70 percent of respondents signaled they'd be less likely to support the tax options.

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  • DHM Research

Surprise! People liked the street fee, which they'd just been questioned about at length, more than the tax options mentioned as an afterthought.

The Mercury wanted to figure out if that process was flawed. Wouldn't the survey ALWAYS favor a street fee, given that design? So we asked around.

Continue reading »

Friday, May 2, 2014

ODOT Bought a Mess of Bike Route Data: Is that Helpful or Worrisome?

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 11:59 AM

BikePortland had an interesting scoop yesterday about how the Oregon Department of Transportation is the first in the nation to purchase data from the people behind the popular cycling/running mapping app Strava. The idea is that the state can use route data to better understand how people are using the transportation system and plan accordingly.

From bikeportland.org's Jonathan Maus:

If all goes according to plan, the data could revolutionize how ODOT makes decisions about their policies, plans, and projects. At the very least, forging boldly into the realm of "big data" and pushing the boundaries of bicycle planning marks an important step for an agency that's facing a very different future and actively looking to shed its old-school, highway-first reputation.

It's an intriguing, creative notion, and probably far cheaper than the state spearheading a project to gather its own GPS data. But the Strava buy has created a fierce debate online, with some advocates leery or upset by ODOT's move. They point out Strava is largely targeted at athletes, who can test themselves against other riders' speed on a specific stretch of road. The data, then, might not reflect how everyday riders use the transportation system.

What's more, critics point out there are potential inequities at play, given the barriers to smart phones that run the Strava app. Twitter is twittering away with calls for ODOT to treat the new ride data skeptically. Much of that discussion, on my feed anyway, is coming from Portland advocate/writer Elly Blue.

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