Regional leaders failed to reach a final decision Thursday on how to spend $3 million in federal transportation money targeted for one of two safety projects in Gresham, in a spirited debate about whether local or regional priorities should have greater sway.
The remaining $3 million is the last piece of a larger pie that the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation and the Metro Council are allocating this year, but it would make a big difference for either long-awaited project.
On Thursday, JPACT was expected to throw its weight behind just one.
The last piece of a $130 million pie
The dollars at stake come from a variety of federal sources. The process is called “regional flexible funds” in the Portland metropolitan area, because JPACT and the Metro Council have some flexibility for deciding how to spend them. They typically do so every three years.
This time, about $130 million was available. Most of the funding goes to regional programs to expand high capacity transit, provide travel options education and improve the flow of the existing transportation system.
But about $33 million was reserved by JPACT and the Metro Council for specific projects that improve the movement of freight and people walking, bicycling and accessing transit in communities around greater Portland.
Local governments around the region submitted funding requests for projects last summer totaling well more than the money available. Regional leaders have said that’s unsurprising given the relatively small funding availability and high needs for improved safety and reliability all over greater Portland.
Last fall, thousands of members of the public provided comments on which projects they support, while a technical committee provided scores for each project and local officials around the region selected their priority projects.
Those comments, scores and local priorities, along with regional policy directions approved by JPACT and the Metro Council last spring, are meant to help regional leaders decide which projects will receive funding.
Last month, JPACT, whose members include local and agency leaders from throughout greater Portland, recommended $30 million for 12 projects around the region.
The Metro Council approved that recommendation on Feb. 2.
A tale of two projects: What's the greater of two goods?
But the decision on how to spend the final $3 million has proved more difficult.
An advisory committee of technical staff agreed in December that the money should go to one of two projects in Gresham, but was unable to decide between the two based on technical scores and public comment. They suggested it was a decision best put to regional elected leaders at JPACT and the Metro Council.
Learn about the projects
Two projects are under consideration for the final $3 million in regional flexible funds. Both are in Gresham, and both would provide safer places to walk and bike.
For more information about the proposed projects, read the applications submitted last year by Gresham planners.
Last month, JPACT too postponed the decision between the Gresham projects, seeking more time for debate.
One contender would fill significant sidewalk and bike lane gaps on a half-mile stretch of Division Street in western Gresham. Division is infamous for crashes and is the future route of TriMet’s first high-capacity bus service, the Division Transit Project. The sidewalks and bike lanes would extend from Birdsdale Avenue to Wallula Avenue in Gresham.
The other project would complete sidewalks and bike lanes on a half-mile stretch of Cleveland Avenue, a neighborhood collector linking downtown Gresham to the Gresham Vista Business Park, where neighbors say they’ve been waiting for 40 years to stop walking on a narrow shoulder as traffic increases.
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis and his fellow local elected leaders from East Multnomah County have said they want the federal dollars to go to the Cleveland project. But regional leaders and some local elected leaders from other parts of greater Portland have said the Division Street project is of greater regional significance and thus a better use of limited federal money allocated at the regional table. The Division Street project received more supportive comments during a public comment period last fall, but had a lower technical ranking than the Cleveland project.
It’s clear that either project has strong public support and would benefit people who live, work and go to school nearby.
Nearly a dozen people came through the rain in the early morning hours Thursday to testify in favor of their preferred project.
Among those testifying in support of the Cleveland Avenue project were mayors of Fairview, Wood Village and Milwaukie; Gresham-Barlow School Board Member John Hartsock; a board member and parent at a public charter school on Cleveland Avenue; and a representative of the East Metro Economic Alliance and East Metro Association of Realtors.
“We deserve these long-awaited, overdue sidewalks,” said North Central neighborhood president Maggie Anderson, noting she was tired of seeing schoolchildren and people in wheelchairs in Cleveland Avenue's traffic lanes, which she said is seeing more traffic as Gresham grows. “This has been an ongoing topic of concern.”
Among those speaking in favor of the Division Street project were a pastor; student; several transit riders; and the deputy director of OPAL Environmental Justice, Vivian Satterfield, who said completing sidewalks on Division was a key reason her organization supported the Division Transit Project.
“Every day I thank God I still have five children,” said John Bildsoe, vice president of the Gresham Coalition of Neighborhoods, who lives near the proposed Division project. “Because it is so much more dangerous on Division.”
Gresham mayor, others argue for local priority
But debating the merits of each project took a back seat Thursday to a more fundamental question: When there’s not enough money for every good project, should regional or local priorities have greater weight?
Although a committee of local leaders from east Multnomah County leaders had earlier sought to advance both projects as local priorities, they ultimately decided unanimously to support the Cleveland project last month. Several local leaders present argued that decision ought to be the guiding principle for JPACT's recommendation.
“I think when East County has a unanimous vote, we ought to honor that. That’s what it’s really about,” said Fairview Mayor Ted Tosterud, who is not a member of JPACT but spoke during public testimony.
“All of the mayors – Troutdale, Wood Village, Fairview and Gresham – support the Cleveland Street (project),” he added.
Tosterud’s position was echoed by several JPACT members, including Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp and Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas.
Making that point most forcefully, however, was Gresham’s mayor.
Although Bemis said Gresham believes both Division and Cleveland need upgrades, city leaders think Cleveland’s needs are more urgent. The city has already committed $3 million of its own money for half the Cleveland project which Bemis said was “shovel-ready”, while the Division project needs more engineering work.
He presented a list of statistics that he said demonstrate the Cleveland project would serve a higher-need population and address a more important safety concern, noting that it ranked higher under Metro’s technical analysis than the Division Street project and several projects in other cities that received funding. While he conceded that Cleveland is classified as a less-important street in the region's road network, he said it ought to be considered regionally significant because it connects the Port of Portland’s growing Gresham Vista Business Park to downtown Gresham and the Gresham Transit Center.
“I ask all of you to support Cleveland and allow my community to speak for itself and understand what is best,” Bemis said.
Other leaders: Regional decisions should reflect shared priorities
But several other JPACT members rejected the notion that the regional decision-making body ought to just rubber-stamp local priorities when spending regionally-allocated dollars.
Metro Councilor and JPACT chair Craig Dirksen said doing so could even violate federal rules about how the dollars are supposed to be spent – because it would essentially transfer decision-making authority from the federally-recognized regional body to local governments.
“We have…a long tradition of trying to act as a region, trying to establish a regional perspective on transportation and land use, and then to achieve that through coordinated decision-making and by developing plans and selecting programs and projects that implement that regional vision,” said Metro Councilor Bob Stacey.
Stacey pointed out that Division outweighs Cleveland in almost every measure of regional significance, including transit service, particularly access to stations on the future Division Transit Project, which is expected to get a $100 million federal grant; its number of fatal crashes, with two pedestrian deaths per mile; its designation as a regional arterial, bikeway and pedestrian route; and the opportunity to serve more people.
“These differences in classification and opportunity are the reasons I believe Division is a better choice,” Stacey said.
Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman agreed with Stacey. Saltzman expressed respect for the views of local leaders from Gresham and other cities, but said JPACT ought to apply its own “regional filter” when making funding decisions. And the poor state of safety on Division Street elevates it to higher regional significance, he said.
“Division Street is not a high crash corridor. It’s a death corridor,” Saltzman said. “We are losing too many people there.”
Kelly Brooks, Region 1 policy and development manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation, said her agency also respects the input of local jurisdictions, but that regional needs may outweigh them in this case.
“We believe it’s consistent with how we’ve participated in this process to make sure that we are supporting projects that achieve the greatest outcome for the greatest number of users, have the greatest safety impact and importantly, are leveraging other resources to make these larger regionally significant projects whole,” she said, referring to the Division Transit Project.
But Bemis responded that the Cleveland project ranked higher in technical scoring than some projects already approved by JPACT. He said Gresham’s projects are being disproportionately scrutinized.
“Somehow our project is held out under this process and there’s a different set of analysis that wants to be used for it. That’s patently unfair,” he said.
Cleveland fails to gain enough support, but question still open
After nearly an hour of debate, the vote on whether to approve Cleveland Avenue came down to hands raised.
JPACT bylaws require a majority of members present to approve a motion. With 17 members present, Cleveland Avenue needed nine yes votes to be JPACT’s official recommendation. It received just seven. Five JPACT members voted no, while four abstained. (As chair, Dirksen only votes in case of a tie.)
But that vote did not close the book on the debate.
Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers, acknowledging concerns raised by Bemis, moved to defer a final decision to a future JPACT meeting, so that members can more fully consider each project’s technical analysis before making a final call about whether to approve Division Street for funding. His motion received near-unanimous support; as a result, the issue could be debated again as soon as Thursday, March 16, when JPACT next meets.
Whatever JPACT ultimately decides, the Metro Council will then decide whether to approve the recommendation.
Explore the streets
Explore the two streets below via Google Street View:
Cleveland Street, between Stark Street and Burnside Road
Division Street, between Birdsdale Avenue and Wallula Avenue