Build a broad coalition, with strong leadership. Have a clear vision. Think big – and be bold.
Over and over again, a group of community leaders from all over greater Portland heard those messages Friday, at the second of five “regional leadership forums” setting an agenda for a major update of the region’s long-range transportation vision.
The forum at the Oregon Convention Center was part of an effort to raise awareness about greater Portland's transportation challenges and how they might be addressed. Attendees included the Metro Council, elected leaders on the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation and Metropolitan Policy Advisory Committee, and dozens of community representatives, labor and business leaders and local agency staff.
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At the first forum in the series in April, leaders outlined a range of big trends, challenges and opportunities for the future of the region's transportation system. On Friday, leaders gathered again to discuss two topics: What other places' experiences with transportation funding tell greater Portland, and the opportunities and risks presented by integrating emerging technology with transportation.
The forum opened with a warning from keynote speaker Cyreena Boston Ashby, chief operating officer of the Oregon Public Health Institute, who highlighted a "sense of worry" she hears in the community.
"For folks from different walks of life, from different income levels, and different parts of the region, if there isn't a way for them to remain connected and a way for the transportation system to be efficient, they really fear for their future," Ashby said.
"Fortune favors the bold"
Greater Portland's sense of worry isn't unique. Other cities and metropolitan areas have seen it too, and some are taking action.
The forum heard from veterans of transportation funding campaigns in three of these places. They spoke from a place of hard-won experience, of both failure and success – and they urged leaders not to shy away from the challenge.
“Fortune favors the bold,” declared Denny Zane, a former mayor of Santa Monica who has unwaveringly led the charge for transportation funding in Los Angeles County for nearly a decade.
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Learn more about the three transportation funding campaigns the panelists discussed:
Zane co-founded an organization, Move LA, that convinced voters to approve a $30 billion transportation measure in 2008. A 2012 measure missed the required two-thirds majority by a half-percentage point.
Undeterred, Move LA is returning with an even bigger measure this year, which could raise $800 million a year indefinitely through a half-cent sales tax. Combined with the 2008 measure, it could raise up to $120 billion over 30 years. The funds will go to a massive expansion of the county's light rail system, bus operations, highway improvements, biking and walking projects and programs to help seniors and students have access to transit.
Then there’s Alameda County, Calif., home to a fifth of the Bay Area’s population – “and 40 percent of its congestion,” according to Tess Lengyel, deputy director of planning for the county’s transportation planning agency.
The county fell just 700 votes shy of two-thirds voter approval for a 2012 sales tax measure, then returned just two years later to succeed overwhelmingly with a half-cent sales tax increase that will ramp up to one cent by in 2022. Now the measure is helping pay for a major Bay Area Rapid Transit extension, smarter freeway management, active transportation, student transit passes and safe routes to school programs.
And Seattle, choked by congestion and deteriorating streets, stepped up to pass a 9-year, $930 million property tax levy in 2015, overcoming an aggressive “no” campaign.
“It’s never over until it’s over,” said Barbara Gray, deputy director of the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Seattle will use its levy to pay for seven new bus rapid transit lines, more than 100 miles of bikeways, 250 blocks of sidewalks, 16 bridge retrofits and repaving more than 180 miles of arterial roads, among other improvements, according to a campaign website from 2015.
Each speaker highlighted similar themes, and brought a touch of foreboding as well: Portland has long been an inspiration, they said, for being ahead of the country on public transit and active transportation and for fighting the sprawl that contributes to clogged freeways.
But that celebrated status is looking somewhat shaky as the region grows and roads and transit are both overburdened. Meanwhile, available funding at every level – federal, state, regional and local – falls far short of needs even to maintain existing infrastructure, let alone serve new demand.
So what are the ingredients in a successful recipe for reversing these trends?
One key message from the panel: Build your coalition early, build it big and keep it together.
Gray said that in Seattle's experience, building a broad coalition helped leaders find a bigger appetite than they'd expected for big investments.
"What we heard from the community is that they wanted more of what we were talking about, and they wanted to increase the size of the investment," she said.
Coalition-building isn't always easy, but it's worth it, added Alameda County's Lengyel.
"It's a lot of gritty work and you're going to have these clashes," she said. "That's normal and good, because that's where the creativity comes and the dialogue comes. You have to find the ability to keep talking in different ways."
In Los Angeles, a shared sense of urgency helped hold a unique coalition together, Zane said, sharing part of a video of how Move LA built its coalition.
“Everyone had some sense that there was a shared crisis and everyone had a sense that the solution would benefit their communities in some specific way,” Zane said.
Zane described bring labor and environmental leaders to meet with business leaders at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. Several commented that they’d never been to the chamber before, a sentiment repeated in reverse when Zane brought business leaders to meet with labor leaders later.
“They really had no relationship. The relationship was voiced by press releases and such,” Zane said. “One of the greatest things we did was to bring them together.”
Coalitions need strong leadership, and leaders need strong coalitions, the panelists said.
“This is really a story about courage,” Lengyel said, noting it’s especially hard for elected officials to return from defeat to ask voters again for support. But, she said, that courage was made possible by the fact that the vision itself was shaped by community.
“Victory requires that kind of coalition. That kind of coalition requires leadership,” Zane said. “There is no success without leadership. Leadership is fundamental.” He praised Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for their leadership.
Gray agreed. "Local leadership was essential" in Seattle, she said. "The mayor was all in. City Council members were all engaged." She added that numerous community groups and transportation advocacy groups had played a key role in connecting their members to the campaign.
Equitable vision – and action
Opening the forum, keynote speaker Ashby described growing up taking transit around the Portland region in her Gresham and East Portland childhood.
The experiences, she said, opened her eyes to a world of needs in the transportation system – and to the people that are simultaneously most dependent and least influential on transportation decisions.
"There are people who are not in rooms like this who depend on the conversation," Ashby said.
All three panelists emphasized the important role of building an equitable funding and investment strategy early on – while encouraging everyone at the table to work hard to build support.
“It's messy but worth it,” Lengyel said. “You need to start with the endgame in sight at the beginning with who's at the table…There are different ways they have to contribute, there's money and there's feet and there's voices.”
“Coalitions that assert themselves and demand equity and demand investment, that's what makes it succeed,” Zane added.
But how investments are delivered provides the ultimate test, Lengyel added.
“You can create a plan, but you have to deliver on promises,” she said. To make sure they do, Alameda County has an independent review committee that answers directly to the public on where funding dollars go. Los Angeles and Seattle have similar bodies.
December discussion will dig deeper
In discussion afterward, leaders seemed to agree that there is a crisis afoot for greater Portland's transportation system – and that lessons from elsewhere can help inform what strategies the region should take to solve it.
"If we are really going to solve congestion, if we're really going to solve equity issues around transportation, we're going to need to think a lot bigger. We're going to have to think a lot more creatively about what transportation can look like," said Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba.
"I'm hearing that we need to think bigger about the whole system, not just three or five projects," said Metro Councilor Bob Stacey. "We need to think longer, about how you build that system over 20 to 40 years, not just one cycle. And we need to think broader, about not solely the transportation infrastructure but also the equity component and maybe even housing."
At the next leadership forum on Dec. 2, leaders will dig deeper into just what those strategies might look like – and how to build the coalitions that can make them succeed.
Technology panel also featured
A separate panel Friday explored the potential and pitfalls of counting on emerging technologies to rescue the transportation system.
Kris Carter, who helps lead a variety of innovative technology initiatives in the office of Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, said his city is bullish on the potential of autonomous vehicles to reduce deaths and injuries on roads, for instance.
Self-driving cars are risky, but Boston feels it's worthwhile to work on policy for them now, Carter said. "We think the risk is not being at the table and talking about this now," he said.
But he also cited a concern: The market on its own is unlikely to deliver helpful technology to everyone who needs it. He cited an example of Amazon Prime same-day delivery service not reaching Boston's most heavily Black neighborhoods, which required action from the City Council and community groups to reverse.
“Technology promises to be unbiased and democratic, and without intervention...that wouldn't happen,” Carter said.
Julie Wilcke, who leads Ride Connection, a paratransit service provider for seniors and people with disabilities, said her organization is cautiously optimistic about the future of technology for improving mobility.
"Information is power and being able to have that information and make decisions on your own is critical to autonomy," she said.
Leah Treat, director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, said her agency is also committed to applying smarter technology to improve safety and mobility, particularly in poorly-served parts of the city like East Portland. She shared a video of "Ubiquitous Mobility Portland", a proposal the city advanced for a recent federal "Smart City" transportation grant,. Although a finalist, Portland lost to Columbus for the grant. But Treat said the city is pressing on with a goal of providing technology to help people make better decisions about their transportation options.
"The more information people have, the better decisions they can make," Treat said, adding that government could be in a unique role to connect people to technology.
"There is a responsibility and an incumbency upon government to make sure it's available to people," she said.
Community representative Emily Lai, representing youth equity advocacy organization Momentum Alliance, noted that if the community is not involved in deciding how to integrate technology into the transportation system, lower-income people and communities of color could be left out of the benefits it might provide.
"Being part of the conversation is nice, but being part of making the solution and deciding on the solution is different," Lai said. "I think that's where the real power is."
Treat agreed. "If you don't do outreach and engagement at the ground level in the communities you're trying to help, you're not going to be effective," she said.