Do future residents of the Portland metro area want to be packed into an increasing number of high-rise condominiums and infill residential developments, or would they prefer a variety of housing and workplace choices?
The Metro regional government is on its way toward answering that and other questions - and we are not completely comfortable with the direction being discussed so far.
In last Thursday's Portland Tribune, reporter Jim Redden outlined an emerging theme arising from Metro's current process to determine how an estimated 2 million or more new residents can be accommodated in the Portland-Vancouver region in the next five decades. And that theme can be summarized in one word: density.
Metro is close to completing a 'regional infrastructure analysis' that purports to show that the cost of building new sewer lines, roads, water systems and school buildings is higher than it would be to make use of existing systems to absorb new growth. This would seem to be an easy conclusion to reach - of course it's cheaper to use what we have than to build all new infrastructure.
But metro-area residents need to be wary of the end game here.
Suburban areas need investment, too
Allowing for suburban community growth is not the same as advocating for suburban sprawl. The region has planned carefully for development to occur in areas that have been added to the urban growth boundary in recent years - including Damascus, Gresham's Springwater and Pleasant Valley communities, the North Bethany area in Washington County and on Cooper Mountain at the edge of Beaverton.
But Metro officials rightly point out that such development requires massive investment in roads, sewers, water lines and schools. And at present, there are few sources of funding available for such infrastructure.
That's where the ongoing 'infrastructure analysis' would seem to come in handy. Preliminary results from this examination indicate it would be cheaper to capitalize on existing infrastructure, which in turn would mean more development along transit lines, more infill in established neighborhoods, more downtown Portland towers and greater concentration of growth in the central cores of suburban cities such as Gresham, Beaverton and Hillsboro.
In short, more density.
Look at what $5 billion buys
No one argues that the region shouldn't capitalize on existing infrastructure. But it is wrong to believe that future residential, commercial and industrial development in established city centers will not require additional, substantial public investment.
Just consider what's being planned for Portland to allow for regional growth: a new MAX line to Milwaukie, which will serve the South Waterfront area, at a cost of $1.2 billion; the Big Pipe sewer project, with a price of $1.4 billion; and the Portland streetcar extension, at a cost of $147 million.
Toss on top of that an estimated $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion to upgrade Portland's elementary and middle schools and another $422 million to fix Portland's decaying streets and you can begin to see that growth - no matter where it occurs - will require monumental investments in infrastructure. Just think what $5 billion could accomplish if dropped into the middle of Damascus.
As Metro's process moves forward, regional leaders ought not declare a preference for one type of growth over another - and they should not allow their economic analysis of infrastructure costs to morph into a single-minded political justification for more infill development.
The region requires a balanced plan for growth - one that includes both density and strategic investments in new suburban growth - to maintain livable, economically viable and complete communities.