Growth guru comes to town

Critic of light rail asks transit fans to look at the numbers
by: , Wendell Cox, a nationally known skeptic and principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, is scheduled to speak at an Executive Club meeting Wednesday.

Portland-area politicians are quick to praise the region's land-use planning efforts as a national model for sustainable living.

From the Metro Council to the Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission, regional elected officials credit the urban growth boundary, high-density development and mass transit systems with saving farmland and encouraging people to live near where they work, shop and play.

A small but vocal group of critics argues otherwise, however. Through local think tanks, Internet sites and homegrown publications, they argue that smart growth causes more problems than it solves - including increasing both home prices and congestion.

'Smart growth is a fraud. It doesn't work but everyone is being forced to pay for it,' said Craig Flynn, a local maintenance man who unsuccessfully ran for the Metro Council several years ago.

Now the Executive Club, a social organization founded by conservative tax-limitation advocate Don McIntire, is bringing a nationally known skeptic to town.

Wendell Cox will speak to the group at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Shilo Inn Suites Hotel, 11707 N.E. Airport Way. It is free and open to the public, although there is a charge for those who order dinner.

Cox is the principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy, an international public policy firm based in St. Louis and the editor of three Web sites, Demographia, The Public Purpose and Rental Car Tours, which urges travelers to rent cars and avoid traditional tourist tours.

He also serves as a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank that describes itself as a free-market advocate.

'Planning is a religion in Portland. Metro sends missionaries around the world spreading the message, which is false,' Cox told the Portland Tribune.

Cox grew up in Hillsboro before moving to Los Angeles, where he originally championed light rail as a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. Cox said he changed his mind after realizing that light rail in Portland and other cities does not carry enough people to make a difference.

'If everyone worked downtown, maybe you could devise a system that significantly reduced congestion. But most people don't work downtown. They work all over the region, and transit doesn't work for them,' said Cox, who advocates eliminating the urban growth boundary and building more roads to serve outlying areas.

Flynn calls Cox an expert on the unintended consequences of smart growth policies. Others are not so kind, however.

According to Mary Kyle McCurdy, staff attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon, numerous national, state and regional studies show no direct link between land management and housing costs.

'Portland still has some of the most affordable housing on the West Coast,' said McCurdy, whose organization supports the urban growth boundary and other existing land-use policies.

When Cox spoke against a planned light-rail project in Austin, Texas, local transit advocates accused him of being a 'hired gun' for the automobile and freeway construction industries, citing his work for the American Highway Users Alliance, a lobbying group founded in the 1930s by General Motors and other motor vehicle and freeway-related groups.

Cox does not deny that he has worked for such organizations. But he insists that their money has not influenced his views.

'I find the question insulting. I am only interested in the truth, which I find lacking in most land-use planning discussions,' he said.

When Cox speaks at the Executive Club gathering Wednesday, he plans to echo the local criticisms, arguing that decades of regional land-use planning is driving up home prices and increasing congestion on freeways and roads.

As Cox sees it, the urban growth boundary that restricts the area where development may occur has artificially increased the price of land, adding to home costs.

At the same time, Cox believes the regional emphasis on mass transit has taken money away from road projects, despite the fact that the vast majority of area residents travel by car.

'Portland is already one of the most expensive, most congested cities of its size in the world - and it's only going to get worse if the current (land use) policies continue,' he said.

Cox and the local critics are especially upset at what they see as the disparity between how many people ride transit and the amount of transportation funding dollars it consumes.

According to TriMet, the MAX light-rail system carries 26 percent of all afternoon rush-hour commuters traveling from downtown through the Sunset Highway or Interstate 84 corridors. But the critics point out that the percentage is far lower if workers in the entire Portland metropolitan area is considered, not just downtown.

According to figures compiled by Metro, 6.75 percent of all direct work-related trips in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Clark counties were made by transit in 2005, the most recent year for which such figures are available.

The numbers were even lower if all trips are considered - 3.36 percent.

In contrast, regional transportation agencies are planning to spend much greater percentages of their future Portland-area construction budgets on transit projects:

• Metro has asked the Oregon congressional delegation to secure $94.72 million in federal funds for Regional Transit Priorities the next fiscal year, compared to only $15.5 million for Regional Highway Projects.

The requests were included in an annual resolution approved by the elected Metro Council on Feb. 1. Similar preferences for transit projects can be found in annual funding request resolutions dating back six years.

• The Oregon Department of Transportation anticipates spending 30 percent of its Statewide Transportation Improvement Budget on transit projects in the Portland area between 2006 and 2009, according to analysis done for Metro by the ECONorthwest consulting firm.

The analysis puts the transit figure at $342.8 million, compared to $391.5 million for freeway modernization, $159.8 million for bridge repair and $114.6 million for pavement preservation.

• The Portland Office of Transportation anticipates spending 26.4 percent of its Capital Improvement Budget on transit projects between 2007 and 2011, according to an Aug. 10, 2006, memo prepared for city Commissioner Sam Adams, who is in charge of the office.

Portland-area transit spending over the next few years may be higher than currently projected. Work on two major transit projects has accelerated since the Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 general election - the Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX light-rail line and the central east-side portion of the Portland streetcar loop.

Although transit advocates argue these projects will both help commuters and spur new development, the critics disagree.

'They take our taxes and tell us we'll save money and be better off down the road, but I haven't seen it happen yet,' Flynn said.

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