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Talk of 'Portland creep' comes home

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Regional leaders worry there is no enough money for the transit improvements needed to offset increasing congestion.Four years ago, anti-light rail activists in Clackamas County coined the term Portland Creep to describe the high density redevelopment they feared would accompany the Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX line.

Last week, Metro President Tom Hughes said some Portlanders are now beginning to push back against Portland Creep in their own neighborhoods as the city grows.

“There are two things Oregonians hate, sprawl and density,” Hughes told hundreds of transportation planners and consultants attending the 2016 International Conference of the Association for Commuter Transportation at the downtown Hilton Hotel.

Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick, who spoke with Hughes at the Wednesday morning opening session, agreed. He relayed personal stories about how his Multnomah Village neighbors in Southwest Portland are complaining to him about the density increases the City Council believes are required to help accommodate the additional 123,000 households expected by 2035.

“A lot of people say, we like things just the way they are,” Novick said.

As Novick explained it, he believes increased density will have multiple benefits for Multnomah Village, including better transit service and the kind of full-service grocery store it now lacks, all supported by the critical mass of people that will be reached over the next 20 years. But Novick conceded that a lot of the people he talks to aren’t buying it.

“These are tough conversations to have,” Novick told members and supporters of the association, which backs alternatives to single- occupancy vehicle commuting.

Also speaking to the gathering was TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, who talked about the greatest obstacle to providing the greater transit service that Novick thinks will help overcome the opposition to increased density — the lack of additional revenue. Although the TriMet Board of Directors increased the payroll tax that finances much of the agency’s operations last year, McFarlane said that Oregon does not have any state or local sales taxes, an important source of transit funding in much of the rest of the country.

Metro needs to do more

“We are cobbling the financing together for projects,” McFarlane said.

Hughes admitted that Metro, the elected regional government, has dropped the ball. Metro has long said the region needs an additional source of transportation and transit funding. But even though Metro convened a study group to propose alternatives several years ago, the effort lapsed without making any recommendations, and no new initiative is in the works.

“That’s a conversation we have to have,” Hughes said.

This leaves local governments struggling to finance their own alternative transportation projects. Novick was applauded when he said Portland voters approved his 10-cents per gallon gas tax for maintenance and safety projects at the May primary election. But Novick quickly conceded that was not nearly enough to meet the need, and said he is considering a fee on new development projects.

“We’re not there yet,” Novick said.

Lovefest for Portland planning

Despite the concerns, much of the opening session was spent praising the region’s commitment to alternative transportation, including its light rail, streetcar, bicycle and pedestrian systems.

Novick said that Portland leads the nation in the percentage of bicycle commuters and children who either bike or walk to school, and boasts the highest percentage of transit commuters after such cities with well-established subway systems like San Francisco and New York.

Hughes said since the Great Recession ended, developers have built much of the new housing in the region along transit lines.

And McFarlane said 78 percent of TriMet riders choose to ride the agency’s buses and trains instead of driving their own cars.

Growth challenges

But all three leaders admitted challenges to meeting the needs of the 400,000 additional people expected to move to the region by 2035.

Novick said to achieve the city’s climate change goals, far more people will need to rely on alternative transportation in the future. He said that by 2045, the number of residents routinely driving their own cars must be cut by more than half, from the current 57 percent to just 25 percent.

Hughes said Metro must do more to persuade people to live closer to where they work, a change he said is necessary to achieve a better jobs/housing balance.

“I don’t get it,” Hughes said of people who commute long distances — before admitting he lives in Hillsboro but works at the Metro headquarters building in inner Northeast Portland.

McFarlane said TriMet must balance the cost of maintaining an aging transit system with the investments required to expand it.

He said the first MAX line between Portland and Gresham is now 30 years old and it’s requiring repairs that occasionally disrupt service.

At the same time, he said planning for new and improved transit corridor service is underway.

Projects on the drawing boards that will require funding include the new MAX line being considered between Portland and Tualatin as part of the Southwest Corridor Project and the agency’s first Bus Rapid Transit line on Division Street between Portland and Gresham.