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Having received so much national acclaim for how well it plans transportation, the Portland region ought to be facing a better future than what actually is in store.

But the truth is that already-damaging congestion and other transportation problems will worsen unless the region gets smarter in how it discusses the issue and invests its limited dollars.

In today's edition of Times newspapers, we examine the future of transportation in the latest edition of ReThinking Portland. Here's what we already know: In the next 20 or so years, more than 1 million people will move here. Employment is expected to grow dramatically as well. Combine that with a 120 percent increase in freight traffic, and economists predict that congestion on freeways and arterials will increase by more than 250 percent.

The region's 2040 growth-management plan calls for much of this population surge to be focused in downtown Portland, seven regional centers and more than two dozen neighborhood and suburban town centers. Yet, while many say decisions are being made to support this growth plan, transportation investments in fact continue to be done largely one project at a time and without the goal of connecting the entire region and its economy through an effective and balanced system.

There are exceptions. TriMet, for one, continues to plan, build and operate bus and light-rail service with an eye on land use and maximum ridership. Cities and counties have added bike and pedestrian paths as an alternative to driving. And Metro, the city of Portland and the state have all created freight-advisory panels.

The Portland area does have the Regional Transportation Plan, which is guided by Metro and a group of elected decision-makers, called the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation. But for the most part, this plan is a collection of individual projects proposed by individual governments. It is not an over-arching strategy. And often, the regional transportation committee is a place where projects are traded like horses.

Even Metro President David Bragdon admits in this week's issue of ReThinking Portland, 'There is no master plan, but there should be.'

So here's a roadmap for making a difference:

  • While transportation funds are limited, what's in even shorter supply is leadership that links transportation investments with economic, community and regional outcomes.
  • This leadership and focus on outcomes must come from community and business leadership. Such an effort is beginning to take shape as part of the Oregon Business Plan and the Portland area regional business plan. Updates to both plans swill be unveiled Jan. 4 at the Oregon Economic Summit.
  • It's time to stop thinking of the Portland region as an island unto itself. Portland is the hub of a state, national and international freight network. It's time for the region's growth-management plans to better address the connection between transportation and the economy.
  • The region must invest in effective transportation projects. It should place equal focus on preserving and improving existing roads, transit systems and pedestrian and bike paths. And the region should explore creative transportation systems that haven't even been thought of yet.
  • Advocates of smart growth and advocates for roads and business must learn to work together with mutual trust. Too often, they are simply opponents and therefore not leaders.

It's time for the Portland region to re-establish itself as a place that not only plans transportation, but also gets projects done that make a difference.

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