Weigh in on ideas for changes from gas tax to bike paths

Nearly a decade ago, Tom Brian and his fellow Washington County Commissioners thought up the “Drive Less. Save More.” campaign.

They hated spending money on expensive road projects to accommodate increased traffic, and thought that if people just cut down on road trips, maybe they could spend less.

The state has since joined the “Drive Less” bandwagon with a vengeance — and with a different underlying goal: to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, which are believed to contribute to climate change.

The contractor in charge of making that happen is Metro, the regional government that sets land-use and transportation policies for urban areas from Gresham to Forest Grove.

Metro — which took on the initial “Drive Less” campaign sparked in Washington County — is considering a slew of new options that make the earlier bumper-sticker-and-advertising campaign seem like a lemonade stand. They include increasing the cost of driving, making transit more convenient, building more bike and walking paths and encouraging people to live closer to where they work and shop.

Metro is charged with presenting an emission-reducing plan to the 2015 Legislature, which then expects the cities and counties within Metro’s borders to adopt it.

“We need to be good stewards of the planet and leave our children a healthy place to live. And we can do that by creating quality communities,” said Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington, whose District 4 stretches from Raleigh Hills to Forest Grove.

Many cities in the region are already moving in that direction.

Forest Grove, for example, is developing a new transit system with help from Ride Connection that will encourage public transportation within the city. It is also updating its comprehensive land use plan to increase residential density. (See story on page A1.)

Metro staff has been working on a “Climate Smart Communities” project and will present current research from the project in May at both the Metro Policy Advisory Committee and the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation. The two committees will make recommendations to the seven-member elected Metro Council, which will decide where to focus further research.

But first, Metro wants to hear from as many citizens as possible. It will conduct an online survey the first week in April on the issues and ideas under discussion. Survey results will be presented to the committees and council.

People can register now and take the survey at No personal information will be sold or shared.

Groing population

State government has been fighting climate change for years. Most recently, the 2009 Legislature directed Metro to reduce emissions from cars, light trucks and sport-utility vehicles to 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2035.

Metro officials think the target is realistic. Area residents already drive around 20 percent less than those in similar metropolitan regions — largely because of land-use policies and TriMet’s regional transit system.

But the elected Metro Council decided that reducing driving — in and of itself — wasn’t good enough. The council wants to improve the quality of people’s lives. That is the purpose of a Metro project called Making the Greatest Place. It is intended to help all communities set and achieve livability goals.

Metro already has a 2040 Concept Plan that encourages mixed-use development along existing transportation corridors. It also sets the Portland area’s urban growth boundary, which determines where development can occur. 

Three scenarios

Metro completed the first phase of its Climate Smart Communities project in January 2012 and published a report titled Understanding Our Land Use and Transportation Choices. It included test results for six potential driving-reduction techniques: community design, fleet mix, marketing and incentives, pricing, roads and technology.

In the report, Metro staff looked at how three different levels of each technique could produce three different scenarios. 

Scenario A reflects current plans and policies, such as adding 111 acres to the urban growth boundary, keeping the bike mode share at 2 percent, maintaining projections for transit use, keeping the 48-cent-per-gallon gas tax and not imposing a road use fee.

Scenario B reflects more ambitious policy changes, such as raising the bike mode share to 12.5 percent; increasing projected transit use two-and-a-half times, raising the gas tax by 18 cents, increasing participation in employer-based commuting programs from the current 20 percent to 40 percent, and imposing a 3-cents-per-mile road-use fee. The urban-growth boundary would expand as much as in Scenario A.

Scenario C reflects the most ambitious changes, including no expansion of the urban growth boundary, increasing the bike share mode to 30 percent, quadrupling projected transit use, changing the mix of autos to light trucks/SUVs from 57/43 percent to 71/29, more than doubling fuel economy from current levels, and imposing a $50-per-ton carbon-emissions fee.

The Opt In survey will help Metro decide which scenario to present to the 2015 Legislature. Options could include a new one based in part on the survey results.

Portland creep

The Climate Smart Communities project is unfolding during a growing public backlash to some of Metro’s policies. Last November, Clackamas County voters elected two new commissioners who ran against “Portland Creep,” their term for transit-oriented development. Last fall, Lake Oswego’s City Council backed away from a proposed Portland Streetcar extension.

New Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is prioritizing street maintenance over new transit projects. And Clark County officials are trying to block the new light rail line planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing project.

And there is no guarantee that Metro’s scenarios can solve the problem. The region has invested millions in transit and bike improvements in recent decades, including light rail lines in all three counties. But the number of auto trips has still increased significantly—right along with the population, according to a 2011 Travel Activity Survey released last fall. The slight decline in overall percentage of auto trips (compared to population) has mostly taken place in Portland’s core, with little change in outlying areas.

And difficult days are ahead for the “Drive Less” challenge. Between 2010 and 2035, the Portland Metro area’s population is projected to grow by more than 625,000 residents.

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