– Taylor Griggs contributed to this story.
If you use the streets of Portland, you know there’s room for improvement. From crumbling and cracked pavement on greenways to debris-strewn bike lanes and cavernous potholes, basic road maintenance has fallen by the wayside.
Behind all of Portland’s unmet maintenance needs is a number: $4.4 billion.
If you’ve ever campaigned for transportation in this city, you’re probably very familiar with this number. This statistic is often used by management and staff at the Portland Bureau of Transportation as an excuse for doing nothing. One of the most effective ways to turn down requests from people who want funding for a new project or program is for someone to say, “We’d love to, but we have a $4 billion maintenance backlog to worry about.” .”
PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty does this all the time. She recently cited the backlog as a reason the office struggled to placate disgruntled maintenance workers. She also mentioned the backlog several times in our podcast interview last year, expressing that it is one of the main reasons hampering the potential of PBOT.
But the maintenance backlog didn’t start with Hardesty. PBOT commissioners and staff have long lamented the seemingly never-ending problem, which gets bigger every year (see above).
“Maintaining assets … particularly the most expensive facilities (like thoroughfares and bridges) is a challenge for jurisdictions across the country because it has been assumed that funding for ongoing repair, rehabilitation and ultimately replacement is covered by the federal gas tax, which is what also the case last increased in 1993 and which we know is woefully inadequate to keep up with aging infrastructure,” PBOT Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera told us in an email this week.
Politics doesn’t work in their favour, either. Maintenance work is decidedly unsexy and there are no tape cutting events to sweep a bike lane. As Cathy Tuttle pointed out in a recent BikePortland guest article, maintenance “just doesn’t have the same political panache as ‘new’”.
Another reason our roads are in poor condition is that our transportation system heavily favors the types of vehicles that damage the roads the most. Tens of thousands of extremely heavy cars, buses and trucks roll down our roads every day, and as more and more people buy bigger and heavier ones (EV batteries are the main culprit), the problem is only getting worse.
The picture looks even grimmer when you consider that federal grant programs — a huge source of funding for capital projects — don’t pay for maintenance. That means PBOT must use “discretionary” funds for maintenance, a source that the agency has had to reduce by 9% over the last two budget cycles.
So what exactly is in this infamous residue? And can the city’s current approach even address it?
What is the residue?
PBOT’s Rivera tells BikePortland that the $4.4 billion relates to the bureau’s “unmet needs” — calculating how much it would cost to convert the bureau’s $18 billion in assets 10 years into to bring a fair or better condition. According to this calculation, the city would have to spend $440 million per year on maintenance for 10 years to bring the assets to this state.
The majority of these costs are unmet road maintenance needs. This includes $1.5 billion for busy streets and $1.8 billion for residential streets in various degraded states. In a 2019 Citywide Assets Report, the majority of Portland’s arteries and local streets were rated as in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Other large contributors to debris are streetlights, curb ramps, and bridges.
Not included in these totals are the millions PBOT spends each year as infrastructure is damaged by incompetent and/or reckless drivers who plow signs into poles with alarming regularity.
A 2013 city report detailing the condition of Portland’s sidewalk said it would cost about $750 million over ten years to restore the streets to proper condition. Backlog totaled $1.2 billion in 2015 and grew to over $2 billion by 2017. A little over five years later, we’ve doubled that price. This proves a dire warning we often hear from PBOT workers: the longer we wait to repair roads, the more expensive it gets.
The folks who run Portland’s transportation system have lobbied through a variety of efforts over the years to pay for maintenance. Back in 2007, former Mayor Sam Adams promoted a “Safe, Sound and Green Streets” residential fee initiative in Portland that would have raised money for maintenance (back when the deficit was manageable). After that initiative ended, former PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick lobbied for a similar scheme in 2013 – a universal “road toll” that also never came to fruition.
Finally, in 2016, Portland voters approved the Fixing Our Streets program as a way to fund street maintenance projects with a $0.10 per gallon fuel tax and heavy vehicle use tax. Policymakers knew that this program wouldn’t solve all of the city’s problems, but it was a start. And like many PBOT funding sources, it takes a two-pronged approach. Not only is the tax a source of revenue, but there is hope that higher fuel prices will encourage people to drive less, resulting in less costly maintenance in the long run.
The backlog has only grown since the passage of Fixing Our Streets. Despite this, PBOT says the money has been used wisely to avert some of the worst outcomes (see chart at right).
“The Fixing Our Streets program has made a huge difference in preserving and extending the life of the city’s sidewalks, in addition to some important safety improvements,” Rivera said. “Nobody ever said that FOS alone would be enough to solve the maintenance backlog that took half a century to produce.”
In a scenario where everyone either rides bikes or drives an electric vehicle (a utopia for many proponents), FOS money would quickly dry up. This is where the city’s Just Mobility Pricing Options (POEM) efforts come in. Or was it target Created in 2019 and approved by City Council in 2021, the POEM Task Force outlined several ways PBOT could generate revenue. Unfortunately, the recommendations of the task force have yet to be implemented.
A new fee that PBOT has started charging (which wasn’t technically part of POEM) is a new parking fee introduced out of desperation after a massive drop in the number of drivers filling the meters during the pandemic. But that fee is estimated to fetch just $24 million, a drop in the bucket.
The backlog is worse than ever. We have less money than ever. And morale in PBOT’s maintenance department is at rock bottom.
It feels like PBOT and City Hall’s courage to implement the new revenue ideas from the POEM plan is being weakened by their fear of losing the auto-based cash cow status quo. But the sooner we rip the pavement off, the sooner we can heal our streets and budget.
In the short term, we need to put PBOT’s Maintenance Operations Group on a better footing. This has nothing to do with a lack of funding and goes beyond the threat of a strike. We recently heard about a lack of trust between employees and managers, a dysfunctional institutional culture and staggering turnover rates. This constant reshuffle of staff is very disruptive to work teams and their programs, resulting in less work getting done. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that new Maintenance Operations Director Jody Yates, hired in February, can put the ship in order.
We also need to charge people more to use our roads. With inflation and income inequality at all-time highs, and with transportation not even on the political radar in Portland these days, that’s going to be a hard pill to swallow.
To make it easier to swallow, let’s look at the narrative surrounding the subject differently. Our goal shouldn’t be to raise more money for more maintenance; The goal should be to do less maintenance. The situation is unsustainable, not because we lack the funding, but because we are living beyond our means. We spend too much money repairing damage to vehicles we can no longer afford, and we’re not doing enough to make things we can support — like cycling, walking, and public transit — viable options.
Portland has a long history of supporting car-free spaces. Former Mayor Vera Katz declared September 14, 2004 as “Portland’s Car-Free Day.” In 2008 we hosted the international Towards Carfree Cities Conference. And even the most recent POEM initiative had as one of its basic principles “Our current system overvalues cars”. But despite years of rhetoric and advocacy, we still haven’t fully embraced the idea of permanently car-free streets, although every time we dip our toe in the water it feels good – with programs like Sunday Parkways or the recent plaza and public safety projects.
We need more attention to the problems we face today and the political will to do things differently tomorrow. The maintenance backlog excuse shouldn’t be the end of the conversation—it should be the start of a new one.
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