27% of PBOT budget to keep streets safe for our kids: Thank you, Sam
It's all in a headline, isn't it? That's something I've learned from my two decades as a journalism junkie. And then there's the old saying, "statistics lie." I worked on Wall Street and for a bank selling loans to other banks -- I know from long practice doing and analyzing other people doing so, you can get numbers to say whatever you want them to.
So the above is the headline I'd like to see on Oregonian writer Joseph Rose's piece on how Sam Adams and the Portland City Council decided to spend the "uncommitted budget" -- in other words, the part of budget that's discretionary. It's funded by gas taxes and parking revenue, and makes up about 25% of the overall transportation capital improvement projects funding. He went instead with "Portland Mayor Sam Adams boosts funding for bike projects, but now there's less for paving streets" as a headline and then, in the first few paragraphs, described Adams' statements about the funding (which, for bike projects, works out to 17% of discretionary funds, or 6% of overall CIP funds) at the Alice Awards as having "boasted about what he had done for bicycles." Rose's piece kept up the rabble-rousing bent: "Portland quietly boosted the amount of uncommitted transportation funding it spends on bike projects from just 1 percent to 17 percent – or $2.8 million – in the budget adopted last June. Meanwhile, it slashed the amount allocated to motor vehicle projects by 22 percent... Coming out of the recession, the budget is still bruised. Pothole complaints are up. Nearly 60 miles of the city's streets remain unpaved. By allocating 17 times more of that funding on building bikeways, Adams has left no doubt that he wants more commuters on bicycles."
There are many, many things on which I'd love to see Portland spend its money. And while I understand that Portland's roads are pot-hole filled and it's not nearly easy enough to drive 40 MPH everywhere you want to go, well, when it comes down to it I value the safety of our kids and older citizens more than I do speed. Spending 6% of our budget on bicycle projects (which improve traffic safety, speeds, pollution, noise, and long-term environmental costs for everyone who uses our roads and even those who don't) and another 21% for pedestrian projects (which make our communities more livable and make our citizens healthier and happier -- attracting businesses and invigorating the retail climate and wooing middle- and upper-class new residents), even though these funds come from gas taxes and parking revenue, seems like a sensible and worthwhile investment in a safe and sustainable transportation mix.
It's short-sighted and greedy and silly to say, "these taxes are paid by x people and must only benefit x people when they are engaging in x activities." But that's what the tone of Rose's piece and most of the angry commenters on OregonLive, those angry callers and writers and pitchfork-wielders, say. The point of paying taxes and fees is to support a civic and safe society in which every citizen -- no matter his transport mode, whether he is an alcoholic or a teetotaller, a smoker or a clean-air breather, a vegan or an omnivore, an atheist or a street preacher -- is permitted to partake of the benefits of these funds.
Let me tell you something I learned from a PBOT employee. For both children and older people, peripheral vision is quite a bit less acute than for adults in the prime of their lives. These two groups also tend to have poorer judgment about traffic speeds and their own speed and invincibility. They are thus much more vulnerable to auto-on-pedestrian and auto-on-bicyclist accidents. All accidents, but most importantly these accidents in which vulnerable individuals are gravely injured or killed, decrease when bicycle and pedestrian projects go in to streets.
Yes, it is eternally true that bicycle and pedestrian projects will decrease speeds for motorists. This is something that I -- even were I to shed my family biking evangelist skin, even were I to break both my legs and be unable to walk -- would be o.k. with. I like slow vehicles; it's so much harder to kill people with your car (even people in another car) if you're going 20 MPH than 35 MPH or 45 MPH or however fast Portlanders believe they may drive down the street in front of my house.
When I was 11, my mother was driving all of my siblings and I to Wisdom, Montana from our home 40 miles away. We were going down a very empty stretch of road when another driver passed us, leaning a little across the line and going at least 80. We turned around to watch him as his car drifted all the way across the lane and crashed into the ditch, spectacularly. We turned around and drove back, me flagging other motorists down to help and my mother, trained as a nurse, trying to help.
He died a few days later in a hospital room in Dillon, another 30 miles away. This was not the only death on the road I'd see; I saw a motorcyclist fresh off a crash in a North Carolina intersection (dead); I saw a Miata wheels up in the middle of a Virginia highway (the motorists, dead); I've driven past many more whose fates I never found out. Each time, something chilled in my rib cage and wouldn't ever, ever let me go. Motor vehicle accidents kill thousands of Americans each year. If we drove more slowly, lives would be saved. This is as indisputable as anything can possibly be. But initiatives that slow traffic are unpopular, even reviled. Why? Really, why?
I'd happily pay more in taxes if I thought they would go toward bicycle facilities and sidewalks and medians filled with trees and flowers. But in a civic society, everybody gets to share in the pot, and roads cost way more than bicycle paths; just like schools cost more than community centers and prisons cost more than neighborhood organizations. We don't get to all demand that money gets spend in line with our individual values.
But that doesn't mean I can't thank the people who are moving the needle toward safety, toward livability, toward a city that makes me happier and more likely to live long enough to see the day when we complain because bicycles aren't getting 75% of the budget, even though they're 80% of the road share. A girl can dream.
Thank Sam too: