BREAKING: Here's Portland's New Transportation Director

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Leah_Treat.jpg

Portland's new transportation director describes herself thusly: "Good government gal with a passion for change in the transportation industry. A Mom to 4 smarty-pants kids and wife to an artsy, intellectual, bike fanatic."

That's the Twitter bio of Leah Treat who, after months of speculation, has emerged as Portland's choice for director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

UPDATE, 11 am: Treat inherits a transportation situation full of challenges, not least of which is dwindling funds—something Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick have signalled strongly they'll seek to fix in the near future.

"We were looking for a lot of things," Novick said in a conference call with reporters this morning. Paramount among those, he said, was someone with strong financial management experience.


Treat's experience includes nearly a decade working on finance and transportation issues in Washington, DC, according to a press release. In 2011, she moved to Chicago, and serves as a managing deputy commissioner in the city's transportation department.

In today's call, Treat described herself as an avid cyclist who'll look to increase the share of Portlanders on bikes. She confessed to having only a rough familiarity with the Rose City—she's visited a friend here five or six times—and so wasn't prepared to answer specific questions about our transportation challenges.

She did, however, paint a bleak picture of morale at the PBOT—which she conceded might not be an accurate or complete appraisal.

"I think I'm going to be able to stand up the transportation department pretty quickly," Treat said. "I think maybe it's a marketing problem."

Pressed on that, Treat said her sense is that the city's transportation workers "are not empowered or feel disenfranchised or are disgruntled, or something is missing in terms of their morale." She continued: "I want them to feel valued in the work they contribute. I want them to be proud."

Though she couldn't offer specifics—either on viable new funding sources or what her first priorities will be—Treat said she wants to establish a two-year action plan for the agency.

"I would like to see us aligned around a vision that we can talk to the community about."

Treat, 42, has four young children, she said, who had a rough time in the transition from DC to Chicago. Moving again just two years later, Treat said she plans to live in Portland for "a minimum of 10 years, if not longer. I would like to raise my family there."

UPDATE, 12:04 pm: Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein, who Treat followed to a post in Chicago from DC, tells the Mercury Portland "really scored" in the hire.

"She's been integral to the success we've had in DC and Chicago," Klein said. Among her strengths, Klein noted performance management, budgeting and finding efficiencies.

Perhaps most-important to Portland's needs, Klein said Treat's skilled at identifying new revenue. In DC, he said, she led a team that figured out how to better manage the city's parking meters. Revenue rose something like 400 percent following the changes, according to Klein.

That experience was likely music to Novick's ears. As noted in an interview with the Mercury, Novick plans to look partly to parking meters as a means of bolstering PBOT's revenue. The department is largely funded with parking fees and gas tax revenue, which has fluctuated amid the country's economic troubles.

Interestingly, Treat's most-recent tweet while the conference call was occurring declared the gas tax model "indeed broken."

Asked about the tweet, she said: "For transportation funding, it's broken. It's insufficient."

Here's Treat's résumé [PDF].

And here's the press release the city sent out:

Following a thorough nationwide search, Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick has tapped Leah Treat as the city’s new Portland Bureau of Transportation Director.

Treat will be relocating from Chicago, where she is currently serving as chief of staff to Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein.

“Transportation is something that affects us every day,” Novick said. “Portland needs a transportation leader who has the budget management background to help us address our deficit in basic street maintenance and who understands the value of sustainable modes such as biking and walking. We know we have found the right person for PBOT in Leah Treat and we are excited to have her join us in Portland.”

Treat and Klein were selected by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to join his new administration in 2011, to deliver innovative projects and to push the city ahead of the curve in progressive transportation. Treat also served as Klein's director of finance in the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation when its bikeshare system was launched and the streetcar network was designed.

Treat is passionate about livability and her love of transportation was born out of the connection between economic development, mobility and livability.

“I have always loved Portland,” Treat said. “It is one of the most progressive cities in the country and it syncs with my personality and lifestyle. I believe Portland to be a national leader in sustainable transportation modes and know we can continue to push an aggressive agenda by developing smart, fiscally responsible budgets, focusing on efficient operations and incorporating smart planning and economic development strategies into future city goals.”

Mayor Charlie Hales said that filling the leadership role at PBOT was not an easy task. “The job requires common sense plus innovation,” Hales said. “The new leader needs to help the bureau take care of the assets we have, and help us dream about the assets we could have. In selecting Leah Treat, I think Commissioner Novick threaded that needle.”

Treat has a deep background in public budgeting and finance, as well as operations. She managed a $1 billion transportation portfolio, including both highways and transit projects, while simultaneously increasing dedicated revenue.

Treat's career began in her native state of New Mexico where she served both the governor and the Legislature. Her love of cities brought her east to work for newly elected Mayor Anthony Williams in the District of Columbia. During her eight-year tenure with Mayor Williams, helped lay the groundwork for that city to become what is now nationally considered one of the best cities to live. Williams’ successor, Adrian Fenty, retained Treat when he took office in 2009, and much of her career during his term was dedicated to innovative financing and crafting policies to balance mode share.

Novick noted that, while in the District of Columbia, Treat worked closely with regional partners in Maryland and Virginia. “It’s critically important for us in Portland to work closely with our regional partners, so that part of her experience was very important to us,” he said.

Treat will move to Portland this summer with her husband, Charles, their four small children
and a Siberian husky that likes to sing.

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