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Squeaky Wheels

Cyclists Rail Against Mayor's Budget

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A little matter of $100,000 has set the Portland bike community against Mayor Tom Potter, who released his proposed budget for the coming year early last week.

In the budget, Potter slashed funding for two bike-related programs—the Platinum Bicycle Master Plan and a separate plan for bike safety. The Master Plan, which outlines policies, safety measures, and recommended bike paths, hasn't been updated since 1997, when far fewer Portlanders were using the city's streets for cycling.

The price tag to update the plan: $100,000. It was fully funded last year and, according to advocates at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), there was every indication that it would be funded again this year as an ongoing study. It wasn't. Despite a budget request from Commissioner Sam Adams and the Portland Department of Transportation, and despite the fact that the city has a $37 million surplus, Potter opted to cut it out of the budget.

"We were totally caught off guard with this," says BTA Policy Director Scott Bricker. "This is such a small amount of money to fund a plan that hasn't been updated in 10 years."

The response from the bike community was almost immediate. Sometime around 6 am on the morning of Tuesday, April 24, the BTA sent out an alert to its members, asking them to call or email the mayor's office and demand that he restore funding to the Master Plan. According to Jeremy Van Keuren, Potter's public advocate, contacts from concerned cyclists began flooding in, and didn't stop for days—the latest tally was 354 calls and emails. Local bike advocacy blog BikePortland.org quickly became the digital gathering spot for outraged cyclists, who deluged the site with comments.

Curiously, Potter's other, larger budget cuts received nary a whisper. Commissioner Dan Saltzman's request for $1.75 million for sustainable development was slashed to $500,000. "This is demonstrating how important bicycling is to the community," Bricker says.

Still, it made little difference. On Friday, four days after the bike army was engaged, Potter released a prepared statement, saying the funding decisions were based on a "priority to fund safety requests above other requests."

That answer didn't sit well with bike activists, who pointed out that the Master Plan is vital for the future safety of cycling in Portland, since it is the guiding document that informs all bike safety decisions.

Biker Dat Nguyen responded by organizing likeminded activists who are working on a campaign to restore the funding, including TV commercials, flyers, letters from bike shop owners, and even a protest in front of the mayor's house.

Still, Nguyen says, the idea is to stay positive. "We're not trying to blame him... but this does look bad for the mayor," he says.

Over at BikePortland.org, many of the comments were less positive, even calling for bikers to vote against Potter's "strong mayor" charter reform measure (26-91), and even against Potter himself, should he run for reelection. It's a far cry from his position two years ago, after groups like Bike Walk Vote helped get Potter elected.

On the flipside, Sam Adams has the opportunity to look like a hero.

"I'm determined that the master plan will be fully funded," Adams told the Mercury before a Monday night "Bike Master Plan ride" that drew 100 cyclists. "The problem isn't that we spend too much on bike infrastructure, it's that we don't spend enough."

Ultimately, the backlash from Potter's decision could spread further than the bike community. There appears to be at least three votes on city council to reverse his decision, meaning that if he sticks to his guns until May 16, when council votes on the budget, he could face a majority against him—with only Potter standing against the cyclists.

In the meantime, bikers can head to a community budget hearing to voice their concerns—Thursday, May 10, 6 pm, Robert Gray Middle School, 5505 SW 23rd.

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