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Steamroller Charlie

Paving Audit Gives Hales Another Weapon in Transportation Budget Fight

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MAYOR CHARLIE HALES, for the second time in a month, is using a harshly worded audit to club two of his favorite targets—Portland's troubled transportation bureau and former Mayor Sam Adams' legacy.

The latest report from the auditor's office—released on Tuesday, February 19—spares no feelings in accusing the city of willfully neglecting the condition of Portland's streets and roads in favor of light rail and streetcar lines. It rips Adams, especially, for holding back data on the city's growing roadwork backlog and pushing through a decision, in 2009, to stop rebuilding neighborhood streets.

The report also tries to tear away the green mantle Adams liked to wrap himself in, blaming poor roads and a binge on pothole repairs for contributing to an overall increase in carbon emissions. And it put a very large number on the cost of making things right: $85 million annually, for the next decade—about $75 million more than currently budgeted.

It's no wonder Hales, who campaigned on street paving as a surefire way to distance himself from Adams, was standing in city hall using words like "appalled" and calling street maintenance one of the great causes of our time.

"The previous administration actually sold the trucks" that help seal roads, he argued in front of reporters. "That just made me want to pound my head against the door."

More importantly, in a formal response to the audit, Hales promised to put the city's transportation budget where his mouth is.

"We will immediately refocus the bureau to begin to address this vital need and start down the long road toward restoration," he wrote.

But Hales, in his zeal to score political points and wipe away Adams' fingerprints, might be paving over a little bit of history.

Yes, the city's maintenance backlog is impossibly large, but it also didn't mushroom to its current size overnight. The backlog in some fashion has been around for decades—since well before Hales' first stint as transportation commissioner in the 20th century. Hales wasn't able to blunt it any more than his successors did.

A city resolution from 1988, four years before Hales was first elected to council, mentions a $37 million backlog (just shy of $75 million in 2012 dollars). A report from 1987 also details a maintenance backlog about the same size. At the time, much of the city's road system was still in good shape.

But that report also included a warning that echoes to this day.

"As the system ages and federal financing is no longer available," it says, "a larger portion of the system will begin to deteriorate unless new funding sources are available."

Hales, at least, made a play for that revenue back when he was just a city commissioner—trying and failing to pass a street maintenance fee.

"I was prophetic," he said when a TV reporter pointed out the historic backlog and asked him about that long-ago revenue push.

But this time, Hales says he wants to wait before he and his fellow commissioners beseech voters for help. The bureau last year, under fired director Tom Miller, put out a report making the case for new revenue streams. First, Hales says, the transportation bureau will have to cut as much as it can.

Where those cuts might be found, however, remains a giant question.

Millions of dollars are already tied to light rail and streetcar debt and the rebuilding of the Sellwood Bridge ["Screeching to a Halt," News, Jan 30]. Hales, who helped sell the streetcar to other cities during his sojourn in the private sector, also refused to say spending on the streetcar and other "multimodal" transportation projects was a "mistake." He (sort of) refused to throw bikes under the bus, saying everyone deserves good pavement. And he even defended one of the beneficiaries of Adams' 2009 push to restrict street maintenance: the city's sidewalks.

But the bureau also spends big on nonessential programs like the Portland Business Alliance-affiliated Downtown Marketing Initiative.

"Everything is on the table. Every administrative cost, everything that's 'nice to' but not 'must do,'" Hales said when asked specifically about the marketing initiative.

Even holding the line on the city's maintenance backlog—keeping things exactly where they are—will cost the city $50 million more a year than the $10 million currently allotted, the audit warns. And that's an ongoing expense—because it costs more to fix up roads after they've crumbled past a certain point.

Drummond Kahn, the city's director of audit services, understands the city doesn't have the money to tread water, let alone chip away at the backlog. But he says the city, before it tries to raise more money, should figure out how much it cares about paving. And then spend its money on streets where it will get the most value.

"This snapshot might be new," Kahn says, "but this notion that roads in poor condition cost more is by no means new. Next year it'll cost even more if no maintenance is done this year."

Hales also gets that the gap will probably grow before it starts to shrink.

"I'd be skipping around the building if we found enough money in the budget" this year, Hales says. "I don't expect to be skipping around the building."

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