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Where the Sidewalk Ends?

Budget Committee Blindsided by City's Transportation Overhaul



ON FEBRUARY 20, members of the citizen group that advises the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) showed up at city hall, as they do every year, to present their recommendations on the bureau's budget.

The outlook didn't (and doesn't) look great. PBOT in recent weeks had weathered two audits slamming the city's project planning, highlighting miles of degraded roads and bemoaning tenuous revenue streams.

The 18-member budget advisory committee had long known about these issues—they'd debated them in past years, and also over the course of four meetings as part of this year's process. They were ready to grapple with the bleak realities—but they weren't ready to watch PBOT's new director present an entirely unseen set of solutions.

"The next thing that happened was Toby Widmer announced roughly $7 million in cuts," said Gerik Kransky, a Bicycle Transportation Alliance staffer and one of the committee members who presented the group's work. "It was fascinating because we had spent months having a detailed conversation over how to cut. Our memo would have been significantly different if we had been party to it."

The "resource realignment" proposed that day by Widmer—who was installed by Mayor Charlie Hales as PBOT's interim director in January—was not without common sense. Meant to hit a paving mark of 100 miles that's being pushed by Hales, the proposal advocated shuffling $7.15 million from various initiatives.  

But the proposal shocked and angered some committee members.

First, it deviated from items the group had painstakingly hashed over. Widmer's suggestion of dropping sidewalk and curb ramp projects has been a particular flashpoint, but he also advocated putting off debt payments for the Sellwood Bridge and chopping marketing money. (For more on the sidewalk funding, see this week's "In Other News.")

And some felt the plan had been deliberately withheld from scrutiny. The night before the council session, a PBOT staffer sent along materials that were to be presented at the meeting. Conspicuously absent: any mention of the money switch.

"Where did this come from?" Steph Routh, committee member and Oregon Walks executive director, remembers thinking at the time. "Why did we waste our time for the last four months if this group had no say in what the proposal was going to be?"

"It made my jaw drop," adds Marianne Fitzgerald, who represents Southwest Portland neighborhoods on the committee. "We were promised these sidewalks."

The obfuscation is a departure from how the system is supposed to work. The Portland City Budget Office calls the budget advisory committee, "one of the most effective venues for the community to provide input throughout the budget process." They're vehicles for public stakeholders to have tough conversations with bureau staff prior to presenting a case to council. By not checking in before devising his own memo, some members feel that Widmer subverted the process.

The kerfuffle is partially predictable. One advisory committee member told the Mercury the moves are an expected—though regrettable—product of having a paving-centric new mayor and a temporary transportation director who'd never actually sat down with the committee. (Former PBOT Director Tom Miller, pushed out by Hales after his election, had been meeting with the group.)

But the move also underscores a tension that's been present in the transportation budget process for years: The advisory committee wants a more permanent seat at the table, and PBOT's not pulling out any chairs.

"It's a hugely complex process that we're trying to condense into just four meetings," said Richard Beetle, business manager at Laborers' Local 483. "We end up skimming the surface of the issue." 

So this year, as in the last three, the committee asked that their work be less ad hoc. Members tacked a needling bit of verbiage to the end of one of two letters sent to council this year, strongly recommending the committee meet year-round to keep abreast of new developments.

It's not an unheard-of arrangement. The Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement has a year-round committee, and the office's staff and members praise its efficacy. The Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights has one, too. 

So why has the PBOT—chock-full of complex moving parts and dire problems that might merit a permanent body—balked at the move in recent years? And why was its advisory committee left out of the 11th-hour budget shuffle?

Bureau spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck said Widmer wasn't available to answer those questions, and sent back a sparse statement offering no explanation for why PBOT kept the budget group in the dark.

"We will introduce the idea of establishing a year-round budget advisory committee or forming a bureau advisory committee to our new permanent director when that person is hired this summer," it said in part. 

The matter, in other words, will be punted until budget season is safely behind us and the budget advisory committee has lain dormant for months. 

"They don't feel they need our advice," says Fitzgerald. "I feel they do it because they have to. Not because they want to." 

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