Bike Portland: 20 candidates vie for votes at transportation forum

 In Local Politics

Rising concerns about the spread of Covid-19 didn’t stop 20 Portland candidates from showing up at a transportation forum at Clinton Street Theater in southeast Portland last night.

The event was hosted by transportation-related nonprofits The Street TrustBike Loud PDXWomen’s Transportation Seminar and Young Professionals in Transportation. Organizers required candidates to demonstrate at least 250 supporters in order to participate.

With so many candidates, answers to questions were limited to just one minute and no questions were taken from the audience. For people in the crowd, the format meant they had to sit through three separate panels where candidates were asked the same five questions: How would you tackle rising greenhouse gas emissions? How can we make roads safer? Do you support or oppose the I-5 Rose Quarter project? How will you reverse the decline in bicycling? And, how will you ensure low-income and communities of color benefit from investments in transportation? Organizers shared the questions beforehand and about half the candidates read from prepared answers.

While there wasn’t time for depth or back-and-forth debating, the event gave us a chance to “meet” the candidates and get a sense of their understanding (or lack of) and perspective. There were also some notable exchanges and non-answers.

The panels were separated into two for city commissioner positions and one for the mayoral race.

Here’s what the candidates said about reducing greenhouse gas emissions*

(*Mayoral candidates will be covered separately at the end of the post.)

Margot Black, the co-founder of Portland Tenants United who’s running in the very crowded field for position 2, said “We need free public transit for everyone. I’m a mom with three kids, and taking the bus everywhere is possibly more expensive than driving, especially when you consider all its impacts.”

Free transit was supported by several candidates: Philip Wolfe (Position No. 1), the city’s first deaf council candidate and member of the Portland Commission on Disability; Green Party activist Seth Woolley (Position No. 4), Multnomah County Democratic Party Vice-Chair Rachelle Dixon (Position No. 2); Executive Director of Latino Network Carmen Rubio (Position No. 1); and mayoral candidates Ozzie Gonzalez and Teressa Raiford. Reed College graduate Mingus Mapps, whose running to unseat his former boss Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, said he wants to try free public transit during peak commute hours as a way to relieve congestion on I-5 through the Rose Quarter — instead of expanding the freeway.

Putting racial equity and social justice first was another strong theme last night. Candace Avalos (Position No. 1), a daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who works at Portland State University, called for a “Portland Green New Deal” and said people choose cars because they don’t have adequate transit service. “Until and unless we’re talking about [reducing emissions] in an equity lens,” she said, “It will be insufficient.” Former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith (Position No. 2) said to win the fight against climate change we must, “Start with the least among us. Start with poor people.”

Incumbent Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s ears were burning as she listened to everyone’s answers. “Most of the solutions we’re hearing tonight are things we have done or are underway under my leadership,” before rattling off her climate-related accomplishments. She was right.

Seth Woolley had the most detailed proposals of anyone on stage last night. He rattled off a long list of actions he’d take to reduce emissions. He would end all highway and parking garage construction, remove all parking mandates and subsidies, charge for car parking on every city street, eliminate transit fees, add carpool lanes to arterial streets, and implement a decongestion charge for entering the central city.

 

Here’s what they said about improving safety

The need for more enforcement came up several times. Carpenter and PSU urban planning graduate student Tim DuBois said, “There’s really just one answer: Red light cameras and speed cameras. It’s a no-brainer.” “Educational campaigns don’t work,” said Woolley. He wants more speed and traffic cameras too, but he wants the fees based on income (which got a good crowd response). “People that make a lot more money should feel the safe effect as those who have none,” he said. And Wooley got one of the biggest laughs of the night when he said he’d turn the auto industry’s marketing on its head by launching an educational campaign to promote full face helmets to be worn inside cars.

Margot Black has several solid answers on the night. When it comes to safety she said, “They tell me it’s going to take a lot more political will to do big and different things and it will require tradeoffs that will piss people off. I’m really good at that.” Black also mentioned that two homeless people have been killed by drivers so far this year. “Let’s talk about traffic safety as a homeless problem,” she said.

Loretta Smith said she thinks traffic deaths should be treated as a public health epidemic.

Former Mayor and PBOT Commissioner Sam Adams used his time to poke at Chloe Eudaly. He touted the annual Transportation Safety Summit he organized during his eight years as commissioner and then appeared to say PBOT isn’t meeting regularly to discuss Vision Zero (they are). “Where is the priority on safety?”

Eudaly, who just picked up the endorsement of her formal rival Steve Novick, then vouched for Vision Zero (which gets a lot of criticism these days due to our increasing death toll), saying it’s “Internationally proven best practices.” She also said our deadly roads aren’t all PBOT’s fault: “We can’t carry the water for the whole city. We need the whole city to adopt Vision Zero. We also need ODOT to adopt it. 48% of those deaths happen on 12% of our roads and those are ODOT facilities that I don’t have control over.”

Mingus Mapps’ top concern around safety is that, “Our police bureau has gotten out of the business of enforcing drunk driving laws.” He wants to hire more officers to increase enforcement.

And trucking company owner Keith Wilson (running for Eudaly’s seat) got lots of applause when he said, “It comes down to distracted driving. We have to focus on behavior change. We’re spending $100s of millions of dollars chasing the wrong solution.”

Here’s what candidates said about the I-5 Rose Quarter project

In a stunning example of what activism can do to influence local politics, nearly every candidate on stage last night opposes ODOT’s I-5 freeway expansion through the Rose Quarter. It’s hard to imagine this being for any other reason than efforts led by No More Freeways PDX. Another theme on this topic was strong support for the Albina Vision plan.

“Climate leaders don’t expand freeways!” proclaimed Candace Avalos at the outset of her response. Loretta Smith said, “ODOT is trying to cram an unworkable solution down our throats and we can’t let that happen.”

Julia DeGraw, an environmental activist who’s been endorsed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in the race for position 2 (Fish), said, “We should not be held hostage by ODOT to get caps [over the freeway].” DeGraw is an ardent critic of Portland’s commission form of government and thinks we should have district representation. She tied many of her answers back to what she feels are failings of our form of governance. “If people represented districts, I don’t think we would have ended up with something like [the I-5 project] coming down the track,” she said.

Sam Adams, who was PBOT commissioner when a plan to expand I-5 through the Rose Quarter was first put on the table, said he now opposes the project. Adams said he’d “decouple” the project from Albina Vision. “ODOT tries to say one relies on the other, but I believe we can pursue Albina Vision without this.” Adams also has a novel way to re-allocate the funding. He wants to toll the Columbia River bridges and use that money to “backfill” current expenditures with more flexible funds that can be used for transit and safety projects in the corridor. In a related proposal, he floated the concept of modifying the existing MAX Yellow Line so it could provide faster, more express service between north Portland and downtown.

Sensing an opportunity to differentiate herself from Adams, Eudaly said she’d rather let Albina Vision lead the conversation about the Rose Quarter. She then admitted that, “This project has been the bane of my existence,” before saying, “I don’t support it in its current form,” and that she has, “Grave doubts that ODOT can meet the demands of the community.” Note that Eudaly was careful to not say she opposes the project. She can’t say that because PBOT is a key partner. She’s saying essentially the same thing as Mayor Wheeler, but framing it in a way that’s more palatable to anti-freeway activists.

Another candidate who appears to support the project is Sam Chase. He said he’s “absolutely committed” to an Environmental Impact Statement and he touted how he and his colleagues on Metro Council have “slowed it down”, but he never said he opposes it (he may have simply forgotten to answer the question). “Let’s make this an incredible jewel and gem for our city,” Chase said. “Cap the freeway and make that a vibrant center for our community.”

Here’s what the candidates said about how they’d kickstart the 2030 Bike Plan and reverse the decline in bicycling

Answers to this question illustrated the lack of urgency and experience with bicycling that’s become typical in Portland political circles in the past few years. No one could share a vision of a great bicycling city and almost every answer included non-bicycling things and/or a criticism of the current government — rather than a real, clear proposal for how to get more butts on bikes.

Themes for this answer included making bicycling more welcoming to people who don’t see themselves reflected in the current bike culture and the need for more density to create shorter, more bikeable, trip distances.

Julia DeGraw linked our recent biking failures to our governance structure (again). “The commission form of government lends itself to big flashy projects [the Bike Plan] to get votes and have people remember them.” Mingus Mapps agreed. He said our Bike Plan would be implemented faster if we “looked past our commissioner form of government and hired a city manager.”

DeGraw also offered this advice: “I’d say there are a lot of folks that have been, frankly, excluded from the culture of biking. We need to bring folks into this movement. We need to have community centers that have bike training sessions and paid apprenticeship programs at bike shops in north and northeast Portland to get them feeling this is something for them as well.”

Rachelle Dixon echoed DeGraw’s sentiment. “I support people-powered transportation,” she said (through an assistant because she has lost her voice), “But if the community doesn’t have buy-in it won’t work. Let’s go back to the beginning and re-evaluate where we dropped the ball.”

Tera Hurst, a former chief of staff to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and one of the lead candidates alongside DeGraw for position 2, touted her work on Better Naito. “We got a ton of pushback on that, but we got it done.”

Adams and Eudaly once again found a way to go at each other. Adams issued a “friendly challenge” to Eudaly sitting next to him that, “The five year Bike Plan progress report be released from its hostage position and get to council so we can have an airing out of what’s working and what’s not from the community’s perspective.” Beyond that, Adams’ answer was pretty weak given his stature as one of Portland’s most bike-oriented politicians.

Eudaly said the 2030 Bike Plan (passed in 2010 when Adams was mayor) was, “One of the many examples of great vision that was never funded or prioritized.” (Was that meant as a dig to Adams?) She then rattled off her accomplishments. “Last year under my direction we built 25 miles of bike lanes, the most since the late ’90s.” She then mentioned how her work on bikeways is “Centering on racial equity,” and in an apparent motion toward Adams she said, “Which was something missing from past efforts.” (It’s true that racial equity was not front-and-center in development of Bike Plan.)

Keith Wilson had a novel insight about what’s gone wrong in Portland. “If the narrative on our street once a week is that somebody died, it’s not going to draw you to biking. We need to change the narrative.” Wilson’s solution is to put more money into physical infrastructure to increase safety (which Vision Zero does to some extent, but I’m not sure he understands that.)

Margot Black provided another answer that shows she prepared well. “I support Bike Loud PDX’s progress report recommendations,” she said.

Candace Avalos, another supporter of changing our form of government, said the languishing Bike Plan is another example that Council, “Is not good at setting realistic benchmarks and then following through.”

One of my favorite answers to this question came from Carmen Rubio. “In the past, transportation decisions prioritizing underserved communities or prioritizing bicycles were often mis-framed as being in conflict with one another or as being of two different core values,” she said. “And as a result of this frame there’s been some struggle and challenge in the past. But I believe that our core values are closer than people have been giving us credit for. I want to strengthen that bridge and these common core values we all share.”

Here’s what the candidates said about how they’d ensure new transportation investments would benefit communities of color and low-income Portlanders

This turned out to be a difficult question for some candidates, which actually reveals why it’s such an important thing to ask. Some fell back onto their pet themes (change in governance structure, housing policy), and some just totally failed to answer it.

Margot Black said clearly that, “What we really need to recognize is transportation justice is racial justice.”

One of the strongest themes that emerged from this question was a desire to bring people of color and lower-income people into the decision-making process. “We need direct political engagement from impacted communities,” is how DeGraw put it.

The worst answer of the night came from Sam Adams. He first said we should really be thinking about the growing percentage of people who will soon be over 65 years old and then he veered into how bicycling doesn’t poll well and how it’s not a “political win”. Either he had a brain blip or he just didn’t care/prepare enough for the question. Either way, it was not good. Two women seated next to me (both were black) were visibly annoyed by his non-answer.

And Eudaly made him pay. “I would have been interested to hear what Sam had to say about this question. He didn’t actually answer it, but took a jab at me about my lack of engagement which is sadly informed and completely false.” Eudaly has a solid record to stand on and took full advantage by saying, “Literally the only reason I am on city council is to serve people who are under-represented and I’ve proven that over and over again in my work. We center racial justice in every thing we do. That’s not me virtue signaling, that’s me being a good policymaker. Because when we address the needs of people who are least served by our system, we lift up everyone.”

Here’s what went down with the mayoral candidates

The final panel of the night was a bit anti-climactic. We didn’t see the personal sparring between Ozzie Gonzalez and Sarah Iannarone that was apparent at Sunday night’s climate change forum. And right from the outset, Mayor Wheeler tried to manage expectations by pointing out that he’s not even in charge of transportation.

Wheeler’s answers were mostly just a PBOT brochure. Iannarone hit all the points you’d expect from someone who’s worked at Portland State University, traveled the world learning about transportation best practices, and deeply involved with local activism. Gonzalez said he wants to do a lot of things we’re already doing and I don’t think his answers broke through. Of all the candidates, it was Teressa Raiford who seemed to garner the most enthusiasm from the crowd.

Iannarone had a strong answer for how she’d reduce emissions. She rattled off a quality list of things like more density, compact walkable neighborhoods, and bikeways for all ages and abilities. She also said, “We also need to electrify our mobility, not just in automobiles but individual mobility. Things like scooters and e-bikes — and e-bikes are the future!”

When it came to the safety question, Iannarone and Raiford had the strongest answers.

Raiford whipped the crowd up with her passionate delivery and ideas: “We’re still not investing in education for communities that are most vulnerable. We’re still not building sidewalks we told people we’d build! We haven’t kept a lot of promises around maintenance and infrastructure! We just keep lying and to people and telling them to elect us.”

Iannarone said Portland has no shortage of expertise on how to make streets safer. “What we have,” she said, “is a lack of political will to make the hard choices and tradeoffs to say we’re going to budget for Vision Zero, that we are not going to allow the dominance of motordom to cost Portlanders our lives.”

Asked if they support the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the candidates were split.

Gonzalez offered a convoluted rationale before saying he won’t oppose the project because of its workforce and community redevelopment potential. “There’s a chance to do it right,” he said. And Wheeler said what he’s already said on record. That he supports the project, “With caveats” and that he believes the caps over the freeway are essential to Albina Vision moving forward (a strange argument because Albina Vision doesn’t support ODOT’s caps as proposed and they haven’t reached any agreement on building caps that would allow the type of development needed for the vision to be realized.)

Iannarone said she wants congestion pricing and on-ramps closed to reduce crashes and “ease congestion”, then she’d re-allocate the funds to high crash intersections and ODOT’s orphan highways citywide. Raiford offered the most forceful opposition to the project.

How will our next mayor get Portland’s bicycling rate back on track? Given that it’s not really the job of the mayor to do this, it’s still important that the leader of our City Council be a good advocate for cycling.

Raiford’s answer was to make transit free so that more people can use their bike for longer, multimodal trips. She also shared an excellent (and true!) insight about why people don’t bike: “So many people are having accidents on bikes, and it’s not just the cars crashing into them. It’s the infrastructure — the potholes, the lanes and streets that haven’t been taken care of yet and we’re displacing entire communities into places with those types of streets.” 

Gonzalez talked up transit-oriented development that would allow more people to love closer to where they work. He also said he’s already working with TriMet (he’s on their board) on a “Regional approach to fareless transit.”

Iannarone referred to data that shows drive-alone trips in Portland are way up in recent years. “This means we’re not telling the story of who we are and what we value. We’re not making it clear enough to ensure people that cycling is safe for them. We’re not making cycling accessible.” She also told the story of how she gave up cycling when she moved to east Portland because conditions were so stressful.

In one of the final questions of the night about how low-income people and communities of color will benefit (or not) from transportation investments, Raiford ended on a strong note. She said she’d push for “frontline access to politics and civic engagement”. Then she became exasperated by the question itself. “I’m tired of hearing the lip service. I can’t even take it any more. We believe that all we have to do is include people [of color] when it’s time to celebrate or time to vote then use those pictures to get those investments.”

A lightning round ended the event with broad agreement on every question — except for a “maybe” from Iannarone when asked whether she’d support the Metro transportation investment measure.

Hopefully this forum helps you decide “yes” or “no” on the candidates. The election is coming May 19th. Stay tuned for more coverage.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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