Letting the Infrastructure Crumble

Portland can spend hundreds of millions on streetcars and billions on light rail. But it is letting its most-valuable asset–the city’s $5 billion road system–fall apart, says an expose featured in yesterday’s Oregonian. The city’s transportation department, says the article, has enough money to hire eight new employees to oversee streetcars, build more than a dozen miles of new bike paths, and co-sponsor a Rail-volution conference in Los Angeles. But it doesn’t have enough many to repave any badly deteriorating street until 2017 at the earliest.

Even when the federal government was handing out stimulus funds in 2009, Portland decided not to put any of the funds into its streets. None of its projects, the city claims, were “shovel-ready” (as if the high-speed rail projects that did get funded were in any sense shovel-ready).

It is hard to see this as anything but malign neglect. Smart-growth advocates (such as Todd Litman, who the Antiplanner debated last week) insist they aren’t anti-automobile. But they are for spending all your transportation dollars on alternatives to the automobile even as your bridges and streets fall apart.

Nationwide, federal and state highways, most of which are funded out of dedicated gasoline taxes, are in pretty good shape. It is local streets and bridges that have problems, in many cases because cities such as Portland have deliberately decided to ignore them.

The decision by Portland-area local governments to twiddle their collective thumbs about the Sellwood Bridge, which rates 2 on a scale of 100 in terms of structural quality, while spending hundreds of millions of dollars building a light-rail bridge just downstream from Sellwood is a good example. When they finally agreed to build a new bridge, they decided to add no new capacity, as if the region has had no population growth since the bridge was originally built 87 years ago. It appears that smart growth supports driving as long as we drive no more than we did in 1925.


37 thoughts on “Letting the Infrastructure Crumble

  1. LazyReader

    Well, Portland will need those streets for it’s logistical needs. Trucks that I assume bring in most of the goods either raw or finished. As they get worse won’t goods get more expensive for the time delays it takes to bring them to Portland navigating potholes.

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Portland can spend hundreds of millions on streetcars and billions on light rail. But it is letting its most-valuable asset–the city’s $5 billion road system–fall apart, says an expose featured in yesterday’s Oregonian.

    Rhetorical questions follow:

    (1) What percentage of food consumed by Portland residents (at home, in restaurants and from food trucks) is delivered by light rail or streetcar?

    (2) What percentage of the fuel that warms Portland in the winter is delivered by light rail or streetcar?

    (3) What percentage of the building materials that make up the apartments (that Portland Metro wants to force people to live in) is delivered by light rail or streetcar?

    (4) What percentage of the goods delivered by the U.S. Postal Service and its private competitors, UPS and FedEx (and others) is delivered by light rail or streetcar?

    (5) What percentage of the patrons at the Cascade Station IKEA store take their (frequently large and heavy) flat-packed purchases home via light rail?

    (6) What percentage of municipal refuse (trash) and recycling that Portland residents generate is hauled-away by light rail or streetcar?

    (7) Even in Portland, people need to use the restroom sometimes, and what percentage of biosolids (the “solid” part of what gets processed by Portland’s wastewater treatment system) is hauled-away by light rail or streetcar?

    the highwayman Reply:

    Trams moved freight there before, they could do it again. In Germany VW is using trams to move auto parts. Closer to you, Amtrak is moving automobiles from VA to FL.

  3. Jardinero1

    Portland can and should be the first city in America to auction it’s streets away. The streets can be taken private and tolled. Proceeds from the sale can fund whatever Portland wants.

    Since the streets will be privately owned, the owner will be subject to civil liability for what harm may occur on them, thus over time they will become safer. Publicly owned streets enjoy the privilege of sovereign immunity, thus if you are injured as a consequence of poor street design or neglect you are SOL.

    Pensions, mutual funds and insurance companies are desperate for investments which provide a reliable income stream. They would be ready buyers for the streets of Portland.

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    People I respect have called for streets to be owned (or leased in the long-term) to private-sector owners. But here’s the rub.

    Portland wants to discourage use of its street and highway network, and presumably a new owner or concessionaire would want to encourage use of those streets to increase revenues.

    How to reconcile the above in a place like Portland?

    And beware of efforts to “give” the streets (and ability to collect revenue) to the transit provider Tri-Met, which would not benefit the users of Portland’s streets and highways.

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    The owners of streets would be profit maximizers first and volume maximizers secondarily. Increased volume on the roadway means increased wear and tear. I would submit that if people were charged anything like their per-axle-weight pro-rata share of road use, those same people would definitely drive less and seek alternatives… like walking, biking, carpools, vans, jitney-buses, big buses and even rail.

    I resolutely believe that the path to increased mass transit use and decreased single passenger auto use is not through increased subsidization of roads and rails but through the privatization and tolling of roads.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Do you want to live in a gated community?

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    No. What about you?

    the highwayman Reply:

    Then you can’t privatize streets, though you can subcontract the maintenance and charge tolls. Again that still doesn’t mean that the street in front of your home is a for profit entity, that if it isn’t profitable it will be disposed of.

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    You could apply common carrier doctrine to private roads. Power lines are privately owned, the telecom infrastructure is privately owned. The fact that the use of a private easement is metered and tolled doesn’t mean it’s closed. What is the difference between having to pay to access your powerline or phone or cable line that runs past your house and having to pay to drive down the street that runs past your house.

    Your statement about disposing of unprofitable roads makes no sense. If a business is unprofitable to the point of insolvency then it closes and its assets are liquidated, i.e. sold to someone else.

    the highwayman Reply:

    I don’t want to live in a private police state, though you might want to.

    kens Reply:

    The argument that local streets should be privatized and tolled only reinforces the Antiplanner’s position. While not politically feasible (the public would never go for it), it would be economically feasible. According to the Oregonian article, Portland is budgeting about $13 million for streets. Since its population is about 600,000, this works out to under $22 per capita for the year, or about 6 cents a day. The figure could be multiplied ten times, to improve road maintenance, and still it would be less than a dollar a day per person. This is an amount the public, I suspect, could afford to pay (especially since property taxes no longer needed for local roads could be reduced).

    If you applied the same logic of privatizing and making the user pay the full system costs to transit, it would collapse. Tri-Met’s base fare (soon to rise) is $2.40, and its farebox recovery ratio is about one-quarter. So each ride has a total cost of almost $10, three-quarters of it subsidized. Now I know that there are many discounted fares, so the average fare collected would be less, but this figure also doesn’t include any of the considerable capital costs. So $10 a ride is probably a fair ballpark cost. But even at half this amount, few if any would be able or willing to pay their full share.

    This isn’t to suggest we should eliminate public transit. It provides an essential service to those unable to drive. But the recent focus has been on expanding service, often with rail, to those who do have the option of driving, and we really should be questioning what the public is getting in return for the considerable costs it’s paying. How much congestion relief is really being provided, and how much are emissions being reduced, and particularly, could better results be had by spending the money more effectively (like bus instead of rail, or – God forbid – improving roads to eliminate bottlenecks)?

    the highwayman Reply:

    Though that’s still not as if the street in front of your home would exist on a profit or loss basis.

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    Not every road has to be financed via tolls, but many, many major arterials could and should be as well as nearly all bridges.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Tolls are just a means of cost recovery.

  4. Neal Meyer


    Jardinero’s comment about municipalities auctioning the streets off, I believe, is prohibited in Texas. I’ll have to revisit the State statutes.

    But I digress. The local political gangs in Portland and in other cities might possibly have another motive in letting the streets go to pot, in addition to the fact that many of them don’t like people driving motor vehicles around – and that other motive may be that by letting the roads go to hell, the legalized interest group gangsters down at City Hall are doing a long slow squeeze of the hapless citizenry, holding them hostage in order to get them to cry uncle so that they can raise property taxes, sales taxes, or income taxes, or whatever method by which they extract tribute from the peasantry.

    What would be their motive in doing this? It’s because all the interest groups lurking down at your local City Hall – the fire and police departments, the “public works works deparatment, the librarians, the garbage pickup folks, the zoning department, the government funded sport temple crowd, and all the rest of them have all plundered the local treasury dry, that’s why! Furthermore, there are those pesky runaway unfunded pension that they’ve stuck the future taxpayers with, but the future has finally come due. Maybe by letting the roads go to pot, then we can squeeze them for another $500 per year per household, and then we’re back in business.

    Now THAT sounds like a plan, and a government plan at that!

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    I live in Seabrook and follow transit issues and flood control issues in the region. Transit because it’s interesting and flood control because I write a lot of flood insurance. I looked at your blog for the first time. Very nice.

  5. Neal Meyer

    An addendum:

    One way to defeat the local political interest group gangsters from getting away with letting roads go to pot, besides privitization, is to promote Tiebout competition between municipalities and local governments. That way, if the political gangs at your City Hall let the roads go to pot, then you can simply run away and move up the road to another nearby town or city, where the local political gangs are more responsible.

    Deep down, that’s a big reason why the Smart Growthers, New Urbanists and all the other urban consolidators want to have regional governments, rather than lots of little governments. That way, they can impose their visions on entire regions and the peasantry can’t run away and escape.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Sounds a lot like feudalism.

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Neal, my home county (Montgomery County, Maryland) has been happily exporting its private-sector and government jobs base across the river to Northern Virginia for decades, while it happily enacts ever-more restrictive land use ordinances, frequently as part of its so-called Agricultural Preservation policy or its efforts at so-called Forest Conservation (never mind that all of the county has been logged several times over the years, even parts that are currently considered “pristine”).

    For some reason, most employers do not appear all that interested in the county’s long-running effort to force people to take transit to work (and a large number have left the county’s areas around Metrorail stations for greener pastures in Fairfax County or someplace else in Virginia).

  6. FrancisKing

    I don’t think that this is a conspiracy. It’s simply that people refer to buy new shiny toys than look after the ones they’ve already got. Children do this all the time, and it appears that some people have regressed back to their childhood.

    Dan Reply:

    And shiny toys are easier to point to when you are looking for votes.


    the highwayman Reply:

    Dan, you need to visit a car show.

    You’ll see plenty of big government subsidized new shiny toys there!

  7. craig

    The cable show Portlandia is not a spoof of Portland it is a documentary!

    The Portland city council and Planners, believe it is their job to change our habits, instead of solving the cities problems.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    The documentary on Portland’s recycling program is pretty accurate.


  8. Iced Borscht

    CP, you got a shout-out at the Weekly Standard for your comments on this thread:


    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Iced, this self-identified liberal is amused to see words written by me end up in the Weekly Standard!

    Thanks for the alert.

    the highwayman Reply:

    I agree, CPZ you are very liberal!

  9. the highwayman

    The Autoplanner; Portland can spend hundreds of millions on streetcars and billions on light rail. But it is letting its most-valuable asset–the city’s $5 billion road system–fall apart, says an expose featured in yesterday’s Oregonian.

    THWM: Though a mile of two track rail line is around $5 million to build, so $1 billion should be about enough to restore Portland’s rail system.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    The dingo stole your rail track.


    the highwayman Reply:


  10. Richard

    Have you driven on some of the streets in and around Charlotte. Maybe they will all be covered with red carpets before the Emperor arrives in September. Does Rep. Tillis support the RED LINE or not? Does anyone have an answer to this important question? I will not vote for any politician that supports a boondoggle that WILL be subsidized by the taxpayers, who are already supporting a cable company here in socialist Davidson.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Since what you wrote was a contradiction.

    If you’re going to get angry, then please do so for a legitimate reason.

  11. Iced Borscht

    The city has bludgeoned me into conformity. Starting this week, because I am reduced to desperation and because I tire of giving TriMet my money, I’ll be…biking to work? My god, yes.

    Should help my diabetes provided I don’t fall down one of the city’s many pavement craters and, um, die…

    the highwayman Reply:

    So O’Toole wants conformity.

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