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Metro leaders wonder: Will public support costly carbon emissions plan?

Leaders from across the region on Friday, April 11, seemed willing to invest more — perhaps significantly more — in transportation.

More buses. Smarter roads. Better sidewalks and bikeways. All gathered support from the morning gathering of dozens of elected officials.

That support isn’t surprising. The leaders were spending on a currency of moral imperative, guided by a budget they’ve already laid out in policies that have been adopted from city councils and county commissions from across the region.

It’s easy to say the public should do more about improving transportation, and implement the things already called for in plans. The harder conversation, about how to pay for it all, comes next month.

METRO NEWS

Stories Nick Christensen writes for Metro are not edited or altered by the regional agency or the Metro Council. Christensen is a Metro employee, but provides independent reporting on the agency. Metro news is committed to transparency, fairness and accuracy.

The meeting, with officials from Forest Grove, Wilsonville, Happy Valley, Vancouver and myriad spots in between, was on its surface to address an impending state mandate to cut the Portland region’s tailpipe emissions.

But the added benefits of doing so — possibly decreasing congestion, improving the climate for business or helping the region’s residents live longer — drove the conversation far more than saving the planet.

Friday’s meeting, at the World Forestry Center’s Cheatham Hall, was a joint gathering of the Metro Council, the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation and the Metro Policy Advisory Committee. As part of the state mandate, Metro has to develop a plan to cut per capita tailpipe emissions by 20 percent in the next 20 years.

That plan is due to state regulators by the end of this year.

Laying out the options

According to Metro’s analysis, there’s an easy way to meet the state’s tailpipe mandate: Implement the plans already on the books. The problem is that best laid plans often go to waste, in large part because there isn’t money to pay for them. Take transit as a simple example. The region’s current plans — adopted by representatives from around the region — call for about 10 percent more bus service than is offered now.

Doing so would cost $1.9 billion in capital costs by 2035. The way TriMet funding is going, less than a third of that will be available in the next 20 years.

On the other hand, if the region increased its spending — up to $5.1 billion in capital on transit in the next 20 years — and doubled daily transit service, it could come closer to hitting the state’s goals by making it significantly easier for people to get around without a car.

Overall, the region is on course to spend $6 billion in the next 20 years on all forms transportation — that’s assuming the already-declining revenue stream continues its downward trend.

If that happens, the region is expected to see a 12 percent reduction in its tailpipe emissions in by 2035, short of the state’s mandate.

That’s also well short of what’s called for in the region’s current plans — the stuff local communities have called for. That list is $17 billion deep — and would lead to a 24 percent reduction, overall, in per capita emissions by 2035.

Metro staff also prepared a high-investment list, primarily because they felt it was likely policy makers would want to invest heavily in some areas and not-so-heavily in others. Those projects, ranging from completion of the region’s bike and pedestrian network to timing every traffic signal in the region, would cost $31 billion and cut per capita emissions by 36 percent.

Public support

Before the MPAC and JPACT members gathered in small groups to discuss how they wanted to tackle the mandate, DHM Research principal Adam Davis laid out where the region’s residents landed in a March poll on the topic.

In general, there was more support for improving transit and making traffic flow better, either by widening roads or using technology to decrease congestion.

Across the board, residents from Davis’ survey said they’d be willing to pay more in taxes or fees to improve transportation, ranging from 83 percent to maintain the current transportation system to 57 percent for providing incentives for carpooling or using alternative transportation to get around.

Still, Davis said, selling a tax increase in the Portland region would be a tough sell. Negativity towards government is at an all-time high, and the public has very little awareness of how government works, particularly with regards to finance.

“Explain what the basics are, what the benefits are,” Davis said. “You’re going to have to give them some education as to how they’re paying for it now. You’re going to have to give them some education as to the need for money. You’ve got to also help them understand that you’re doing a good job spending the money you already have.”

Coming next month

With the MPAC, JPACT and Metro Council feedback in hand, Metro’s planners can craft a final proposal to meet the tailpipe mandate. They have a clearer picture of what kind of package the representatives are looking for in a strategy to reduce emissions.

Officials are considering a strategy that could cost $17 billion in the next 20 years. Specifics for a funding strategy weren’t discussed Friday — that’s the topic for a May 30 follow-up summit.

Metro News editor Nick Christensen can be reached at nick.christensen@oregonmetro.gov or 503-813-7583. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.