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Infrastructure needs grow as city looks for money to fix streets

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO JAIME VALDEZ - Portland needs to figure out how to pay for many more maintenance and repair projects like this broken sewer pipe at Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard and Capitol Highway. Portland’s City Council needs to spend at least $287 million a year more than it expects to collect for basic infrastructure maintenance during the next 10 years, according to a draft report on city services and land use.

Some, but not all, of the maintenance funding gap could be closed if the council could fully fund all of the needed infrasructure projects it has identified for the next 20 years. The projects would cost more than $5 billion, and the council has not yet figured out how to pay for all of them, however.

Those figures are included in a new city document, “proposed draft citywide systems plan.” It is a companion to the proposed draft comprehensive plan update that was just released. The comp plan update — as it is commonly called — is intended to guide city growth through 2035. The citywide systems plan is an attempt to document the infrastruture needs required to carry it out.

The lack of money for street maintenance has received a lot of attention in recent months. The city auditor’s office reports that the Portland Bureau of Transportation needs to spend $75 million more a year to fix and maintain all city streets. Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick are struggling to find public support for a new fee to raise around $50 million a year for both street maintenance and safety improvements, such as new sidewalks and crosswalk traffic signals.

Hales and Novick have repeatedly said their proposed street fee is intended to pay for more than just maintenance projects. They want it to help fund safety projects to meet the city’s growing population, too.

For example, speaking at a busy intersection without sidewalks outside of Multnomah Village in Southwest Portland on Aug. 19, Novick said, “Safety isn’t just a dangerous intersection where people have been hit, it’s [also] a street that people would like to use to bike and walk, but it’s not safe to do so now.’

According to the citywide systems plan, PBOT needs far more money than $75 million for maintenance and safety improvements. It pegs the total funding gap at $153.4 million a year for 10 years. That includes $47.6 million for collector and arterial streets, $44 million for local streets, $17.5 million for signal hardware, $15.7 for curbs and sidewalks, $12.9 million for bridges, $7.1 million to build and maintain corners that comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, $5.8 million on street lights and $2.8 million for other assets.

PBOT is not the only city agency with such a funding gap during the next 10 years, however. According to the systems plan, Portland Parks & Recreation needs $84.4 million more per year to expand and maintain the parks system. The Portland Water Bureau needs $15.5 million more per year for unmet replacement and maintenance needs. And the Bureau of Environmental Services needs $12.4 million more per year for the sewer and stormwater systems.

In addition, Portland has a $21.4 million a year funding gap for maintain city facilities and bringing them up to industry standards. They include office buildings, police and fire stations, maintenance facilities, and technology systems.

And some maintenance needs have not yet been estimated, according to the citywide systems plan. For example, BES does not know how much it will cost to maintain the so-called green infrastructure it is acquiring and building, including streets with bioswales and natural areas. Although BES is working to estimate green infrastructure maintenance costs, they are not included in the systems plan.

Much of this information is available in other city records. But the citywide systems plan pulls it all together in a single, explanatory document that can be found at www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/65424.

Staggering needs

Altogether, that adds up to more that $2.87 billion during the next 10 years. But that’s just the beginning of the city’s unmet infrastructure funding needs. The proposed draft citywide systems plan also includes hundreds of construction projects recommended by city agencies to meet their needs through 2033. The City Council has included most if not all of them on tentative capital improvement plans approved with each annual budget. Specific projects are authorized or continued each year when the new budget is approved.

Not every project on each list will ever be funded, and new projects are added almost every year. Nevertheless, the identified total, which includes both maintenance and new construction projects, is staggering.

For example, the capital improvement plan for the Bureau of Environmental Services totals more than $1.7 billion through 2033. The plan for the Portland Water Bureau totals more $1.5 billion.

The long-range plan for Portland Bureau of Transportation was last updated in 2007 and is being reviewed. In 2007, PBOT said projects needed for the next 20 years could cost up to $1.1


Many of the projects each list are drawn from individual plans approved by the council for years. For BES, they include plans for the future of the Columbia Wastewater Treatment Plant and Tryon Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, several stormwater and watershed management plans, and the Johnson Creek restoration plan. For the Water Bureau, they include the Bull Run water supply habitat conservation plan, the distribution system master plan, the infrastructure master plan and the water management and conservation plan. PBOT is updating its transportation system plan to include the bicycle plan for 2030, the pedestrian master plan and the streetcar concept plan, among others.

No project list for Portland Parks & Recreation is included in the citywide systems plan, even though previous plans approved by the council are referenced in it. They include the natural areas acquisition strategy, the natural areas restoration plan, Parks 2020 Vision, the urban forest action plan and the urban forestry management plan.

Altogether, the 20-year capital improvement plans for those four agencies probably total at least $5 billion, if not a whole lot more.

Legislative solution?

Some funds for the projects on the capital improvement plans are scheduled to come in during the next 20 years. Ratepayers are already funding construction projects undertaken by both the Bureau of Environmental Services and Water Bureau. PBOT projects are funded by a variety of sources, including federal, state and local transportation dollars. Portland Parks & Recreation is supported by both city general fund and dedicated property tax revenue.

However, current revenue levels will not pay for every capital improvement project. That is why sewer and water rates are projected to keep rising, and why Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick are pushing a citywide street fee. However, changes are underway that could both increase or decrease those funds in the future.

Hales and Novick have both said the City Council needs to enact their street fee to help convince the 2015 Legislature the city deserves more state transportation funds. Next year’s session is expected to consider a transportation funding plan that could raise the state gas tax and motor vehicle registration fee.

The city has also launched a process that could restrict the ability of the council to raise sewer and water rates for construction and maintenance projects. Water Commissioner Nick Fish has appointed a blue ribbon commission to determine whether the council needs more public oversight on ratepayer spending. The appointment was promised in response to the measure to create a Portland public water district that was defeated by voters in May. It is too early to know what changes the commission will propose or whether the council will go along with them.

And a bond levy that has funded parks projects is due to expire on July 1, 2015. Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz has convinced the council to refer a replacement measure to the Nov. 4 general election ballot. It would only fund major maintenance projects, however, and not even all of them that have already been parks officials.

The Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission is scheduled to consider the

proposed draft comprehensive plan update and accompanying proposed draft citywide systems plan later this year. The council will take them up next spring.

Southwest Community Connection reporter Drew Dakessian contributed to this story.

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