Getting around the Portland region in the future will be much easier, much safer and much more environmentally responsible — if we can only figure out how to pay for it.
That was the message from a panel of experts on so-called Smart City transportation alternatives who appeared before the Westside Economic Alliance on Jan. 26. They told the economic development advocates from Washington and western Clackamas counties that emerging technologies hold the promise for fixing our congested roads and incomplete transit systems.
"Technologies open up options for looking at things differently," said Wilfred Pinfold, CEO of Urban Systems Inc., who predicted that today's cars will be replaced by internet-connected, self-driving electric vehicles that will allow parking garages to be torn down for higher density developments.
But in response to a question from an audience member, Pinfold admitted the costs and funding sources for such a complete transformation are unknown. He does not believe governments will pay for all of it, however.
"There are a lot of interesting financing models, but I don't think it will be a tax thing," Pinfold said.
One apparent option is advertising. Last week, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Saltzman announced that Portland is working with the private company CIVIQ Smartscapes to provide internet-based multimodal transit infomation and other communication services throughout Portland. The project, whch has yet to be finalized, will include a network of outdoor communication structures that also will be used for advertising to subsidize the cost.
"I'm very happy with the partnership with CIVIQ. It will make it easier for residents, especially those in East Portland, to get vital information about all their transportation options," said Saltzman, who is in charge of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
The other two panelists at the breakfast forum were Skip Newberry, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon, and Sara Stiles, public-sector account executive at Intel. They and Pinford agreed that no matter how futuristic such ideas seem, pilot projects to prove they can work currently are underway in many cities around the world, including Portland.
According to Newberry, Portland also is working with TriMet on EBMobilePDX, a project to help people reach and finish trips on the transit system without using single-passenger cars. The idea was originally proposed in a U.S. Department of Transportation grant application that Portland failed to get, but is continuing to be researched anyway.
The panelists said such projects are part of building Smart Cities.
"What does 'Smart Cties' mean? It means cities that operate in ubiquitous and connected technologies, that focuses on data and communicating with residents, to improve the quality of life and government services," Newberry said.
According to Newberry, such research has started out focused on transportation problems in metropolitan areas because they are so severe. But he predicts it will expand to include all aspects of life in ways that cannot be foreseen now.
"Even the companies developing the technologies don't know what the next five years will bring," Newberry said.
Stiles said Intel is partnering with BMW on self-driving — or autonomous — cars, a technology that will be much safer than people driving themselves.
"As someone who drives to Seattle from Hillsboro a lot, I can't wait for autonomous cars," Stiles said.
At the same time, Stiles cautioned that right now, some of the technologies seem to be "solutions looking for problems."
Still, to many in the room, the ideas seemed a distant dream. Before sitting down for breakfast, many of the local elected officials and business leaders who gathered at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Tigard were talking about whether the 2017 Oregon Legislature would pass a transportation funding package to better maintain the region's roads and bridges. Some wondered whether the new Trump administration would increase the local match needed to receive federal highway and transit funds, making it even harder to increase their capacities.
And when some of the members hadn't shown up as the panel discussion was starting, WEA President Mike Morey said he assumed they were stuck in traffic.