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Roads? Transit? Poll says we want both, but funds scarce

Support for projects differs across state, but all agree on need


One reason Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick are pushing their street fee so hard is to pressure the 2015 Legislature to increase transportation funding.

Some legislators are considering increasing the state gas tax in the 2015 legislative session to pay for more transportation projects. Hales and Novick have repeatedly said if the City Council approves the street fee in November, they will have more leverage to push for an increase in Salem. The state, in turn, would share the additional revenues with local jurisdictions. A 5-cent gas tax increase, for example, would allow Portland to issue $93.5 million worth of bonds to rebuild 31 lane miles of streets.

But what other projects should be funded if the state raises more money for transportation? Should the focus be on roads and bridges, or should the state put more money into mass transit and other methods of moving people around? The answers to those questions may depend on where you live — as Portland-area residents continue to favor trains and buses, while many other areas in Oregon want to see better roads for their personal automobiles.

Those conclusions can be gleaned from the 2013 Oregon Value & Beliefs Project survey, which asked thousands of state residents to say how they would spend transportation dollars. Unlike most polls, this survey asked questions about priorities with cost implications — informing respondents that the priorities they chose meant they were willing to raise taxes or reduce other services to fund them.

The top priority overall was maintenance of roads and highways, which was rated very important or somewhat important by 72 percent of poll respondents. Public transportation such as buses and trains came in second, with 55 percent support. And new roads and highways came in third, with 49 percent.

The slight preference for public transportation over new roads and highways might seem surprising, given recent controversies over light rail and the fact that most Oregonians depend on motor vehicles for day-to-day travel. But an analysis conducted by DHM Research, the company that conducted the survey, points to one possible explanation.

"Support for public transit may be due in part to emerging changes in how people feel about cars. A broad range of surveys in recent years suggests that people are less likely to view cars as a pathway to freedom and mobility, or as an expression of their personal identity," according to the analysis.

However, support for mass transit varies greatly, depending on whether the person lives in urban Portland, the suburbs or in rural areas. Outside the state's largest city, residents seem to favor a balance between transit and automobiles.

DHM Research provided the Pamplin Media Group with a survey breakdown for those who live in or near the boundaries of Portland, Beaverton, Canby, Forest Grove, Gresham, Hillsboro, Lake Oswego, Molalla, Sherwood, Tigard, Tualatin, West Linn, Wilsonville, Oregon City or the rest of Clackamas County.

Unsurprisingly, Portland residents are the most enthused about mass transit, with 74 percent indicating a willingness to spend more money on buses and trains. However, this support dwindles the farther you get away from Portland.

Uneven support for transit

Looking at the state as a whole, 53 percent of respondents say they support more transit funding, but that seeming majority is hardly uniform in its political makeup.

"Democrats and Republicans feel very differently about this issue, however. About two-thirds of Democrats support public transportation investment, while just one-third of Republicans do," according to the DHM analysis.

Democrats dominate the Portland area and Willamette Valley, so it's no surprise that support for transit is strong there — 55 and 53 percent respectively. It is weaker in Central Oregon (48 percent) and Eastern Oregon (45 percent). But it is also strong in Southern Oregon (54 percent), where Ashland is a Democratic enclave.

Plus, it's not as if there's no support for road construction. This option is favored by 37 percent of those in the Portland area, 39 percent in the Willamette Valley, 45 percent in Central Oregon, 46 percent in Eastern Oregon and 38 percent in Southern Oregon.

Support for transit also varies within the Portland area. After Portland, the highest level of support for mass transit is found in Lake Oswego, at 61 percent. Based on the DHM research, here is how other communities compare in their support for mass transit projects:

• Beaverton: 54 percent support.

• Canby and Molalla: 52 percent support.

• Forest Grove: 56 percent support.

• Gresham: 46 percent support.

• Hillsboro: 52 percent support.

• Sherwood, Tigard and Tualatin: 57 percent support.

• West Linn-Wilsonville: 51 percent support.

• Oregon City and the rest of Clackamas County: 56 percent support.

Conversely, support for more money for new roads and highways is smallest in Portland — 22 percent — and greater outside the city. New road and highway spending is favored by 40 percent in Beaverton; 47 percent in Canby and Mollalla; 42 percent in Forest Grove; 44 percent in Gresham; 45 percent in Hillsboro; 38 percent in Sherwood, Tigard and Tualatin; 40 percent in West Linn and Wilsonville,; and 40 percent in Oregon City and the rest of Clackamas County.

Corridor projects

Of course, support in polls doesn't always translate into new projects. Although one major metro-area transit project is nearing completion, two have been stopped in recent years and a fourth is facing a voter backlash.

The Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX line project is on schedule to open in September 2015. When finished, it will extend light-rail service from the southern edge of Portland State University to downtown Milwaukie. It will also close the Portland Streetcar loop over the Tilikum Crossing Bridge across the Willamette River between South Waterfront and OMSI.

But in 2012 the Lake Oswego City Council blocked an extension of the Portland Streetcar that had been studied for years. And the 2013 Washington Legislature killed a new light-rail line between Portland and Vancouver when it refused to fund its share of the Columbia River Crossing.

Planning is underway on the Southwest Corridor Project that envisions a high capacity transit line between Portland and Tualatin. But a majority of Tigard voters have approved a measure requiring a public vote on any new transit line in their city, such as the one under consideration as part of the Southwest Corridor Project. Tualatin voters will be asked to approve or reject a similar measure this September.

Another transit project is also in the works. Planning has begun on a potential new line between Portland and Gresham along portions of Powell Boulevard and Division Street. The Powell-Division project overseen by Metro, the elected regional government, could be the first bus rapid transit project in the area.