Lawmakers weigh in on bus-only lanes, Powell Blvd, and more at east Portland forum

Oregon State Rep Janelle Bynum last night. Seated are Congressman Earl Blumenauer and County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Transportation is such a hot topic in east Portland right now that, “We need to be inside with the air conditioning,” said Lee Cha last night in the gym of the Immigration & Refugee Community Organization, located near the intersection of 102nd and Glisan. Cha, IRCO’s executive director, welcomed a panel of three lawmakers to a public forum on the topic: County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, Oregon State Representative Janelle Bynum and U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

The trio shared their perspectives on the issues and were asked questions by the audience.

Blumenauer played emcee and kicked things off. A veteran bike advocate and the face of cycling in Congress, Blumenauer knows the big picture here: He went to high school nearby and served as both a county and city commissioner before moving to D.C.

One-by-one he checked off some of the big problems. “Since the first light rail and a few freeway projects, there’s been very little federal investment east of 82nd,” he said. “And the 205 freeway was a mixed blessings in terms of what it did to the neighborhoods it was dropped into. It took a lot of time for the communities to recover… This area has been sort of a stepchild.”

Blumenauer added that “orphaned highways” like Powell and 82nd are “stuck in limbo” and “aren’t much different from when I went to high school out here and that was a long, long, long time ago.”

The crux of the problem, he said, was that because the federal government hasn’t raised the gas tax in 24 years, making it increasingly difficult for cities to raise enough matching funds to build things. “We’re trying to meet the federal partnership with 1993 dollars dealing with 2017 problems.” Add autonomous vehicles, which he said will “happen quickly,” and our traditional funding mechanisms — gas tax, traffic fines, and parking — will dry up quickly.

“I was sick of taking my kids’ strollers out into the streets because there were no sidewalks.”
— Jessica Vega Pederson, Multnomah County Commissioner

Pointing to that future, Blumenauer questioned the wisdom of building more space to park private cars. “We have parking garages being built that in a decade won’t make enough money to pay back their bonds.” He’s already eyeing new garages and existing ones for repurposing into affordable housing.

Jessica Vega Pederson, whom County Chair Deborah Kafoury has given the transportation portfolio, said her interest lies in making east Portland safer. “I came into this from a pedestrian safety standpoint… I was sick of taking my kids’ strollers out into the streets because there were no sidewalks.”

Newly elected State Rep Janelle Bynum (District 51) still has young children — both of whom were at last night’s event. Bynum was a major voice in pushing for funding of safety projects on Powell Blvd, a project that got $110 million in the recently passed statewide transportation bill. “I’m a very big proponent of making sure our neighborhoods are walkable and safe for kids and families,” she said. “I’ve pushed a stroller more miles than I care to share and I want to make sure our parents with strollers, and our bikes and our pedestrians can walk through our communities and enjoy their neighborhoods.”

As an owner of four local McDonald’s franchises with her husband, Bynum also carries weight as a business owner and you can rest assured she will be watching future projects on Powell very closely. “You can’t walk along Powell safely,” she said. “And that affects quality of life.”

Keeping to her promise that she’s “just a vessel” and that she “represents the people,” Bynum ceded her time to noted neighborhood activist Kem Marks. For him, the funding of Powell was more than just a political victory.

“This is something I think a lot of people didn’t think was ever going to happen,” he said. “To me personally, this is almost the elimination of what is a daily existential threat of trying to walk across and walking along Powell. To just do basic things.”

“From a social justice standpoint I’m willing to look at every option on the table.”
— Janelle Bynum, Oregon State Rep responding to a question about bus-only lanes.

When the event turned to the crowd for questions, someone brought up the Green Loop, a proposal the city describes as a “6-mile signature linear park and active transportation path that will bring new life and energy to the Central City.”

Vega Pederson foreshadowed the debate about that project by saying, “I think that sounds wonderful. But I also want to see the projects that have been waiting in east Portland for a long, long time get funded and started before I see that happen.”

One woman from the crowd said she was frustated that so many drivers clogging streets are from Washington. She wanted to impose a tax on them. This spurred discussion of congestion pricing. “We shouldn’t let the only companies that get to monentize congestion be Uber and Lyft,” was Blumenauer’s novel framing.

And Vega Pederson got perhaps the loudest spontaneous cheer of the night with her unequivocal support of charging people to drive. “We have to look at congestion pricing to help with demand,” she said, “And do it in a way that respects the fact that not everybody can afford pricing and do it in a way that rewards people for using less taxing modes like public transportation.”

On a related note, Luke Norman, a volunteer with the fledgling Portland Bus Lane Project asked the three electeds point-blank: “Would you be willing to provide leadership and support for bus-only lanes?”

Unsurprisingly Blumenauer said yes. He also mentioned that doing a pilot project à la Better Naito would be wise, “So people can try it out first.”

Vega Pederson also threw her support behind more bus-only lanes and mentioned that she’s already met with Portland Bus Lane Project. “We’ve started discussions about Hawthorne,” she said. “Even if it’s a pilot like Better Naito… In the future it’s something we have to consider.” Vega Pederson added she’s very interested in getting a bus-only concept into the discussion of the county’s Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project.

Bynum had a much more nuanced answer. She tied the issue back to housing affordability and the experiences of people who struggle to make ends meet:

“If you are forced farther out, and if you’re working in the city and you choose — or cannot afford to — have a vehicle to travel into the city than you’re forced to take [public] transportation. And you look at your smartphone and you say, ‘OK I need to go from 122nd into the city.’ If you’re on the bus or if you’re walking it’ll say it takes an hour and 28 minutes to get there. But if have a car it takes you 23 minutes to get there. When I look at numbers like that it tells me it costs money to be poor. And that to me is a social justice issue.

I think that when we try to equalize things and make it easier for people to get to there jobs and places of enjoyment they’d like to get to — then that’s the justice we seek. If it’s bus-only lanes. Great… From a social justice standpoint I’m willing to look at every option on the table to make sure that quality of life remains high.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and

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