Bend City Council agreed recently to pay communications firm Barney & Worth in excess of $100,000 to sell voters on an enormous transportation-funding package. Perhaps it should have approved more. A telephone survey conducted in May suggests that the city’s path to victory will be steep and very narrow.
One thing about which almost everyone interviewed by DHM Research agreed is that traffic has become bad. Eighty-eight percent of survey participants called congestion a problem, and half of those called it a very big problem.
But how to solve it?
Asked which methods of reducing congestion they consider most effective, nearly 30% of participants supported widening roads and adding travel lanes. The next three methods, in order of popularity, were addressing intersection bottlenecks, realigning existing roads and installing or fixing roundabouts.
What about building new bike and pedestrian paths? Only 8% of those surveyed considered these the most effective ways to reduce congestion. Developing infrastructure for people who’d rather walk or cycle than drive is worthwhile for a number of reasons. But there are six reasons, at least, why doing so in Bend will never reduce congestion appreciably: November, December, January, February, March and April.
DHM Research also asked participants to weigh in on the nebulous concept of neighborhood street safety. Most — 58% — said they consider it a problem, but only 15% called it a very big problem. The two most popular options to improve safety, by far: Create safe routes to school by adding sidewalks bike lanes and crosswalks in certain areas; and reduce congestion on major streets so people don’t cut through neighborhoods in the first place. Both were chosen by 31% of participants.
In the view of those surveyed, then, traffic congestion is a stand-alone problem and, owing to cut-through traffic, a safety problem. And the most effective ways to combat it, say those surveyed, involve building new roads and improving those that already exist.
All of this may seem fairly obvious. However, asking voters to pony up for transportation projects is an ideological exercise as well as a pragmatic one. The Citywide Transportation Advisory Committee, which will make transportation-funding recommendations to City Council, includes a number of enthusiastic advocates for alternative modes of transportation. And in its guidance, meanwhile, the state of Oregon seeks to minimize the use of passenger cars and trucks. When the time comes to send a transportation package to voters, City Council will find itself squeezed between alternative-transportation advocates and the state’s planning bureaucracy, on one side, and the bulk of their own constituents on the other.
That’s an uncomfortable place to be. And last month’s survey suggests this is an uncomfortable time to be there, at least if you’re inclined to ask voters to pay for projects they consider ineffective. Roughly 70 percent of those surveyed said they’d support Council asking taxpayers to raise taxes or fees for either traffic congestion or neighborhood street safety. But, as DHM Research explains, this number is less encouraging than it first appears.
To begin with, only half of those who support taxation do so strongly. The rest are what DHM calls “soft supporters” who “somewhat” support a tax measure. It is in that population that “the funding measures are at most risk. If these supporters are convinced to change their minds or simply don’t vote, then the funding measure may be defeated.” There is, DHM concludes, “still work to be done to engage them.” There also will be opportunities for opponents to persuade soft supporters — if, for instance, the city asks for zillions of dollars without increasing road capacity meaningfully.
The other reason for caution: Only 61% of voters said that they themselves would be willing to pay higher fees or taxes for projects that reduce congestion and improve neighborhood street safety. Tax hikes that affect other people are always an easier sell than those that affect voters directly. But any funding measure the city recommends is sure to affect voters to some degree.
As frustrated as Bend residents are by traffic congestion, convincing them to pay for improvements of any kind isn’t going to be easy. And it simply won’t happen unless the city focuses almost exclusively on increasing road capacity and improving road function. No amount of marketing wizardry is going to convince people stuck in their cars that building bike lanes, bus stops and sidewalks will alleviate congestion.
If the folks in City Hall are worried about failure, the survey offers an additional reason why they should be. Bend leaders aren’t exactly riding a wave of public confidence these days. Fifty nine percent of those surveyed believe that Bend is headed in the right direction, which seems at first to be an encouraging number. But 59%, the survey report notes, is “somewhat below what DHM research has found in mid-sized Oregon cities in recent years.” Right-track numbers for the Portland-area cities of Tualatin, Beaverton and Tigard, for instance, are 74%, 71% and 68%, respectively.
And in a footnote, DHM even calls out the quality of life rating produced by recent City of Bend surveys. As recently as 2014, 62% of those surveyed rated the quality of life here as “excellent.” In 2018, only 37% did.
The surest way for City Council to drive those worrisome numbers even lower is to botch its response to what Bend residents consider the city’s biggest problem.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.