Six in 10 Bend voters say they don’t feel safe navigating neighborhood streets because of transportation issues in their city.
And many blame traffic congestion, which voters ranked as the No. 1 issue they wanted the City Council to fix in town, because they believe it increases the number of speeding drivers on the side streets where they live.
The observations came from a survey of 300 people this spring. The city wanted to know how strongly residents felt about transportation issues like narrow roads, bottlenecks at intersections and the lack of bike lanes and pedestrian options. The survey also asked whether they would be willing to spend money to fix those problems.
In response, the city is exploring the feasibility of crafting a bond package to address the growing community sentiment that Bend’s development and population growth has outpaced the city’s transportation system.
But closing the gap between what people want and what the city can reasonably achieve will be the challenge before the council this fall. A qualitative study of 21 people in September shows voters are willing to fund more transportation projects than the city could practically accomplish in the near future.
“It’s a huge decision. What we’re hearing from people is that people really want action on this,” Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell said. “We have a responsibility to give people a package they want, and that we can achieve.”
The City Council will be tasked with scaling and prioritizing a list of projects that were suggested by a citizen advisory committee to create what could be one of the largest transportation bonds in city history. The council would then vote in January on whether to put the bond to a vote.
But how these projects are prioritized will be subject to differing philosophies on the council about the relationship between traffic congestion and street safety.
On one point, the council has found consensus: Voters need to see a change — and quickly.
“It feels very consequential,” Goodman-Campbell said. “It’s one of the most consequential decisions we’ll make as a council.”
The road to a bond began about two years ago, when a citizen committee was tasked with identifying projects that would improve roads, intersections, bike lanes and other infrastructure, and looking into how those improvements could be funded.
In May, the city contracted with DHM research in Portland to conduct a phone survey of 300 registered voters and found about 60% of respondents would pay additional taxes or fees to fund transportation improvements.
And in the qualitative study administered in September, the 21 voters were asked to choose which out of three packages of projects they would prefer, ranging from $100 million and $250 million, though they did not get to see the price estimates at the time. A majority said they would vote for the most extensive package, with 25 projects.
“I was surprised they were willing to pay for a larger group of projects,” said Susanna Julber, a city senior project and policy analyst overseeing the research. “They weren’t just projects that suited them personally. … They think it will improve conditions citywide.”
With people generally invested in transportation issues, the trick for the council will be to manage expectations with whatever bond package is put forward.
“There’s the physical reality of how much the city can absorb constructionwise. And that’s not considering other infrastructure projects,” Julber said.
There are also political risks to calculate. Projects, even if they span decades, need to be prioritized in a way where residents would be able to see tangible change on their commutes and in their daily lives, said Councilor Bill Moseley.
Otherwise, Moseley fears another Reed Market Road situation — where voters in the last transportation bond in 2011 paid for road improvements that ultimately did not help alleviate congestion.
“If voters feel like they get hoodwinked again, they are not going to approve future bonds,” Moseley said.
For Moseley, gaining voter trust starts with prioritizing projects that focus on reducing road traffic, like widening roads and fixing intersections. While producing safer biking and pedestrian paths are important for safety, they won’t necessarily address traffic congestion, Moseley said.
“If we don’t have enough capacity (for roads) … we are not going to build housing, and that’s going to drive up housing costs,” he said. “Maybe it’s going to cost $20 million to build this road, but what is the cost in rent if we don’t expand this road?”
But other councilors, including Goodman-Campbell, believe voters would support a more holistic approach and believe people see slowdowns in traffic and feeling safe walking and biking around town as one related, connected problem.
“I think it’s a balance we can strike,” Goodman-Campbell said. “What projects are going to provide new connections for people going east to west, new safe routes on bikes or walking, and reduce congestion?”
Perhaps the biggest expectation to manage is explaining to the public how the bond would not be an end-all solution, said Councilor Barb Campbell, but a part of the city’s larger mission and goal to improve transportation systemwide.
Certain projects, like smart traffic lights or street maintenance programs, for example, could be paid for in other ways, like vehicle registration fees, grants or money from the state.
“We are trying to find any solutions that would be helpful and that our citizens would like us to use,” Campbell said. “And … even though it’s looking like it might be the biggest transportation bond the city has ever floated, it’s a part of a larger picture of improved transportation.”
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