Update 4/2/10 - More information here
Last Wednesday, I asked Mayor Adams to remove the emergency clause from the ordinance directing funding for Green Streets in the Bureau of Environmental Services, to allow more time for me to sort out the facts in the issue. Here's what I found out.
See also additional, new information posted later in the comments section.
(Added 3/18/10 at 7:17 p.m.)
1. How did we find "a spare $20 million"?
This is about half the savings identified by the Office of Management and Finance, from Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) construction contracts coming in under the budgeted amount in the past two years. The savings are because companies are competing for scarce construction jobs and bidding close to cost to keep their workers employed; because our Purchasing Department does a great job of seeking competitive bids; and because BES does excellent work in budgeting, project management and cost containment.
2. What is being proposed?
Mayor Adams proposes to use some of the savings for more Green Street projects, rather than using it for other projects on the BES Capital Improvement Projects list. He states Council has authority on policy, which the bureau then implements with projects. There are competing policies in this matter, and Council direction is needed and appropriate to affirm which policies should receive prioritization.
3. How much $20 million does translate into, for the average residential ratepayer on their bill?
Answer: 7.5 cents per month, or 90 cents for the year.
(Added 3/18/10 1 p.m. - this is for the average residential customer. Thanks to Michael in the comments for pointing out this omission).
For some citizens, that may be the end of the debate, right there. Twenty million dollars is a lot of money. Ninety cents for the total one-time, one-year burden on the average ratepayer is not much money. Still, I kept digging.
4. What are the choices for that money?
- Return it to ratepayers, or use it to decrease the increase in rates in the next fiscal year
- Apply it to pay off BES debt service (loans borrowed to fund projects)
- Spend it on green street projects per Mayor Adams's plan
- Spend it on projects added to/moved up the sewer construction list when the budget showed funds available
5. How many jobs does $20 million create, and is there any significant difference between the number of jobs on a green street project and the number on a hard sewer project?
Answer: About 280 jobs, likely not much difference in the number between green and hard projects. Some of the jobs are new, some preservation of current jobs. BES works diligently and is particularly successful in employing local companies and promote minority, women, and emerging small business hiring. The green streets jobs may provide a wider range of opportunities for these demographic groups, since green streets projects include landscaping, nursery supplies, and simple surface construction such as backhoe work. Piped projects may be more specialized, heavy construction work.
Answers 4 and 5 led me to a turning point. Yes, there is a principle involved, and some say the savings should be returned to the ratepayers. I believe most Portlanders if asked whether they would rather have 90 cents returned to them for the year, or help to create 280 family-wage jobs during a recession, would opt for the jobs. Particularly, if the jobs are providing infrastructure improvements in neighborhoods.
So having decided the money should be used on BES projects that generate jobs, I looked into concerns that the money is being mis-directed to Transportation projects, not BES projects on stormwater or sewer infrastructure.
6. Are the proposed projects paying for paving and striping for bicycle projects, using BES sewer rate money for Transportation bureau projects?
No. Green Street projects provide facilities like vegetated stormwater drainage areas such as planted curb extensions and roadside drainage swales (i.e., vegetated ditches) in the right-of-way. These surface structures have the side-effect of slowing traffic and providing opportunities to stripe bike lanes and safety boxes, but that is not their purpose, and not the use of the sewer rate funding. This money will not be used for funding off-road facilities like trails. It will not be used for traffic signals or pavement-widening.
Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) money will be used for bicycle amenities on Green Streets that are not connected with the stormwater facilities. Mayor Adams set aside $1 million in the Alternative Transportation fund in 2009-10, and this money will be used. Further, the Bicycle Master Plan set up a Task Force to assess and address issues of funding the facilities called for in the plan.
7. What will the sewer rate money fund?
Vegetated stormwater facilities in streets. The proposal is to look at all the streets BES has identified as potential Green Streets, cross-reference with those identified as Bike Boulevards in the Bicycle Master Plan, and expedite Green Street stormwater improvements on the streets identified in both plans. This does what we have been calling on bureaus to do - work together so that projects using citizens' money benefits more than one goal. BES and PBOT have already been working on such projects, so this will reinforce those efforts. Both BES Director Dean Marriott and PBOT Director Sue Keil understand the importance of sewer rates funding projects that address stormwater issues. They are both dedicated to providing equity and services for neighborhoods citywide. The Mayor's ordinance calls for BES and PBOT to work together to decide which streets best meet shared priorities and the identified goals.
8. Is the proposal just naming places where BES planned to build Green Streets facilities anyway?
Yes and no. So far, BES has identified locations for approximately 900 facilities so the locations are on the Green Streets inventory. There are enough areas in Portland where Green Streets facilities are needed to require funding for the next 25 years,
9. Which projects should be added to the BES Capital Improvement List with the $20 million savings - more green street projects, or more hard infrastructure projects?
Factors to consider:
- Cost - One reason for adopting the Green Streets program within BES was that it saves money, compared with piped engineered facilities.
An example from an interview in early February, in the Portland Tribune: " Monitoring green street function has been important in proving that they work and that green infrastructure makes good fiscal sense. In the 2.5 square mile Tabor to the River Program area, green streets save us money. The original estimate using traditional grey infrastructure was $144 million in today’s dollars. Two years later, the program was re-designed with a combination of grey and green infrastructure. The current estimate for this integrated approach is $81 million."
Independent web sites state:
* "Green streets can ... save money for sewer ratepayers and taxpayers. Traditional pipe and stormwater disposal systems can cost up to twice as much as green streets projects." upperdesplainesriver.org/portland.htm
* "Portland's most recent pre-design for green street projects identify design and construction savings of 20% to 63% over traditional storm sewer systems. These savings are calculated without accounting for the ecosystem benefits--which are substantial." plangreen.net
In some areas of the City, sewer backup into private properties is a problem. These areas are targeted for concentrated Green Street facilities because they save money over the traditional pipe replacement, and they provide the needed benefit of relieving storm sewer backup issues.
- Backlog in project list, green vs. hard infrastructure
* The City’s Asset Management Report of December 2009, which was presented to Council this week, identifies a funding gap for BES of $28 million per year for both hard and green projects
* The funding gap for Green Streets is about 30 projects, off the goal of 920 Green Streets facilities in the first five years of the program (starting in 2007). This does not count the entire inventory of sites where the facilities are identified as desirable.
* The hard sewer projects cost more, while the Green Streets are more cost-effective in reducing stormwater runoff to pipes.
- Safety - crash and fatality data on the streets to be prioritized for improvements
The Bicycle Master Plan identified safety priority streets and intersections. Under the Mayor's proposal, concentrated green streets facilities will be provided on streets on both the Green Street priority list and Bicycle Master Plan priority list. Further, funding for Green Street facility demonstration projects will be directed to high-crash intersections in all five quadrants of the City, to raise awareness of the virtues of Green Street facilities as well as to improve safety and facilitate bicycle movement.
- Added value - which of the streets, Green vs. traditional infrastructure, promote better freight, business, and/or pedestrian uses?
The Bicycle Master Plan carefully considered interactions with freight, pedestrians, and business districts. By cross-referencing with the Green Streets inventory, projects will be funded that meet multiple goals and are thus more cost-effective for citizens paying both taxes and rates, than one fund paying for a project in one area and another adding amenities elsewhere. Our infrastructure backlog in all areas is well documented. Citizens benefit when the City addresses more than one need with the same dollar.
10. What about ongoing funding for Green Streets and Bicycle Master Plan priority improvements?
I did not support the Mayor's proposal to allocate an additional $2 million per year in sewer rate funds for projects on the Bicycle Master Plan, as part of this Ordinance. That decision should be made in the annual Budget process. Mayor Adams deleted this component of the Ordinance at my request last week, agreeing that ongoing funding decisions should be made in the annual Budget process. The BES budget presentation is March 30, before the effective date of this ordinance.
After asking all these questions and considering the answers, I believe it is prudent use of rates and contract savings to prioritize spending $20 million in sewer rate money on the Green Streets identified by BES to address storm sewer backup into private properties while simultaneously supporting implementation of portions of the Bicycle Master Plan as implemented by the Bureau of Transporation.
* It takes advantage of the current favorable bidding and contracting climate to put/keep close to 300 people working while obtaining multiple benefits for use of ratepayer dollars.
* When done in the necessary concentration and with appropriate design, the addition of Green Street facilities can provide relief in areas at risk for basement flooding, in a manner that is less expensive than traditional engineering solutions and accomplishes BES's goals for investment in infrastructure that prevents and alleviates basement backups.
* By BES prioritizing building these facilities on streets also identified in the Bicycle Master Plan, multiple goals are achieved with minimal added cost to ratepayers and significant benefit to taxpayers - pedestrians, drivers, cyclists, and adjacent residents.
* The alternative of returning about one dollar to each ratepayer does not seem wise to me.
I believe it is prudent to use the contract savings from this fiscal year to support 280 jobs spending rate money for stormwater facilities on new Green Streets, on routes that are also identfied in the Bicycle Master Plan.