Portland's Metro and the 2040 Plan

Downtown Portland

Downtown Portland can be beautiful to look at. But it produces less than half as many jobs as the "edge city" near Beaverton, a suburb west of Portland. Yet Metro planners are devoting most of their resources to downtown rather than the parts of the area that are really growing.

Metro: Idealism, Ambition, and Power

Take a group of young, idealistic professionals with a new vision of livable cities. Add an urban establishment intent on wringing every possible dollar and grant from the federal government. House them together in an agency with almost unlimited power over all of the counties and cities in the urban area. Stir well and you will get Metro, the nation's first elected regional planning council.

Metro serves as Portland's metropolitan planning organization, something the federal government began requiring in 1966 of all urban areas seeking federal grants for housing and urban development. More than 300 such metropolitan planning organizations represent cities across the country. Some are little more than post office boxes. Others have appointed commissions that plan grant requests and parcel out federal dollars to various jurisdictions. Only Metro has an elected council and few have anywhere near as much power as that council.

Most Portlanders know Metro as "the recycling agency." In fact, solid-waste disposal and recycling form the biggest part of its budget. But Metro is also the result of decades of effort by Portlanders who wanted a strong regional government against suburbanites who valued their independence. Metro succeeded where previous attempts failed largely because voters did not understand what Metro was all about.

Suburban voters and officials had often fought back proposals for regional governments or city-county consolidations. But in 1978, voters agreed to merge two agencies: the Columbia Region Association of Governments (CRAG), which had been Portland's metropolitan planning organization, and the Metropolitan Service District (MSD), which had handled services "of metropolitan concern" such as solid-waste planning and the zoo.

Metro historians admit that "the wording of the ballot measure--`Reorganize MSD, Abolish CRAG'--was confusing. Voters may have backed the measure expecting to rid the area of a metropolitan planning agency rather than create a more powerful one." Voters in Clackamas County (where Oak Grove is located) sided against the measure, but the county couldn't convince the courts to let it stay out of the new Metro.

The new Metro had an executive who was something like a combined mayor and city manager. Elected by the region, the executive worked as a full-time manager and reported to a thirteen-member elected council, each unpaid councilor representing a portion of the region.

Metro promoted curbside recycling and sent other garbage to a landfill site in eastern Oregon, nearly 200 miles away. Metro also built a convention center and took over management of several parks, sports centers, and other facilities.

All of these activities were highly visible. Less well known to most of the public was Metro's planning activities. In 1979, in response to Oregon's 1973 planning laws, Metro defined Portland's urban growth boundary and took over transportation and other planning activities for the region.

With these successes, Metro dreamed once again of real city-county consolidation. In 1991, staff members drew up a proposal to replace all city and county governments in the tri-county area with a single Metro-like agency. This idea didn't appeal to the officials of those cities.

Instead, a committee of city and county elected officials proposed to revise Metro's charter to give the agency almost the same powers that a city would have to tax and annex adjacent lands. It could take over almost any special district or government activity if it felt that the work of that district or activity was a "matter of metropolitan concern." The new charter would retain the executive but replace the thirteen-member volunteer council with a seven-member council half-time.

Most important, the charter made planning Metro's top priority. By 1995, Metro would write a "future vision" for the region. By 1997, Metro would write a fifty-year land-use and transportation plan. By 2000, all local governments in the region would have to revise their zoning laws to comply with Metro's plan.

To oversee the plan, the charter created an advisory committee that had some veto powers. The fact that this committee consisted mainly of elected city and county officials gained the support of many such officials who had previously opposed Metro interference in their jurisdictions.

As in 1978, passage of the new charter in 1992 was aided by a confusing ballot title that promised to "limit regional government." "If this passes, most voters will think they have struck a blow to limit regional government, which is exactly the opposite of what it does," admitted a top Metro official at the time. "In nearly all respects, the charter expands Metro's powers over current state law."

The most important expansion of power was Metro's ability to force three county and twenty-four city governments to adopt zoning codes that complied with Metro's comprehensive plan. Admitting that this idea was "radical," a Portland city commissioner who helped write the charter commented that "I'm still amazed we got away with that."

When voters approved Metro's charter in November, 1992, Metro had already started writing a fifty-year plan, known as the 2040 Plan. Metro published draft alternatives for the plan just five weeks after the election. The election simply meant that Metro would not have to sell the plan to voters, since it now had the power to enforce it.

At about the time the charter was on the ballot, Metro was proving the accuracy of its planning and forecasting skills by moving into a new building. The main reason for the move was the growing size of its planning staff.

Rather than build a brand-new building, Metro decided to demonstrate the value of recycling by converting an old Sears department store to an office building. Metro spent nearly $30 million on the effort and ended up with a building worth only $15 million. It could have leveled the Sears and built a new building for just half of what it spent.

When it moved out of its old office, Metro still had two-and-one-half years left on its lease. Its planners forecast that it could nearly fill up the building within four months. Instead, the office remained nearly vacant and taxpayers ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars on the lease.

Alternative Visions for Portland

Is it better to grow up or out--to densify existing areas or to spread out over a larger area? Or should planners encourage the growth of "satellite cities" outside the major urban area?

These were the major alternatives, or "concepts," that Metro presented to the public in 1993. All of the concepts presumed that the four-county region (including Clark County, Washington) would grow from about 1.5 million people in 1990 to 2.7 million in 2040. The Portland urban area (excluding Vancouver) would grow from about 1 million people to 1.9 million.

Metro's concepts included:

Metro's projections of some of the effects of these concepts, along with the concept selected in 1994, are shown in the tables below. What was just as interesting were some of the things Metro didn't do. First, it left out important alternatives. And second, it failed to project many important costs.

Table One--Selected Data for Growth Concepts

              People  Trips     Transit    Auto      VMTs        Lane-    Congested  
              1000s   millions  percent    percent   million     Miles    Miles

Four-County Region

1990          1,511     6.3       2.2       93.0      20.4       9,279    162       
Base case     2,674     11.6      2.3       93.1      37.9      10,780    591       
A             2,674     11.6      3.2       91.9      36.1      10,190    817       
B             2,674     11.5      4.6       90.0      33.0       9,820    794       
C             2,674     11.5      3.8       91.1      35.1      10,327    568       
Selected      2,674     11.5      5.0       89.8      34.2      10,483    620       

Within Urban-Growth Boundary

1990          1,032     4.5       2.8       92.1      12.8      5,304     150       
Base case     1,917     8.2       2.9       92.2      25.0      6,777     506       
A             1,944     8.4       4.0       90.8      24.3      6,377     682       
B             1,905     8.2       6.0       88.1      20.7      5,557     643       
C             1,679     7.2       5.2       89.2      20.0      6,116     404       
Selected      1,862     7.9       6.4       87.8      20.6      6,038     454       
Vehicle-miles traveled (VMTs) exclude commercial and external trips.
Auto plus transit percent add to less than 100; the difference is walk-bike trips.

Many people complained when Metro failed to consider a no-growth or slow-growth alternative--one that limited growth by, perhaps, limiting building permits or zoning with very low densities. Such alternatives may violate Oregon's land-use law, but still should be considered to show what the effects would be. Metro accomodated these people by hiring a consultant to review no-growth/slow-growth tools, and then shelved the report.

Table Two--Selected Data for Growth Concepts

                Acres in        Miles of        Multifamily     NOx             
                UGB             Light Rail      Housing %       (% of 1990)     
1990            232,000          15.1           30              100             
Base case       330,214          32.7           30              117             
A               274,500         116.2           26              113             
B               232,000         130.7           40              104             
C               249,738         122.8           31              108             
Selected        246,500          92.9           35              107             

Concepts C and selected also include plans for 30 or more miles of commuter rail not included under miles of light rail.
An equally valid alternative was not considered at all: using market tools, instead of command and control, to manage growth. Oregon Environmental Council director John Charles proposed such tools as congestion pricing and pollution emissions fees, but Metro ignored these ideas.

For the alternatives that were considered, Metro failed to calculate any dollar costs. With no supporting evidence, it judged water and sewer costs under the various concepts to be "low," "moderate," or "high." It made no estimates at all of the transportation costs. Yet the transportation costs of the various concepts probably vary more than any other cost or output. As it turns out, the financial infeasibility of transportation under the selected concept is likely to be the most important factor that will cause that concept to fail.

Considering the data that Metro did project, the most stunning fact is that all of the densification, New Urban design, and 130 miles of light rail in concept B has almost no effect on auto usage. The share of regional trips using cars falls from a maximum of 93.1 percent in the base case to 90.0 percent in B. Vehicle-miles traveled falls by a larger percentage, mainly because Metro presumes that concept B trips will be shorter--not necessarily a valid assumption. Metro appears to admit that billions of dollars on light rail and neighborhood redesign will have almost no effect on urban travel habits.

Metro's 2040 Growth Plan

Metro's selected growth concept, which was drafted in 1994 and adopted by the Metro council in 1995, was midway between concepts B and C. It called for: But all of this would not be enough to accommodate the 1.1 million newcomers expected to move to the region by 2040. So the concept anticipated that about 42,000 of these people would move into satellite cities. Serving all these people would require some new freeways, 90 miles of light rail, and at least 60 miles of commuter rail or some other "high-capacity transit" system connecting satellite cities to Portland.

This concept will be fleshed out into a comprehensive or "regional framework plan" by the end of 1997. Since adopting this plan, Metro planners have made and will make no attempt to develop the other concepts further or to estimate their costs and benefits.

The concept allocates Portland neighborhoods to such categories as "regional centers," "town centers," "corridors," and "inner" and "outer neighborhoods." Mass transit, including rail whenever possible, will run along the corridors and connect the centers. The centers and corridors will also be redeveloped to encourage walking and bicycling.

Table Three--2040 Growth Concept Land Allocations

                                                      Residents               Density Per Acre        Share of    
       Allocation          Description                1992        2040        1992        2040        Growth      
                                                  Inside the UGB                                                                                               
Central City               Downtown Portland              20,476     60,293   19          53           5.5%        
Regional Centers           Nine other downtowns           13,541     36,411    8          21           3.1%        
Town Centers               26 other shopping areas        16,530     42,858   10          20           3.6%        
Main streets               Revived arterials              38,113     49,537   15          18           1.6%        
Corridor/nodes             Major transit lines           366,276    561,430   12          16          26.8%       
Inner neighborhoods        PDX and older suburbs         484,825    602,807   11          12          16.2%       
Outer neighborhoods        More distant suburbs          108,975    244,687    8          11          18.7%       
Employment areas           Mixed use                       9,204     52,526    2           7           6.0%        
Industrial sanctuaries     Industry                        5,465     11,405    1           1           0.8%        
Greenspaces                Parks and greenways            36,264     29,574    6           3          -0.9%       
                                                   Urban Reserve                                                                                               
Town Centers               Two new shopping areas             31      1,428    1          28           0.2%        
Corridor/nodes             Major transit lines               759     36,390    2          38           4.9%        
Inner neighborhoods        Existing suburbs                  488      9,769    2          13           1.3%        
Outer neighborhoods        New developments                2,449     90,600    1          12          12.1%       
Employment areas           Mixed use                          26        908    1           8           0.1%        
Greenspaces                Parks and greenways               306        254    1           0           0.0%        
Total                                                  1,103,730  1,830,877                          100.0%      

The plan calls for channeling close to half of all newcomers into the centers, main streets, and corridors even though these allocations occupy only about a quarter of the urbanized area. The goal is to put a larger percentage of the populous within walking distance of mass transit. The centers and corridors will also feature a mixture of residential and commercial uses so more people will be able to walk to work and markets.

This will require massive increases in the population densities of many centers and corridors. On the average, densities in the centers will double or triple while corridor densities increase by about a third. To obtain those increases, Metro will give each local jurisdiction population targets which they must zone for. The concept also specifies where new jobs will go, and local jurisdictions will also have to zone for those jobs.

Areas that might be brought into the urban-growth boundary and the relatively undeveloped "outer neighborhoods" within the boundary are also slated for growth. Planners hope that these actions will accommodate all new growth in the next fifty years without expanding the urban-growth boundary by more than 14,500 acres.

Background documents suggest that Metro planners toyed endlessly with variations in neighborhood densities and job locations. But they don't seem particularly worried about some critical questions, such as:

Analyzing the 2040 Growth Concepts

Metro's major goals in preparing a fifty-year plan are to make Portland more livable by reducing congestion and pollution and by protecting open space. How well do the growth concepts achieve these goals--and how much would they cost to implement?

Many of Metro's projections were made by a transportation model that used hundreds of assumptions about human behavior. Some of these assumptions were based on a Metro survey of 4,900 local residents--but people don't always do as they say they will do. Other assumptions were pure speculation--such as the assumption that "pedestrian-friendly" neighborhood design and higher parking costs would significantly reduce auto usage.

Consider first vehicle-miles traveled, which the state wants to reduce by 20 percent per person. No concept achieves the state's goal, but concept B projects 13 percent fewer miles than the base case--which is probably less than the combined probability of statistical errors in the transportation model.

The projected reduction has several causes:

Note that light rail isn't critical to any of these assumptions. Although concepts B and C build more light rail than the selected concept, the selected concept has a higher proportion of transit use because planners assumed that it was more pedestrian friendly than any other concept.

Although the selected concept's transit ridership is much higher and its share of auto use slightly lower than B, it is less compact than B, so trip lengths are only 5 percent less than baseline. As a result, its vehicle-miles traveled are only 10 percent less than the base case.

Vehicle-miles traveled does not measure congestion. Because none of the concepts build many new roads, congestion is severely increased in all of them. The levels of congestion are greatest in the concepts that build the fewest new lane miles of roads. For example, the selected concept achieves lower congestion than concept A not because it is denser or because of New Urban design but because it builds 300 more lane miles of roads than A. Congestion is practically independent of land-use patterns.

Pollution is also not proportional to vehicle-miles. Cars pollute the most when they are cold, so the number of trips is more important than the miles traveled: Two half-mile trips, both starting cold, pollute more than one ten-mile trip. Cars also pollute three times as much in congestion than on the open road. So concepts with the most pollution should be those that are both more congested and have more auto trips. The base case has the most auto trips, but it is only 4 percent more than the selected concept, which has the least, so congestion is a more significant indicator of pollution.

All of the concepts are projected to produce less carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons but more nitrogen oxides than in 1990. The differences between them are small and, again, probably less than the statistical errors in Metro's pollution model.

The current urban-growth boundary contains less than 0.4 percent of the land in Oregon and 12 percent of the land in the tri-county area. The base case, which would expand this the most, increases it to less than 0.6 percent of Oregon and less than 17 percent of the tri-county area. This overstates the loss of open space since many of the acres inside the growth boundary will remain undeveloped. The total developed acres in the base case amount to less than 0.5 percent of Oregon and just 14 percent of the tri-county area.

What will it cost to achieve the benefits claimed for the concepts? If highway expansions cost $3.75 million per lane mile (the average according to Metro's transportation plan), the south-north light rail costs $2.85 billion, and further light-rail expansions cost $55 million per mile (the cost of the westside line, about half the cost of the south-north line), then the base case's transportation costs will be about $5.6 billion. Concepts A and B and the selected concept are all about $4 billion more, while C (including commuter rail costs) is more than $5 billion more.

In sum, according to Metro's own calculations:

Metro's Flawed Plan

Metro is a New Urbanist dream: a regional planning agency with the power, the will, and the idealism to force an entire urban area of more than a million people to undergo a New-Urban makeover. As such, Portland is truly a model for New Urbanism, a testing ground where we can find out if the public will support New-Urban ideas and, if so, whether those ideas will solve the problems as New Urbanists promise.

Metro's goals are certainly commendable: reductions in congestion and pollution and protection of open space and Portland's quality of life. But we don't need to finish this expensive experiment to find out if New Urbanism can achieve these goals. An objective look at the data already shows that, if Metro succeeds in applying its New-Urban vision to Portland, it will create a city that is far more congested, far less livable, and whose citizens are taxed at far higher rates than the city Portland could become if other means were used.

The basic tools used in Metro's 2040 plan--light rail, high-density zoning, and New-Urban design--are fundamentally flawed. Not only will they fail to achieve 2040's goals, they are likely to produce exactly the opposite. These failures arise from flaws in Metro's planning process. But more fundamentally, they result from the flawed concepts behind planning itself.

Light Rail

Metro's planned light-rail system is at once the most expensive and least useful public-works project in Oregon history. As Metro's director of growth management, John Fregonese, admits, light rail makes no sense as a form of transit in Portland. Metro's obsession with light rail, with the goal--according to Fregonese--of using it to promote high-density development, is absurd.

High-Density Development

Higher-density development will allegedly reduce congestion and pollution and to slow the rate of conversion of forest and farm lands to urban uses. In fact, densification will increase congestion and pollution. Densification may protect some farms and forests, but will accelerate development of others.

New-Urban Design

Metro is promoting pedestrian-friendly environments, transit-oriented developments, Neotraditional housing, and other New-Urban designs with the aim of reducing congestion and making Portland more livable. Yet these ideas are often unrealistic and will have insignificant effects on auto usage. There is nothing wrong with developers building pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods--on their own without subsidies or prescriptive zoning. Such neighborhoods are attractive to many people, though not necessarily everyone. But to build a regional plan around the claim that high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods will reduce congestion, when in fact they will do no such thing, makes no sense at all.

Procedural Flaws

One reason why the 2040 plan is so bad is that planners skipped many of the important steps in a "rational" planning process.

Metro's Flawed Concepts

Metro might have considered a broader range of alternatives, calculated costs, had its models peer reviewed, and actually tried to find out what Portlanders want. But the 2040 plan still cannot succeed until and unless planners can answer such questions as: There are no good answers to any of these questions. As a result, the whole idea of preparing and locking the region into a fifty-year plan makes no sense at all.
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