Mapps to PBOT union: Gas tax won’t fund, ‘bike lanes that drive everybody crazy’

    Mingus Mapp on April 21st, 2023. (Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

    Portland Transportation Commissioner Mingus Mapps wants to make one thing clear about the revenue generated from the local gas tax: it will not be spent on bike lanes. Unless you’re a bicycle rider who loves bike lanes. Then in that case, yes, revenue from the Fixing Our Streets program will definitely fund bike lanes.

    Over the course of the last week, Mapps told different audiences different things about the renewal of the Fixing Our Streets program (FOS) that Portlanders will vote on May 21st.

    At a meeting this past Tuesday with Laborers’ Local 483 (a chapter of LIUNA, Laborers’ International Union of North America, the union that represents about 280 maintenance and operations employees at the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT)), Mapps showed up in hopes of earning the group’s support for the measure. “I’ve come here today to ask you for your support… Ultimately, I sure hope that we can get LIUNA’s endorsement on this,” he said.

    After telling a hybrid online and in-person audience that the failure of the ballot measure would, “Be bad for PBOT, bad for the people of Portland, and an outcome we very much need to avoid,” Mapps opened up the floor to questions.

    The first person to speak (I’m not sharing names out of respect for LIUNA members’ privacy) said,

    “You know, a lot of people know that we are using our street repair money for bump-outs, calming islands, delineators on bike lanes, and so that’s why they’re not voting [for the measure]. I’m not sure this is going to work unless we show the public that we are actually going to fix our streets.”

    To which Mapps replied:

    “I hear you loud and clear… I think if you’ve been paying attention closely to what I’ve been trying to do in this space, I have been trying to return PBOT to the basics, the bread and butter of paving streets, making streets safer and repairing our infrastructure.”

    A different LIUNA member then asked:

    “I’m just curious on how you would sell this to the people of Portland. How are we gonna’ guarantee that money that would come out of this actually goes to the roads and everything? I think most peoples’ concern is, you know, you get this pile of money and then it gets shoved over to [be spent on] something else.”

    Mapps responded (emphasis mine):

    “I understand that, and that kind of gets back to basic lack of faith and trust in government. But I’ll tell you, these dollars are actually different in that they’re earmarked for specific projects. And again, I emphasize, these are not the funds that are being used to build, you know, the bike lanes that drive everybody crazy. This is our bread-and-butter work. Literally paving streets, making them safer and fixing our infrastructure.”

    These exchanges imply that Mapps feels “bump-outs, calming islands, delineators on bike lanes” are not “the basics” and that FOS won’t invest in them. He also implies that “the bike lanes that drive everybody crazy” should be considered “something else” and not worthy of investment. None of this is constructive or accurate: “Back to basics” is a subjective term often used as a dog whistle, and there is certainly money set-aside in the FOS program specifically for traffic calming and bike lanes.

    Ironically, right after Mapps made the “bike lanes that drive everybody crazy” comment, a LIUNA member spoke up: “Um, you said bike lanes? Yeah, I ride my bike everyday. I love bikes. I would like more bike lanes.” As soon as Mapps heard this, he began to interject and then backpedaled immediately by saying:

    “I do want to be clear, at PBOT, we run a multimodal transportation network. So it has to work for pedestrians, it has to work for bicyclists, it has to work for people driving cars, and it has to work for freight companies that are trying to move your groceries from the warehouse to the grocery store. So there will be funding to support all of this… But again, I, what I really wanna emphasize in this space is that this is just bread-and-butter, basic maintenance money.”

    You can listen to a three-minute clip of the meeting where these exchanges took place below. (Note: Comments in the audio clip were edited for brevity and clarity, but the context and meaning was not changed.)

    What adds to my interest in Mapps’ comments Tuesday is how he responded to Portlander Joe Stenger, a member of the Metro Climate Action Team and retired family doctor who testified before Portland City Council at their meeting six days prior to the LIUNA meeting. Stenger spoke about being a daily bike commuter and the importance of safe, high-quality bike lanes for him and his family. Stenger also shared his hopes that the FOS revenue would help PBOT build better bike infrastructure. After Stenger’s testimony, Mapps replied with, “This particular program allows us to do the bread-and-butter maintenance, including maintaining and improving our bike infrastructure that helps keep people safe.”

    Compare that to what he told labor union members six days later: “I emphasize, these are not the funds that are being used to build the bike lanes that drive everybody crazy. This is our bread-and-butter work.”

    I guess what counts as “bread-and-butter” changes depending on who has the knife.

    I’ve reached out to Mapps’ office for comment, but since FOS is an active ballot measure, they aren’t able to comment on it. His staffer said she forwarded my email to the Commissioner. I’ve also asked Amy Ruiz from Swift Public Affairs, the consultants PBOT has hired to help pass the measure, for comment and will update this post when I hear back.

    UPDATE, 8:33pm: I’ve received a comment from Commissioner Mapps:

    “Thank you for the opportunity to clarify my comments at the Laborers’ Local 483 meeting this week.

    As BikePortland readers know all too well, sometimes PBOT’s more forward-thinking and innovative infrastructure projects, including some bike lane projects, draw criticism. I should have been clearer that these are the kinds of projects I was referring to—and that they are still worthy of investment.

    However, the Fixing Our Streets program’s focus is investing in basic safety and maintenance projects across the city, from filling potholes, paving, and maintaining gravel streets, to improving signals and lighting, installing high-visibility crosswalks, and calming traffic. This includes bicycle and pedestrian safety projects, like replacing reflective plastic wands with concrete traffic separators, replacing a painted curb extension with a concrete one, or adding striped buffers to bike lanes where space allows.

    These projects are important. That’s why we’re asking Portlanders to renew the Fixing Our Streets local gas tax at the same rate we pay today. This small investment helps maintain our streets and make them safer for people driving, biking, and walking.”

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