The Snowball of the Sewer Myth

Evan Manvel

The Snowball of the Sewer Myth

Installing a bioswale on NE 38th Ave

[Editors' note: Today, we welcome Evan Manvel to our roster of contributors. Evan is a longtime policy advocate - especially on environmental and transportation issues. He's also been a regular guest columnist, most recently contributing "Four lessons I've learned, and a request". Welcome, Evan!]

Imagine a school district discovering their new school ended up costing less than they budgeted. And the school board decided to spend some of the savings on early childhood education – a long-term investment that will save the district money and improve performance, but one the district has been unable to fund in the past. Would you support it?

That’s parallel to what the Portland City Council did this spring, when it invested some projected sewer savings into long-term stormwater management projects. You might not have heard about it, as media coverage, hype, and irresponsible sound bites have portrayed the decision as a sewer-for-bike lanes deal. As proposals for raising sewer rates continue, it’s especially important to understand the previous decision.

To review: various sewer projects under construction were projected to come in significantly under budget (by about $40 million). The City Council decided to invest $20 million of that money into the long-term health of the sewer and stormwater system, creating or preserving 280 family-wage jobs. The $20 million will build Green Streets, such as planted curb extensions and roadside drainage swales.

Green Streets are a smart long-term investment. As 60 to 70% of our stormwater pollution comes off our streets and parking lots, finding ways to filter that runoff and avoid sewer overflows will save money, while protecting the health of our rivers, salmon, and drinking water. By letting nature do its work, savings over traditional hard infrastructure approaches are significant, ranging from 20 to 63%. Portland ratepayers will be getting $25 to $54 million of sewer and stormwater services for $20 million. For example, in the Tabor to the River program area, green plus grey infrastructure is projected to cost $81 million, whereas grey alone would was projected to cost $144 million.

Green infrastructure is clearly smart. But here’s the extra-smart thing the Council did: as long as it was spending money on sewer and stormwater infrastructure – significantly revamping some of Portland’s streetscape – it decided to target those investments in places that would serve multiple city goals, including improving transportation choices and safety.

How, then, did this snowball into one of the most misunderstood and vilified decisions of City Council in the past several years?

First, the issues are somewhat complex. Stormwater and sewage management isn’t what most people call sexy, and the overlap between sewers and transportation infrastructure and the complex funding rules and pots of money, aren’t designed for a sound bite. Bioswales are wonky.

Second, the media contributed sloppy writing and headline choice, which creates controversy and sells newspapers. Perhaps the most poignant example is Janie Har’s March 17th article in The Oregonian, “Portland City Council happily backs $20 million in sewer savings for bikes and bioswales.” Here’s the lede:

The Portland City Council voted today to spend $20 million in sewer contract savings to help build new bike lanes….

Two paragraphs later, she writes:

The $20 million will not pay for bike boulevards directly. The money will pay for “green” streets, a stormwater filtering feature that can double with bike lanes. Mayor Sam Adams had pledged the $20 million to jumpstart a master bike plan that aims to add 700 new miles of bikeways by 2030.

The problem is clear. The headline and lede contradict the fact of the expenditure: the money is being used for stormwater filtering. Yet various newspaper stories since - not only in The Oregonian - have reported it as bike lane funding.

Third, there was a fresh and clear desire to improve bike infrastructure, which muddied the message. The Council was under pressure to demonstrate some commitment to improving transportation choices beyond just adopting the Portland Bike Plan. For good reason -- at least one-quarter of Portlanders can’t drive, two-thirds of Portlanders own bikes, and six percent regularly commute and another ten percent secondarily commute by bike. Yet spending on bicycle infrastructure has hovered between one and two percent of the city’s transportation capital spending. Of course, spending on bike infrastructure means less pollution, less road wear and tear, less congestion, better health, and saved lives. Mayor Adams’ Transportation Director Catherine Ciarlo called the plan “a win-win-win-win” and “a four-fer.” So, in lieu of earmarked money for bike infrastructure, the Council agreed they could prioritize the Green Streets projects that overlapped with Bike Plan maps, and... boom! muddied message.

Fourth, the political season was upon us. Candidates grabbed the manufactured controversy as an example of wasted taxpayer money and threw fuel on the fire. Once the sound bites added to the earlier reporting, the sewer-for-bikes idea became a fact of Portland history, much as Al Gore was smeared with claiming to have invented the internet.

We deserve better reporting. We deserve better campaigning. Because what the Portland City Council is doing – thinking holistically about its investments and smartly saving money while improving our quality of life – deserves to be rewarded, not penalized.

Kudos to Commissioner Fritz, who lays out the complexities of this on her blog.

UPDATE: So this doesn't devolve into a debate about one reporter or article, here's an excerpt from May 12's Willamette Week (Beth Slovic) "Losers" column: "Sewers. ... Having just raided the sewer system's budget to help pay for bike lanes, Adams would grant the bureau only a 6.1 percent increase."

And a third Oregonian excerpt, from March 27: "Mayor Sam Adams and the rest of the council have voted to put $20 million in sewer contract savings toward helping build bikeways."

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    Thank you for writing this. The campaign of political histrionics from brick-batters like Jack Bogdanski over this is really getting old. This should by all rights put to rest such hyperbolic bomb-throwing, but alas I doubt it if past is truly prologue.

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    I'm sorry Evan, I don't buy it. If anyone is to blame here, it is the Council themselves. They felt the "had" to do something to support bikes ("under pressure" from who, by the way?).

    The Mayor determined that he could divert $20 million from sewers to bike infrastructure--that was HIS framing of the issue. The "Green Streets" framing only came into play after the sh*t hit the fan.

    The Council marched right along and voted 5-0. The Utility board had to weigh in after the fact opposing the plan. Meanwhile, residents are getting socked with a 12% increase in sewer bills.

    If this project pencils out long term, then propose it, debate it, and pass it.

    Amanda's blog entry is a nice example of the debate that SHOULD have occurred but didn't. After the fact rationalizations just don't cut it.

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      There's plenty of blame to go around about framing - no doubt.

      But newspapers are duty-bound to report the facts, not frames. And here not only have they failed on this issue, but they've repeatedly repeated an inaccurate statement as fact - and printed countless letters to the editor about something that isn't true. It's Al Gore invented the internet all over again.

      The Green Streets project has been worked on for years and years and years. The $20 million in funding for it was proposed, debated, and passed, as you suggest. Indeed, the initial proposal from the Mayor was changed because of input from commissioners.

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        Video of the council meeting at which they voted for the 2030 bike plan is here: The sewer money comes up at the 82 minute mark, where Adams describes it as a "kick start" to the bike plan. If you want to assign blame for the myth you have to start there.

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          I think several of the elected officials have admitted they weren't precise in the messaging on this.

          But usually when an elected says "this money will help public health" the newspaper doesn't come out with a headline "Council approves funding for public health" - they report what the money actually goes for, e.g. "Council approves money for sewers." In this case, the misimpression is the $20 million is going for bike lanes. It's not. Period.

          Again, it's complicated as the sewer and transportation systems overlap, and there are multiple benefits to investing sewer money in stormwater projects. So Mayor Adams' "kick start" description is true.

          But the money is simply NOT being spent on bike lanes. Which is what the article notes later on, unlike many other articles and letters to the editor.

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    Evan - Thanks for the post, but I wish you would have chosen a different analogy. When a school district passes a general obligation bond for school construction the school district may only spend those funds on items listed in the bond documents, generally school construction, improvements, land purchases and the like. It cannot use those funds for operational purposes. This may sound like I am picking a small issue, but in my school district (Salem-Keizer)we have been criticized for needing to make cuts even though the voters recently passed a rather large bond for school improvements and new construction. We cannot use these funds for operational purposes. I know you probably did not mean to cross this line, but I think it is important to note this as school districts across the state begin dealing with the recent announcement of the revenue forecast and the potential reduction in school funding in 2010 - 2011. Again, thanks for the post and it is a good issue to think about for those in Portland.

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      Thanks for the feedback. I struggled briefly with what analogy to use, and wanted one where the public agency was serving the same core purpose with the new expenditure (schooling, sewer/stormwater) while using savings for a smart, long-term investment that it doesn't usually have the resources to make.

      It's more to get people thinking about difficult government decisions than to focus on schools. Some people - for decent reasons - may not support the long-term investment.

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    The school district analogy doesn't work since the school board would likely be using bond money for the new school and couldn't slip it into an operational project like early childhood development.

    I also doubt that citizens would respond excitedly at the prospect that money they thought would be spent on a new school will now be spent on something else.

    On the media criticism angle, I don't understand the substance of your critique.

    Janie's article is reporting the news that sewer infrastructure spending will now lead to bike infrastructure development.

    That's what every single quote you pulled from the O says. Seems like she nailed it.

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      Ask anyone who works with media - if you win the headline and the lede, you win. The rest of the article isn't what most people will go away with. I think the headline and lede here create a strongly inaccurate impression - and that's reflected in the number of angry e-mails people sent to their commissioners, the number of angry letters to the editor, etc.

      Here's Har's March 30th follow-up:

      "[M]any are upset with the council's recent decision to spend $20 million in sewer contract savings on work that will help the mayor's master bike plan.

      The money won't pay for striping or signals, but it will pay to build hundreds more "bioswales" on streets that absorb rainwater even as they slow down traffic for bike riders."

      Now imagine that rewritten as:

      "[M]any are upset with the council's recent decision to spend $20 million in sewer contract savings on long-term stormwater and sewer investments.

      The money will pay to build hundreds more "bioswales" on streets that absorb rainwater and cut sewer overflows while also slowing down traffic in neighborhoods and making it easier to walk and bike."

      Maybe I'm overdoing it. But you get the idea - reporters should be clear about what money is being spent on. I think this misleads.

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      What you again fail to acknowledge is the sewer money is going to be spent on storm-water projects, which also facilitate already approved bike plan improvements as well.

      This is analogous to money being spent on building a $20 million dollar tall building, and combining that project with another already approved project to build a radio tower, and then improving both projects by putting the radio tower on top of the tall building… then turning around claiming $20 million in tall building money is being misappropriated to build radio towers.

      It is dishonest and short-sighted.

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    bioswales are brilliant devices; properly constructed, they need almost no maintenance (although these will likely need constant removal of litter... sigh). we should be including them whenever possible because of the service they provide & the money they save.

    The Oregonian has a knack for getting bike-related stories tremendously wrong. Harry Esteve fabrication of the term "blowing through stops signs" when the 2009 Leg considered stop-yield was an eff-up of the worst sort, a journalist changing the political process not because he reported the facts -- Esteve failed to do that -- but because he made up his own damn interpretation. we can probably expect more of this nonsense in the coming years as they ramp up their attacks on sustainability efforts while promoting a limited range of business & corporate interests (and hide the news of their own editor's dui arrest).

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    I live in Chicago. I visited PDX in April 2010 for the first time ever. I love following news in Portland - it's so different from the crap that happens in Chicago. Granted, we both have political controversies, but Portland's seem to be about way cooler things. For example, this article about stormwater runoff management, bioswales and integrating those with bike lanes sure beats hearing about a transit agency's director's suicide because he stole over $60,000 from his employer.

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    Great post Evan. I think the problem comes down to dumbing down the writing...the stormwater issue isn't only not sexy, the terms and practices are not as familiar to people as "sewer" and "bike." Also, as you portray it, what's really missing from the lead and headline is that the project came in below cost! Why isn't that as important a basic fact as the type of project (stormwater) and a secondary beneficiary (bike lanes)?

    Thanks for the post.

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    I appreciate this analysis and breakdown of the issue.

    Can you say more about 1/4 of Portlander's can't drive - is this of the driving age population? Curious about your source which could be helpful for other organizing we're doing.

    I generally appreciate Ms. Har's writings.

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      Statewide, there are roughly 3.8 million Oregonians. The number with drivers licenses is 2.9 million.

      Add to the roughly 900,000 people without active driver's licenses, I think it's fair to presume that 145,000 (5%) of the 2.9 million who have drivers' licenses are either to injured, poor, etc. to drive.

      So, over a million Oregonians can't drive. Project it to Portland. More than a quarter of Portlanders are too young, they're too poor, they're infirm, etc.

      Instead of having transportation freedom, people (including our kids) are trapped, forced to rely on others to drive them everywhere they go. There's a good study called "High Mileage Moms" that talks about the impacts on family:

      I presume there are more recent reports, but the underlying knowledge is not having safe ways to get around impacts not only those who can't drive, but those who have to drive those people around.

      And yes, I generally think Janie's a good reporter. Some of the biggest problem is the headlines - which she probably doesn't write.

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    Portland's sewer rates are already outrageous and about to get much worse. Vulnerable people whom the Democratic Party used to defend are about to be run out of their homes by runaway city utility charges.

    Any miracle "savings" that have occurred in the sewer system (a dubious factual proposition, as Dean Marriott, the professional bureau chief, would attest) should be devoted to rate relief.

    It's really not complicated at all. The very real backlash that is coming is well deserved.

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      Mr. Bogdanski. You may be correct about the backlash, but the point here but the outrage about spending “sewer money being spent for bikes” is based on inaccurate information. You may have your reasons for going after the Mayor, but this is not a legitimate one. It is disappointing to see individuals exploit public confusion about an issue in attempt to take down their political opponents with so little regard to the collateral damage to the truth of the matter. Funding green streets is first and foremost about extending the life of the sewer system and cleaning the polluted stormwater run-off in a more cost-effective way. The secondary benefits are increased safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

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    Here's the worst part of it: Because of the lousy messaging around this issue, it will become "a fact of Portland history".

    And I think that sets back the cause of full-funding for the Bike Plan by years.

    We've already got enough folks in Portland who are ticked off at the bike community - mostly because of the small minority of jerks who misbehave on bikes. Add to that a generalized non-specific sense that Portland's elected officials are funneling sewer money to bike projects, and you can kiss Bike Plan funding goodbye.

    It's especially bad when you've got some of the highest sewer rates in the country, having doubled in recent years. Then, to have all this talk of budget savings paired with talk of higher rates - well, that just doesn't make any sense. (If there's savings, why are rates going up?!)

    Remember: sewer management fees are essentially a flat tax. They're horribly regressive, hitting the poorest residents hardest.

    I'm all for funding the Bike Plan, and all sorts of other good projects, and if there's ways to do good bonus things within already-budgeted projects, that's just groovy.

    But don't tell me there's "savings", then tell me you're raising rates. (Especially when the director of the agency says the "savings" don't actually exist.)

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    Oh, and welcome to BlueOregon, Evan!

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    I recall reading a month or so back in WW that the actual projected "savings" are coming in much lower than were projected. That doesn't seem to come up in any of the debates about this.

    I'm not sure how that impacts the actual funding mechanism (that is I'm not sure if the funding disappears if the savings disappear - and I'm not saying they totally disappear). Seems relevant to the discussion as would whether other projected savings were dedicated to other projects and how the actual realized savings will be dedicated if that's the case.

    Also, I assume non-sewer funds will be used for the actual transportation facilities as opposed to the bioswales. Is there a budget breakdown that shows the source of funds for a particular stretch of road and the use of those funds that clearly shows no sewer funds are being used for the transportation portion of the project. Seems to me that proponents would get a lot of mileage out of this if they could show that no sewer funds are used for transportation aspects of the projects and that the transportation costs of the project are in line with other similar transportation projects not adding bioswales.

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    For another take on this issue, see this op-ed piece from today's The Oregonian:


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    The central problem I have with all of this is that there appears to be a lot of shading of the truth going on.

    The savings argument is bogus. So is the jobs argument, as BES spending of any kind would do this.

    Saltzman is the BES commissioner, and he proposed using utility license fees for this, apparently convinced that it wasn't the best option to use sewer money. Though Dan did ultimately vote for it, the WW article on the whole thing with the cops made it sound like this disagreement on sewers was part of the dynamic that fueled Sam getting weird on Dan.

    I'm encouraged to see Dean Marriott in the WW this week talking about a convergence of missions, but something about the way this got started didn't sit right with BES. You have Dave Gooley, retired financial director of BES, in the O raising hell.

    In spite of Dean's talk of a convergence, no one has convinced me yet that the routes were chosen based upon the priorities of BES. As Nigel's article states, BES has plenty of important needs. If that's how it happens, then I will be less worried.

    Honestly, I think this is yet another example of Sam trying to compel the facts to fit his desired outcome. All of the grumbling spilling out all over the place is the cost.

    And yes, we need a large, permanent source of funding for bike transportation. But the principles underlying these decisions are important.

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