An article this week in the Wall Street Journal by former Portland resident Mark Hemingway, suggests that Portland has had terrible municipal leadership for the past 50 years. Portland has usually been held up as a paragon of brilliant civic planning, inclusiveness and liberalism. The somewhat startling assertion came as Hemingway criticized the current mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, for allowing several public buildings to be burned down in the wake of the George Floyd killing. In the weeks since Wheeler demanded that federal forces be withdrawn, Hemingway says, the situation has worsened with local police declaring 14 riots, in what is termed the “whitest city in the US.” After three months the unrest shows no signs of ending.
What caught my attention, however, was Hemingway’s assertion that Wheeler was not the city’s worst mayor. He gave that title to Neil Goldschmidt, who held the office from 1973 to 1979. Wrote Hemingway, “Mayor Goldschmidt earned notoriety for redirecting federal highway funds to a new and exorbitantly expensive form of public transportation that became known as light rail.”
Later Wheeler became a major lobbyist and ultimately governor of Oregon. As governor, wrote Hemingway, “Mr. Goldschmidt had a hand in many of the state’s biggest development projects. But in 2004 Portland newspapers reported that the state’s integrated land use and transportation planning regulations were being manipulated to award Mr. Goldschmidt’s lobbying clients hundreds of millions of dollars of state contracts. Portland regulators dubbed Mr. Goldschmidt, his developer clients and state regulators “the light-rail mafia.” A 2006 article in the Portland Oregonian wrote: “Goldschmidt and his friends lined their pockets with millions of dollars from deals such as these:
- In 1997, Goldschmidt arranged for client Bechtel to get a no-bid contract to build a light-rail line to Portland’s airport;
- Goldschmidt arranged for another client, Homer Williams, to get tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to build high-density housing in the Pearl District north of downtown Portland;
- Goldschmidt helped his good friend, homebuilder Tom Walsh, become general manager of Portland’s transit agency. From that position, Walsh funneled millions in subsidies to the construction of high-density “transit-oriented developments,” many of which were built by Walsh Construction Company.
Nobody is suggesting that any of this Portland stuff has application in Hamilton, but it reminded me of the wave of Portland hysteria that swept Hamilton between 2008 and 2010. In 2008 the provincial government offered its first hint that Hamilton might actually qualify for funding for an LRT system. The Bay Observer has previously reported on that critical two year period, when a relatively small group of LRT zealots , supported by the Hamilton Spectator, drove an LRT agenda past a passive Hamilton City Council. Before anybody was paying any attention, the group had managed to have LRT declared the only way forward for Hamilton.
During that period, you could hardly pick up a copy of the Spectator without seeing headlines like “All hands-on deck for LRT”… “Do it right, and transform Hamilton-Think-tank”… “Clean, green and good for the city ‘s future”… and “All aboard LRT opportunity.”
In part fuelling that enthusiasm, was an LRT road trip taken by Mayor Eisenberger and other members of council and staff to look at LRT in other North American cities. The tour took the group to Portland where the group was apparently greatly taken with the city’s LRT experience. Over the next months, no less that 20 stories and editorials in the Spectator referred to the Portland experience as something Hamilton had to emulate. Early articles claimed that Portland had experienced $6 Billion in new development along its LRT routes—a number later downgraded to $2 Billion. Readers were told:
- Developers are drawn to rails. Housing, stores, offices spring up along them and municipal assessments climb. It’s already happened in cities like Portland, Ore. and Charlotte, N.C..
- In Portland, Ore., 34 million people rode the light rail system in 2007 and, since it was built, there has been $6 billion in development within walking distance of the LRT stations.
- (A Canadian Urban Institute spokesperson) said development corporations have been the backbone of the turnarounds of other cities, including Pittsburgh and Portland.
- (City Staffer at a public meeting) noted Portland, Ore. figured it got a 1,400 per cent return in development spending compared to what it spent on LRT lines.
- Portland, Ore., with a population of 580,000, built LRT and in 2006 linked over $2.28 billion in new investment within two blocks of the line.
Nobody could have known in those early days that we would be in a major pandemic with the massive destruction it has caused to so many aspects of our lives, but in particular the setback it has delivered to public transit around the world. No one knows how long it will take for transit to recover, much less grow, its ridership. In addition we are already seeing trends suggesting people are concerned about overcrowding and are looking for less dense housing options. All of these trends suggest a need to develop public transit solutions a that are clean, nimble and adaptable. The latter two needs would not apply to LRT.
For a bit of comic relief, here’s a clip from the comedy series Portlandia: