My opinion: KATU is misrepresenting Hales’ transportation plans

My opinion: KATU is misrepresenting Hales’ transportation plans

Expect fewer protected bike lanes from
Charlie Hales says KATU’s Bob Heye.
(Screen grab – Watch video below)

KATU News ran a segment on their newscast and website tonight that made shocking pronouncements about how mayor-elect Charlie Hales’ transportation plans would impact bicycling.

“Charlie Hales said he plans to shift the focus of Portland’s transportation budget from bike projects to road repairs,” reads a caption to a video of the segment (watch it below).

“One big change Portlanders can expect,” continues the story, “Bike projects will take a back seat to road repairs in Hales’ administration. Hales said bike projects are important, but the city has ignored road maintenance for too long.”

KATU News anchor Steve Dunn, in an introduction to the piece, said, “Our top story… A big gripe from people all over the past few years was City Hall putting bike projects over major street repairs…” “But in Hales’ acceptance speech he made it clear he… expects to get back to basics,” continued co-anchor Debra Knapp.

And the reporter on the story, Bob Heye, said, “Hales wants Portland’s 60 miles of unpaved streets covered as soon as possible and other streets repaired before there are any more bike projects.” Then, while standing next to a bike box for added effect, Heye then added, “Sam Adams made bicycles a priority — including these famous green bike boxes, and now these beige bike buffer lanes [on NE Multnomah] — With Charlie Hales as mayor, there’s probably going to be less of this.”

“We will continue to support all modes, including bikes, in our capital improvement program.”
— Mayor-elect Charlie Hales, in response to the KATU story

Not surprisingly, many people were shocked at this story. I was flabbergasted. I could not figure out why Hales would make such a poor communications and policy blunder before even taking office. And why, of all things, would he target “bike projects”? As the story sunk in, I struggled to figure out how to give Hales the benefit of the doubt on this one (which is something I always try to do, but in this case, if KATU was right, his position would have been indefensible).

Then, as I looked more closely at KATU’s story, it appeared that what they were reporting was not backed up by Hales’ actual comments. I began to wonder if KATU misrepresented his statements to make them seem more anti-bike than they actually were. (After all, this is the station that brought us the extremely misleading and divisive “Bike Paths to Nowhere” story.)

After hearing from both Hales and KATU, I think my hunch was right.

See for yourself: Compare the KATU story copy above with the quotes from Hales that were used in the story (in video and in print):

“We do still want to keep building choices for people to move around the city, but job one has to be maintaining the streets that we have better than we have been doing.”

“We have a lot of potholes, a lot of streets with cracks that need repair, so my transportation budget will prioritize that basic maintenance first before we do anything else.”

KATU also tried to make it appear like Hales would take a more auto-centric — and less active transportation-centric — position on the Columbia River Crossing project. “Where Adams wanted a new bridge across the Columbia to favor alternative transportation, Charlie Hales plans to steer the City’s priorities more toward interstate commerce.”

But strangely, their own reporting seems to contradict that. Here’s what Hales said immediately after the reporter’s lead-in above:

“From the beginning, this has been understood as a project where we improve transportation for all modes… for transit, for pedestrians, for bikes and for cars — so it really needs to meet all three of those requirements. It needs to be a better bridge for all purposes, or it’s not worth building.”

And here’s the full segment from the newscast:

To me, none of what Hales says constitutes a “big change” from Adams. Nor do his quotes lead me to believe that, “Bike projects will take a back seat to road repairs,” in his administration.

Saying that road repairs and maintenance will be prioritized above all else, is much different than saying “bike projects will take a back seat.” And it certainly shouldn’t lead one to think that there will be fewer bike boxes or protected bike lanes installed. That’s quite a stretch. Hales also never singles out “bike projects” the way KATU clearly — and repeatedly — did.

I emailed Hales to ask if KATU represented his comments accurately.

Hales is too smart to publicly question or contradict KATU’s reporting. He shared with me that he told KATU the same thing he’s been saying during his entire campaign, that “maintaining the streets we have on a regular cycle… is Job 1 and Management 101,” and that, “Making that a priority is in the interest of all modes.”

“We will continue to support all modes, including bikes, in our capital improvement program,” Hales added in his email (which was CC’d to his campaign staff and a few other advisors.

The mayor-elect also expressed concern that folks were getting worked up over the story. “I hope you can help keep people from hyperventilating about this discussion,” he continued, “and let them know that when I say ‘back to basics’, that means back to prudent maintenance of what we own, not ‘back to cars-only’.”

I also contacted KATU to make sure I wasn’t missing any source quotes from Hales that might not have appeared in their piece. A KATU rep replied by reading back one of the same Hales quotes that appears in their online story. He was unable to share any other source material. When I said their the story seemed to single out “bike projects” in a way that wasn’t reflected in Hales’ actual statements, the KATU rep acknowledged that, “he may not be singling out bike projects, but that everything would be put on hold.” I repeated my concerns with the story and the KATU rep said he’d take another look at the interviews and source comments and get back to me.

It’s strange: KATU seems to be reporting a story that simply doesn’t exist. And it has consequences. This type of misleading and inaccurate story poisons the local narrative around transportation and it fans the “bikes vs cars” flames. (Just read the comments on their story. It’s like throwing red meat to sharks.)

And while I have said for months that I feel Hales’ comments about “back to basics” and “roads first” are easily misunderstood (especially in the context of a discussion about bicycles), I never expected a major media outlet to misinterpret them this blatantly. With a new mayor, I had hoped we could turn over a new leaf and put these fabricated bike controversies behind us. So much for that.

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