In 2016, Portlanders will vote on a local gas tax, a new mayor, a transportation commissioner, a regional council and a governor.
If you make between approximately $7,000 and $100,000 a year, you’ve probably got $50 in free money from the State of Oregon to spend in 2015 on a candidate or political committee of your choice.
But for people who believe that Oregon should be reducing its dependence on cars, the odd complication is that no political committee active on those issues seems to be asking for that money — even as Portland heads into an election year that will shape transportation issues for years to come.
A proposed local gas tax that could dramatically increase Portland’s funding for biking and walking improvements is also supposed to be on the ballot five months from last week, but no one seems to be organizing on its behalf yet.
In that May primary and in the November general elections, voters will elect a majority of the Portland city council (including a new mayor) and the governor of the state, who offers the only direct channel of power between voters and the state’s two biggest transportation agencies: the Oregon Department of Transportation and TriMet. The mayor, in turn, will choose a new city transportation commissioner; candidate Ted Wheeler says he’d take that job himself. To our knowledge, his rival Jules Bailey hasn’t commented on this yet.
Meanwhile, all 60 state House seats are up for election, as are 15 of the 30 state Senate seats, headed into a 2017 legislative session that’s widely expected to include another push for a major new statewide transportation bill.
You may also have heard that there’s a national election coming up next year.
In summary: 2016 will matter, and it will keep mattering.
Endorsements matter as much or more than cash, bike-friendly politician says
Portland does have an existing political action committee dedicated to low-car transporation: Bike Walk Vote, founded in 2004. In the ten years since, it’s endorsed 29 local politicians, 23 of which have gone on to win.
Metro Councilor Sam Chase, who has been an advocate for the North Portland Greenway path since winning Bike Walk Vote’s endorsement in his first run for regional office in 2012, said in an interview Thursday that though getting a little campaign money from biking advocates is nice, Bike Walk Vote would still be “incredibly important” if it didn’t raise a cent.
“The endorsement, and the name, and being able to use that endorsement on the material, helps to provide a third-party source that this person has been evaluated and does not just talk about active transportation but does support that agenda,” Chase said. “The forces out there working on the other end are well-financed and working hard.”
Chase, who is running for reelection in 2016, said he couldn’t comment further about that opposition.
Metro’s council is currently the target of a moon-shot Bicycle Transportation Alliance campaign to get $15 million in regional funding for Safe Routes to School infrastructure and programming.
Bike Walk Vote is currently dormant, BWV board member Lisa Marie White said in an email Wednesday, and not active enough to solicit state-tax-credit-funded donations from people who support biking and walking.
I wrote back to ask whether she’d consider handing over the reins if she were contacted by someone who wanted to take on BWV in 2016.
“YES!!” she replied.
BTA plans to issue candidate questionnaire
Even if no one steps in to keep Bike Walk Vote active, Portlanders who care about active transportation will have some other allies.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance isn’t allowed to endorse candidates, host debates about “a narrow range of issues” or accept tax-credit-funded donations.
But it can do voter education and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky said in an email Wednesday that the BTA plans to do that with a “Bike the Vote” program in 2016 that will include a candidate questionnaire.
The BTA co-hosted a candidates’ forum in 2012, and could do so again in 2016.
BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky said last year that his organization was considering starting a political sister group that could endorse candidates. But he also said that the BTA had to weigh the costs and benefits of electing friendlier politicians against the costs and benefits of directly lobbying politicians the rest of the time.
Kransky, who came to the BTA from the environmental movement in 2010, said the BTA has sometimes relied on the Oregon League of Conservation Voters to track votes and endorse politicians in the state legislature. But he said Portland’s biking movement doesn’t currently have an “electoral game” of its own.
“We have great grassroots power, but not yet great organizing,” Kransky said of the local biking movement generally. “The ‘bike community’ has people power in spades and we at the BTA are pushing ourselves every day to get better at grassroots engagement.”
Vision Zero USA pulls back from focus on elections
There’s one other effort worth noting: Vision Zero USA, an advocacy group founded this year by a pair of Portland parents, Amy Subach and Chris Anderson. The couple said in May that they were planning to start a “Vision Zero PAC” to unseat politicians around the country who were “traffic violence apologists.” But they instead settled on forming a 501(c)4 organization called Vision Zero USA, which can endorse candidates but can’t make electoral issues its primary focus.
Subach explained in an October email to local advocacy group BikeLoudPDX that “when I looked into the laws and regulations and talked with lawyers, I was overwhelmed with the amount of time and effort it would take, especially for someone with no experience or legal training.”
“Chris and I are doing this on a strictly volunteer basis and have limited time and energy to put into it,” Subach said Wednesday. “501(c)4s are simpler all around.”
— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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