Mayor Sam Adams’ transportation chief “hates freight”

by Dave Lister

I remember when my second-grade class went on a field trip to visit Franz Bakery in inner Northeast Portland. Our eyes were big as saucers as we watched bakers in clean white caps and aprons tend the huge machines that kneaded the dough, formed the loaves and sent them to the ovens. For many of us it was not only the first realization of where the bread we lathered with peanut butter and jelly actually came from but also our first introduction to the world of commerce. At the end of the tour we greedily gobbled down the fresh-baked hot dog rolls that the kindly plant manager offered.

That field trip has been a tradition for generations of Portland kids for a good part of Franz’s nearly 100-year history at its original eastside location. My friends, my siblings and, yes, even my sons remember making that trip. Now, regrettably, there’s a very real chance that future classes of second-graders will not be so lucky.

Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, under the direction of Mayor Sam Adams, is considering bicycle infrastructure and traffic changes on Interstate 84’s 12th Avenue overpass that could strangle freight access not only for Franz but for the entire central east side. Eleven hundred businesses — including old-time Portland institutions like Standard Dairy, Portland Bottling, Mesher Supply and Wink’s Hardware — and the 18,000 jobs they provide could be impacted.

The plan, which considers removing one traffic lane and adding a bike lane, promises to improve traffic flow. But business people are skeptical, particularly after Portland’s incoming transportation chief, Tom Miller, made a jaw-dropping proclamation at the Central Eastside Industrial Council’s April 15 meeting: “We (Portland residents) hate freight.”

Miller, a loyal soldier and chief of staff to Adams for the past six years, was recently rewarded with the $150,000-a-year transportation job by the mayor. Miller’s bicycle advocacy and zest for skateboarding apparently were sufficient credentials for Adams to give him the job without searching for someone who had actual experience managing hundreds of employees and overseeing multimillion dollar projects. Miller is unabashedly pro-density and explained to the industrial council attendees that if New York City can handle both density and freight, Portland can too.

The 12th Avenue overpass is the vital link for freight in and out of the central east side from I-84. Tom Keenan, president of Portland Bottling Co., explained the group’s skepticism.

“Most of our employees use transit or bike to work, and we support that. We’ve even offered suggestions for safety improvements for bicycles,” Keenan told me. “But the city’s engineers claim these changes will improve traffic flow without impacting freight, and we’d like to see some proof. They told us the same thing about the Burnside-Couch couplet. But it didn’t work out that way. With the lane restrictions and bubble curbs, large semis can no longer navigate Couch. Now trucks have to cut through residential areas, which they didn’t use to have to do.”

Keenan is resigned and realistic about the future. “We understand that down the road all this will become density development. But that’s down the road. You can’t just suddenly and radically alter the access and egress to the area. We’re in the process of re-negotiating a long-term lease and if this goes through, that could change.”

Two weeks ago, while considering a new urban renewal district, I posed a question: “Where’s the blight?” It’s pretty clear that our agenda-driven mayor and his politically appointed transportation chief view “blight” as warehouses and manufacturing plants. I don’t think they’ll rest until all of the central east side looks just like the Pearl.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.