WASHINGTON – Portland, Oregon, long touted as the paradigm of modern urban planning, is awash in corruption, government waste and public discontent. In the policy analysis "Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn't Work," Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O'Toole catalogues Portland's failures in city planning and offers suggestions to other cities on how not to repeat its mistakes.
O'Toole uncovers the vested interests responsible for Portland's bloated and unused transportation infrastructure. The "light-rail mafia," as O'Toole calls it, centered upon former Portland mayor and Governor Neil Goldschmidt and a network of cronies who profited from favorable zoning regulations and subsidies. Even after Goldschmidt left politics, this machine retains influence and power. Among the planning racket's beneficiaries is Bechtel Corporation, which received a no-bid contract to build a light-rail line.
Planning has resulted in skyrocketing housing costs and traffic congestion -- the outcomes it was supposed to alleviate. "Planners made housing unaffordable to force more people to live in multifamily housing or in homes on tiny lots and allowed congestion to increase to near-gridlock levels to force more people to ride the region's expensive transit lines," writes O'Toole. In fact, the high cost of living has forced families to move out of Portland proper, resulting in longer commutes and higher taxes from those who remained in the city to maintain the costly public transit infrastructure.
The costs of public investments in mass transit greatly outweigh the benefits. O'Toole shows that despite spending billions of dollars on light-rail and other transit systems in Portland since 1980, the percentage of commuters who ride transit has actually declined. Even Portland's planners acknowledged that congestion would increase despite all the region's land-use and transit plans, but rather than increase roadway capacity, they have actively reduced it.
Even ostensible successes in moving families into dense housing units are questionable. While "high-density, mixed-use developments are supposed to herald a new lifestyle that uses less land and resources ... these developments are heavily subsidized, frequently vacant and have not shown any affect on people's travel habits." Subsidies to transportation development projects have led to budget cuts in education, public health, police and other essential services.
O'Toole concludes: "People who want to see their cities remain affordable, uncongested, and livable should look at Portland only as an example of how not to plan."
Policy Analysis no. 596: https://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=8463