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Daily Journal of Commerce: Metro auditor suggests transit program changes

 

Report recommends that Transit-Oriented Development program

POSTED: 04:00 AM PDT Thursday, September 11, 2008
BY TYLER GRAF

Metro auditor Suzanne Flynn will present her office’s suggestions for improving the transparency and oversight of the regional government’s Transit-Oriented Development program today at Metro council.

The formal presentation comes after the Office of the Auditor released a report on transit-oriented development, filled with gentle criticism of the decade-old program, which provides incentives to developers to build projects near public transportation.

Spearheaded by Flynn, the audit considers systematizing the program – making it more transparent, improving its organization and narrowing its focus – as the primary suggestions.

“Our message has been that this is a young program, but it’s still been around for more than 10 years,” Flynn said. “Overall, now is the time to step back and see how we could do things better.”

Flynn’s presentation to Metro comes a day shy of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Westside MAX light-rail line, itself considered a development-spurring transit project during the program’s infancy in 1998.

Independent of the audit, the Transit-Oriented Development program began reorganizing itself in 2008, when former manager Phil Whitmore stepped down from the program he helped start and Megan Gibb took his place. In the same year, the program received a “Best Practices” award from the National Planning Association.

The program has also been integrated into a new division within Metro, part of the agency’s attempt to streamline its operations in preparation for its 2040 plan, Gibb said.

Nonetheless, the audit states “additional steps could be taken to improve program administration and reduce unnecessary risks that might prevent objectives from being met.”

For one, the audit states that it’s next to impossible for the TOD program to demonstrate its effectiveness because there is no system in place to monitor or quantify the end results.

Though the audit is considered a deferential critique of how Metro oversees its TOD program, greater criticism comes from opponents like John Charles, the director of the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

He is using the audit, and its release during the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Westside MAX line, to underscore his organization’s belief that tax-subsidized transportation and development projects are often fiscally irresponsible.

“None of the local TOD promoters at TriMet, Metro, PDC or elsewhere are very interested in knowing whether past expenditures made any sense, because such a review would be too threatening,” Charles said. “It might show that they failed.”

But the audit points to 14 completed developments, and a slew of in-the-pipeline projects, which indicate the program has at least helped inspire, and subsidize, development along transit routes.

Among the new developments the audit points to are bside6, a seven-story office building on East Burnside Street and Sixth Avenue, and The Westgate in Beaverton.

Nevertheless, the audit notes that the TOD program has been quick to deliver projects to the same developers again and again. Peak Development, based in Gresham, has worked on five TOD-subsidized projects.

Metro should look into how developers are vetted and whether a handful of developers ought to get development rights for multiple projects, Flynn said.

She added that there’s no evidence of the program exhibiting favoritism with developers, however. It may be that only a few developers are interested in these types of projects.

“We’re a small program,” Gibb, the manager, said, “so we’d rather not spend a lot of money studying ourselves.”

Instead, Metro has sought the assistance of Portland State University transportation professor Jennifer Dill, currently on sabbatical, who will in the future be consulting on how to streamline the program.

Gibb sees many of the issues existing at an agency level, not simply a program level.

“It’s a Metro-wide issue, too,” she said, “and there needs to be performance measures for the department that help measure our program.”

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