On paving vs “bike routes”, The Oregonian got it wrong

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on September 21st, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Source: BikePortland

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On Monday, I tried to share the truth behind The Oregonian’s extremely misleading “Portland’s Road to Ruin” article. That story, written by Beth Slovic and edited by Michelle Brence, has led many of its readers to believe that the Portland Bureau of Transportation was so focused on building “bike routes” they wouldn’t do any street paving until 2017.

Today I want to clear up some confusion around that article and clarify that not only do I believe it was purposefully edited to misinform the public; but that upon further examination, it contains factual errors that should be corrected.

To The Oregonian’s credit, the article did mention (albeit in the eighth paragraph) that some paving would be done, but that it would be only “minor repaving projects.” When I first published my critique on Monday, Slovic felt my opening paragraph was inaccurate because I stated that she claimed PBOT was, “spending so much on “bike routes” they had nothing left for paving.” Slovic was correct. I should have chosen those words more carefully. I edited that sentence to make it clear I felt her story created an inaccurate narrative but that it did indeed include all the facts.

But that was before I knew all the facts. Now I think it’s important for the community to know that the article was both misleading and inaccurate.

Slovic stated that PBOT had “shelved plans” to repave any, “badly deteriorating road in its 5,000-mile system — until at least 2017,” and that the agency was “stopping major paving.”

That is not true.

Slovic linked the words “badly deteriorating road” to a PDF created by PBOT titled, Arterial and Collector streets rated VERY POOR. That link and those words clearly intended to communicate to readers that no projects on that list would be paved until 2017. However, three streets on that list — NE Sandy, SE Division, and NW Naito — have already either been already repaved, are in progress, or are slated to be repaved before 2017. Also, the Naito and Division projects were line items in PBOT’s 2012-2013 budget (via the Capital Improvement Project list) at the time Slovic did her story. (PBOT’s 2012-13 budget includes $652,837 to do repaving work on SW Naito Parkway between I-405 and Jefferson and $3.6 million for the Division Streetscape Project, which includes repaving Division from SE 10th to Cesar Chavez Blvd (39th).)

These are “major paving projects” on “badly deteriorating roads” — not to mention all the other currently scheduled major paving projects now listed on PBOT’s website.

With this information seeming to clearly contradict Slovic’s reporting; I contacted her to ask if she’d like to respond and/or correct the story.

Slovic feels her story is still accurate. “Sandy, Division and Naito aren’t new projects,” she wrote via email, “They were funded with money from prior budgets. My story… concerned the bureau’s dire 2012-13 budget, which included the proposal to suspend contract paving until 2017…”

First, Slovic’s article never made any distinction about new or old projects and what budget the money was first allocated in. She simply stated that PBOT had “shelved” and “stopped” major paving projects. Her article also never mentions the term “contract paving” (which PBOT defines as “a spending line item that acts as a placeholder for paving work that can’t be done by PBOT Maintenance and has not been allocated to a specific project.”) It’s also a basic fact that PBOT does major paving projects via programs outside the “contract paving” program.

Unfortunately, the nuance of Slovic’s defense does not match the lack of nuance in her article. The article drew a connection for readers that didn’t line up with the facts. She and her editor on the story Michelle Brence (who defends the article and says it wasn’t misleading) have played fast and loose with their reporting in order continue a long-term narrative that is highly critical of Mayor Sam Adams, PBOT Director Tom Miller, and bicycling in general (all three of which I have no problem criticizing as long as the facts match up with the criticism).

As I linked to above, since The Oregonian article was published, PBOT has posteda new page on their website explaining their street paving programs and listing all the current and scheduled projects. Here’s an important excerpt from that page:

“Although Portland suspended contract paving for Fiscal Year 2012-13 through Fiscal Year 2016-17 due to the high costs of paving and the City’s commitments to build the Sellwood Bridge, Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail and much-needed sidewalks on dangerous arterials in East and Southwest Portland, we are still repaving major roads and will continue to repave major roads.”

The reason I’m spending time on this is because this stuff matters. The Oregonianinfluences the public narrative around bicycling and transportation policy and that narrative has gotten way out o whack lately. And as I pointed out in my article earlier this week, the “Road to Ruin” piece had a major negative impact on how many Portlanders (including those who have large megaphones like radio show hosts and political candidates) perceive bicycling. (I realize Slovic’s story is seven months old. But I wasn’t motivated to look into it until I noticed tons of major paving projects going on throughout the city this summer.)

The damage from that story has already been done. It’s clear both Brence and Slovic feel there’s nothing wrong with it; but despite their defenses, I completely disagree. I can hope for a correction, or at the very least a note of clarification, but I won’t hold my breath.