Bike buses funded by PCEF? Why not! (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“I think Coach Balto’s bike bus is the coolest thing on the planet. We should be putting that in every public school in the City of Portland. That’s what I call decarbonization.”

– Jo Ann Hardesty, Portland city commissioner

It’s not news that driving and transportation in general emits more fossil fuels than any other sector across the city, state and country. But local efforts to curb climate change have largely overlooked this fact. One such program is the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF). Created via a 2018 ballot measure and funded by a tax the city collects from large retailers, PCEF has left transportation projects on the side of the road.

But that is likely to change as of Wednesday’s Portland City Council meeting.

Council unanimously agreed to amend the PCEF code to “better align with and equitably meet the City’s climate action goals.” A part of that realignment is to give credit to the role that transportation reform can play in reducing fossil fuel emissions. The amendment was put forth last month by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who heads the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability that houses the PCEF.

The crux of the changes to PCEF aim to create better structure and strategy within the program via a new Climate Investment Plan (CIP) component. The CIP, which will be developed over the next nine months by PCEF’s Grant Committee, will set the rules for which projects the fund should prioritize over the next five years.

Rubio’s team developed a basic framework for the CIP that will get fleshed out by the PCEF Grant Committee over the next nine months. Right now, the CIP details two “strategic initiatives” set for near-term deployment:

— Strategic initiative #1: Growing an equitable tree canopy, workforce and contracting pool to support the City’s tree canopy cover goals – $40 million five-year funding allocation
— Strategic initiative #2: Raising the bar on efficiency and renewable energy upgrades in new and redeveloped regulated affordable multifamily housing – $60 million five-year funding allocation

The current CIP framework also includes six categories with a dedicated amount of funding allocated over the next five years (emphasis mine):

— Housing and small commercial energy efficiency, renewable energy, and embodied carbon – $300 million
— Resilient community centers – $30 million
— Transportation decarbonization – $100 million
— Planning and early investments for a low-carbon, equitable 82nd Ave corridor – $10 million
— Low-cost green financing for carbon-reducing projects – $100 million
— Building community-based organizational capacity – $8 million

The new code also includes a requirement to have someone on the PCEF committee who has “significant demonstrated experience” in transportation decarbonization.

At a public hearing for the code changes at City Council last week, some transportation advocates spoke up in favor of the amendment.

“Transportation and the built environment are two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Portland…Expanding PCEF programs aimed at these two sectors in particular and focusing on populations that are underserved…represent key opportunities to meet the city’s climate, climate goals and deliver equitable outcomes,” said Victoria Paykar, Oregon transportation policy manager for the nonprofit Climate Solutions. “Decarbonization should include projects that displace car trips and push for mode shifts and… improve our air quality and quality of life by building more resilient and connected communities.”

Zachary Lauritzen, the 82nd Ave Coalition project manager at Oregon Walks, asked City Council to ensure transportation decarbonization efforts extend beyond electric cars, which often get the lion’s share of funding.

“To see transportation decarbonization on here is really important. But I want to note a word of caution, which is that sometimes transportation decarbonization become synonymous with electrification and charging infrastructure,” Lauritzen said. “Those are incredibly important things, but unless we talk very honestly about transportation mode change, then we’re missing the mark in terms of transformational change.”

Lauritzen also suggested the PCEF could support transportation equity and reduce fossil fuel use by supporting walking school buses or bike buses in east Portland. Sam Balto’s bike buses have been a success in Portland’s Alameda neighborhood, but people who live in parts of the city with less favorable infrastructure have a much harder time feeling safe sending their kids to school on a bike.

Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty agreed with Lauritzen.

“I absolutely don’t want the utilities to suck up all the PCEF money electrifying the community that will never be able to afford an electric car. I am absolutely committed to making sure that as we develop 82nd Avenue it’s ready for lots of modes of transportation,” Hardesty said. “I think Coach Balto’s bike bus is the coolest thing on the planet. We should be putting that in every public school in the City of Portland. That’s what I call decarbonization.”

But Hardesty will have limited say in how the funds are spent because she’s in charge of the transportation bureau, not the planning bureau. It will be interesting to see how or if PBOT will play a role in which projects are ultimately funded.

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