As Miami politicians struggle with decisions like whether to fund the area’s second commuter rail line or how to provide adequate bicycle infrastructure, it may be worthwhile to look at how other American cities approach the challenges related to regional transportation planning and decision-making.

The Portland Area Metro has emerged as a model for sustainable regional governance as it pursues aggressive reductions in vehicle miles traveled, by drastically expanding its bikeway network, making investments in mass transit and encouraging transit oriented development. These decisions are made by a regional governing body: Metro, “an elected regional government, serving more than 1.5 million residents in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties and the 25 cities in the Portland region.”

Image Courtesy of Human Transit

Metro is the agency responsible for planning the region’s five light rail lines (52.4 miles), a commuter rail line (14.7 miles), a 651 bus fleet, an aerial tram, and, since 2009, the only American streetcar system with cars made in the USA. The entire system logs an estimated 350,000 weekday rides.

Comparatively, Miami-Dade County has a population of 2.5 million residents, has a heavy rail line (22.4 miles), a downtown people mover (4.4 miles), a strained fleet of 893 buses, and one ailing commuter rail line (70.9 miles) -  representing just over 400,000 daily rides, and run by competing agencies.

Metro’s transit expansion is only part of its successful mode shift. The region has seen the number trips made by bike double since 1997 . Approximately six percent of Portland commuters now take their bikes to work, the highest percentage in America and about 10 times the national average.

While Miami has made preliminary steps to advance  a mode shift toward active transportation, a quick search of the Transit Miami archives testifies to the growing pains Miami has experienced and the work that remains undone. Miami-Dade County can learn from the example set by Metro’s institutional framework  – a model for how regional government can take responsibility for transit expansion and smart growth planning.

Decisions related to transit and regional planning are separate from the other functions of government – allowing County officials to advocate for projects region-wide. In addition, the Metro Auditor is an elected seat that serves as the executive watchdog of Metro’s operation.

The seven members of the Metro Council are directly elected, which makes it the “only directly elected regional government in America,” according to Chris Myers, a policy assistant at the organization. On the other hand, the Miami-Dade MPO is composed of a comparative hodge-podge of county commissioners, municipal representatives, and a representative from the highway building lobby, MDX.

The members of the Metro Council hold no other political office, and while they do consult with elected members of the region’s 25 cities, they are elected by large districts (the three-county area is divided into six total districts), forcing the councilors to focus on regional issues.

The desire for a regional focus was made explicit in Metro’s charter:

We, the people of the Portland area metropolitan service district, in order to establish an elected, visible and accountable regional government that is responsive to the citizens of the region and works cooperatively with our local governments; that undertakes, as its most important service, planning and policy making to preserve and enhance the quality of life and the environment for ourselves and future generations; and that provides regional services needed and desired by the citizens in an efficient and effective manner, do ordain this charter for the Portland area metropolitan service district, to be known as Metro.
preamble of the Metro Charter, November 1992

As the steward of regional land-use decisions, Metro has had a hand in ensuring walkable, urban land use patterns that are another driving factor in the relative success of Portland’s mode shift. More than one-third of the 1.5 million residents in the Metro service area are concentrated around the city of Portland. Metro coordinates planning policies that encourage conservation on the suburban fringe, while accommodating population growth in compact, infill development.

In comparison, as people flocked to South Florida over the past decade, the Miami-Dade County Commission allowed developers to push growth to the north, west and south; expanding suburban sprawl and ignoring the benefits of compact, walkable neighborhoods. These developments simultaneously demand more roads, and make mass transit less effective.

Portland began its shift toward more transportation options in the 1970s when area leaders elected not to build a new eight-lane highway to the suburbs, putting the money toward transit development. Later, the Portland Transit Mall opened downtown, followed by the area’s first light rail line. Now the Portland area ranks 8th in America in transit ridership, even though it ranks 23rd in population. Transit use is growing faster than the area’s population while vehicle miles traveled are steadily declining.

The question for Miamians and their leaders is, what’s next? More roads? More traffic? Or, is it time to make bold changes in anticipation of a better future?

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3 Responses to Transitography 101: The Portland Metro – A Case Study on Regional Government

  1. [...] Perhaps this is what we need: Transitography 101: The Portland Metro – A Case Study on Regional Government | Transit Miami [...]

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  2. JM Palacios says:

    I appreciate the thoughts, but you’re still thinking a little too narrow. If we cannot even have a regional governing body that covers the Miami Urbanized Area, then we would be nothing like Portland. The comparison is not with “Miami-Dade County”. Our region goes from Jupiter to Homestead, the entire Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area, covering three counties with some 200 municipalities and four major transit agencies. The Portland Metro is their version of our Metropolitan Planning Organizations, and we’re still running with an agency for each county while we’re supposed to be planning for the entire metropolitan area. If we want to make bold changes it needs to be towards merging these MPOs into one body planning for the entire Urbanized Area. There is definitely something to be said for pulling the transit agencies under this body as well, and for Portland’s idea of directly electing these leaders instead of installing commissioners who are more interested in manipulating the system to favor their county or their city. We can push for those along with a push for true regional planning, however.

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  3. Tony Garcia says:

    The comparison is absolutely with Dade County NOT with all of South Florida. How we fund and operate local transit should not be confused with regional connectivity. Reforming our MPO is hardly a ‘narrow’ change to our sub-regional transportation planning structure. We already have a South Florida regional Planning Council that coordinates decisions at the regional scale, but that never translates into real connectivity at the sub-regional scale because of local politics. Remember the Portland Metro only covers 1.5 million people, we are talking about 2.5 million residents for Dade County alone.

    Merging the three MPO’s is a bad idea because each county will continue to provide local transportation servcie – each county will still have to be responsible for funding and planning local transportation. The problem with the current MPO is that it does not really act with fiduciary authority. The County Commission is still left to fund the transportation plans set forth by the MPO.

    True regional planning will only come after true local connectivity.

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