My AMPO acceptance speech
(In September, 2012, I was acclaimed 2012’s Most Effective Elected Official in Transportation by the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations. I gave this acceptance speech on the subject of regional planning (so needed in our megapolitan regions!) and basing transportation investments on our shared human values.)
September 15, 2012 Saratoga Springs, NY 2012 AMPO National Conference
Thank you very much for this incredible honor. And thanks to my colleagues at Metro who nominated me, and did a very good job of keeping this a secret!
I see this as an award for asking awkward questions, and for knowing when to clear the way, and for knowing when to get out of the way.
My habit of asking awkward questions (why, daddy, but, why?) led to study and work in the sciences, then to neighborhood and civic activism and on into a political career. Somewhere along the way I learned the important lesson of leadership—its not enough just to question but one must create a vision, learn to communicate this vision clearly and compellingly and to ask others for help.
My agency, Metro in Portland, Oregon, has a reputation for innovation, leadership and controversy. Yet, despite spearheading regional land use planning, comprehensive recycling and light rail, until I got elected we pretty much planned and put together our RTPs and MTIPs like everyone else—collect a list, collate and print it then divvy up the dough. And heaven help anyone who got between a mayor and his pet project! Not everyone was happy but it was a comfortable groove.
Enter this asker of awkward questions. Being a community activist and not a professional planner or administrator I didn’t know that it was enough to have a world-class model (designed by rocket scientists at Los Alamos, no less!). So I asked why. Why do we spend our money the way we do when we are getting results we don’t like? Like growing traffic congestion, sprawl and collapsing rates of kids walking and biking to school.?
So, I asked why. And, because I was now able to open some doors (and some budget amendments) we went to the public and asked them directly: We collectively spend over $700 Million of your money every year on transportation: are you getting what you want?
What do you think their reaction was? You’re right. “What?”
They had never been asked this question before. Whether they were a business person, a planner, a public health professional, a community activist—they had never thought about why we built what we built. We just did it. And that’s when something marvelous happened. I got out of the way.
The great staff at Metro rose to this challenge and figured out how to ask these challenging questions in ways that were accessible and productive. In the end we discovered a revolutionary but common sense way to move forward into a future full of challenges like peak oil, climate change, declining revenues and skepticism about government.
Through a series of guided discussions with a wide range of people, followed up with surveys that confirmed our findings we found that the public actually knew how we should be spending their money. There was amazing agreement on a set of fundamental outcomes based on shared values:
1. a strong economy, so that they can take care of their families
2. a system that is safe and promotes good health
3. clean air and clean water, including taking action on climate change
4. choice in how they travel, and
5. transparency, engagement and accountability in spending their money
I knew enough by now in my career to just step out the way when my brilliant staff, after a few deep breaths, dove into turning these outcomes into policies and criteria to guide design of our transportation system and our investment priorities, creating what I believe is the first outcomes-based RTP in the country. Thanks to them.
And I knew how to clear the way for them by securing additional funding for this work, by deflecting criticism (“just send them to me if they have questions”) and by reassuring, motivating or sometimes outmaneuvering those who were reluctant to make the inevitable changes such a restructuring required.
What does this mean to you, leaders in regional problem solving from throughout this country? The old days are long gone when MPOs could be satisfied with bringing order to the chaos of a growing country’s transportation system. When we could focus on LOS and v over c ratios and pretend that moving people and goods were issues independent of the communities and societies we live in. The world is a much more complicated place, or maybe, we are just asking the right questions.
The agenda of this conference reflects that increasing complexity and the increasing maturity of MPOs and AMPO, as we recognize the unique role we play in our communities. Every time we update our long range RTPs, we are charged with looking at the big picture, and for looking into the future. We must take our responsibility seriously, be leaders who dare to ask the awkward questions, that open doors to ignored communities and ignored issues. We owe it to our people, and we owe it to ourselves.
Thank you again for this great honor.