How Much Local Control?

Corvallis City Councilor Dan Brown was challenged on the radio this week to tell Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy something bad about her city. After uncomfortable chuckles in the audience, Brown took a breath. “I like Eugene a lot. But I can’t always figure out how to get where I want to go.” Small embellishments on a city’s traffic circulation grid can be charming — New England’s roads seem to have been plotted before the invention of the right angle — but too many “exceptions to the rule” can be inhospitable to visitors.
That reminded me of something I was told years ago by Eugene’s then-City Manager Dennis Taylor: “Never let it be said that a few people can’t make a difference in Eugene.”
Taylor has since returned to Wyoming and retired. I called to ask if he recalled his comment. If he was rueful then, the rue now spills over the top. “I do remember ‘The Meridian Bypass.’ We call these ‘political stop signs’ and you see them in every town you go to. They are artifacts of political decisions that made sense only to protect the status quo.”
Eugene traffic engineers estimate that northbound Willamette Street carries between 3,000 and 5,000 vehicles daily. Those drivers are diverted one block east to Oak Street at 20th. Some are heading to the University of Oregon or over the Ferry Street Bridge, so the nudge east is doing them a favor. But traffic circulation on our signature street that divides east from west is interrupted for a two-block stretch, where it’s southbound only from 18th to 20th Avenues.
Why? We call it “local control,” and there may be no better name. Democracy is done by those who show up, and the latest traffic study of Willamette Street in 2004 brought out merchants and neighbors and parents of school-age children.
Folkways owner Jim Poverman was impressed by the process. “I wouldn’t say it was unanimous, but the solution we sought sure showed a broad base of support.” Poverman looks at a current traffic controversy that has a similar theme and he’s sympathetic with the local business owners. “There’s a lot of risk. Business owners pay a lot more than the rest of us.”
Taylor was careful to add that nobody manipulated the decision-making for Willamette Street. The process worked as it had been designed. “But it was a political solution that didn’t need to occur. It was based on perceptions, even after those perceptions were rebutted by experts’ recommendations. And those shorter-term decisions can unfortunately last sometimes for decades.”
Underrepresented in the process were daily commuters who care much less but in greater numbers. Not represented at all were the Dan Browns, visitors who only want to get from Point A to Point B.
How can the many, who each care a little, be weighed fairly against the few, who each care a lot? I don’t have a simple answer. Our current formula of “local control” favors the few. Is that what we want? And if each of us protects our little part, who watches out for the whole?
Dennis Taylor wasn’t finished talking. He was back in August for some meetings. When he recounted his time, he sounded almost homesick. “I booked a room on Franklin Boulevard because I wanted to watch them working on the Matthew Knight Arena. It reminded me of my first drive through Eugene, maybe a decade before I came as city manager. My daughter wanted to see the University of Oregon. We drove down Franklin, and I don’t know, maybe we drove right past the university. There was no real entry. But now there is, and it’s unmistakable.”
Whether it’s a distinct front door for our university, or an intuitive north-south artery that defines the center of the original city, that third constituency of visitors and newcomers must be included in our formula.
Back to Taylor: “The best part of staying on Franklin was this. All my meetings were downtown and this was before you took out the parking meters. I didn’t have to use a car to get there. I just hopped on EmX and I was there. I hopped another and I was back. It was quick and easy, but mostly I noticed how cool it was.”
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs here. The Meridian is 100% locally owned and their annual Customer Celebration Event in November runs the 18th to the 20th, which happens to be the same span of Willamette that runs southbound only.