Hello, Aloha: Land Use Leadership Initiative Considers Transportation and Equity in Washington County

Our Land Use Leadership Initiative drove out TV Highway on Friday, May 17, to visit the diverse, unincorporated Washington County community of Aloha. We met with local organizers and planners working for a better community transportation system. Here, participant Tony DeFalco reflects on what he learned.

Photos by Mark Gamba.


It was both an inspiring and depressing tour of the Aloha-Reedville area.

This 9-square mile unincorporated area of Washington County 11 miles from downtown Portland centers on the Tualatin Valley (TV) Highway and has about 50,000 residents. According to our hosts, Mike Dahlstrom from Washington County‘s Planning Department, Sunshine Dixon from OPAL and Karla Hernandez from the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO), there are lots of low-income people and people of color living and working in the Aloha community.

On our drive in to the area, we saw some pitiful bus stops along TV Highway. Mere feet from the busy road, these stops had no shelters and no seats. They were very exposed, making for a really uncomfortable, unsafe place to wait for a bus. We also learned that Aloha-Reedville residents are more likely to need to have to transfer, making their transit experience that much more difficult.

We stopped at Aloha High School and met with Mike Dahlstrom, who shared a bit about the county’s Aloha-Reedville Study and Livable Communities Plan, a federally funded effort to create solutions for the poor transportation set up in this area.

Mike described streets without sidewalks, streets that don’t connect or are poorly connected, pedestrians being hit by cars – all this in the context of expected and planned population growth in the area. He related a horrifying tale of a woman pedestrian being hit and killed by a car and then lying un-discovered for three days in a ditch that she had fallen in to after being hit. It was really hard to imagine that happening right in the midst of heavy car traffic, regular foot traffic, and a busy Intel campus. Dahlstrom, a self-described "strong and fearless" cyclist, told us that he was terrified to ride on Kinaman Road, the road that Aloha High School is located on.

Who will be served by coming investments? One thing is for sure: there ain’t a lot of scratch to go around.

Earlier in our tour Metro Councilor Bob Stacey shared a bit about the declining revenues being generated for transportation infrastructure improvements and the highly competitive nature for getting access to those funds. (See a chart of regional transportation funding here.) Gas tax revenues are down thanks to decreased driving and increased fuel efficiency. There are $10 billion in regional projects awaiting funding from pool that ranges in the hundreds of millions annually.

So, what is to be done? The inspiring part of the trip was hearing about the combined efforts of OPAL, CIO, Centro Cultural, and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO). These groups are increasing the ability of local low-income people and people of color to engage in effective advocacy for their community’s transportation needs.

Yet the county’s existing conditions report and project website do not appear to provide significant detail on demographics of the area. Fortunately, a group of community-serving organizations are putting resources into listening to the community and devising solutions to meet their needs.

OPAL, Centro Cultural, and the Center for Intercultural Organizing are working together with a minuscule budget from the federal funds to engage the class- and race-diverse residents of the area. As opposed to the county’s approach, these groups are going to where the people are through door-to-door canvassing, surveying people at bus stops and using other culturally-appropriate and culturally-specific approaches to identify the community’s needs. And it’s paying off. A recent open house they held had 180 participants, far greater than the 50 that came to Washington County’s forum.

Some class and race tensions emerge here. A white resident told officials that they didn't want another BBQ restaurant in the area. Middle income residents who own cars say the road network is fine, while low-income residents say they need better infrastructure for riding public transit, walking, and riding bikes.

This kind of capacity building serves not only the residents of the area but the county as well, as it creates an organized constituency that can demand its fair share of resources for improving infrastructure. The organizers wouldn’t say it, but I will: this kind of effort should receive the same level of funding that goes to, say, an existing conditions report that doesn’t even tell planners who lives in the area and says the same things that community members can tell you.

Between the county and these groups, there’s a great opportunity to bring together the diverse residents of this area to build the 9 miles of sidewalks missing in immediate proximity to schools and make streets safer for pedestrians. Sunshine Dixon put it best: “we’re learning to dance together and that takes a little bit of work.”

It also takes resources, and I hope to see the county put more funding in to the kind of organizing and capacity-building that CIO, OPAL, Centro Cultural, and APANO are doing. I hope these coordinated and equity-focused efforts are finding favor in competitive proposals for limited transportation dollars.

Finally, we talked a little bit about how this kind of public-sector and community-based effort to address transportation infrastructure can be further bolstered by resources from organizations like 1000 Friends of Oregon. For example, 1000 Friends could provide legal or technical expertise to community groups to hold decision-makers accountable.

For LULI participants, the trip served as a neat package of “how-to’s” in land use planning: working in partnership with communities, engaging the technical expertise of community-serving organizations (and paying them), and understanding the political and funding landscape, among other instructive lessons.