Portland Economist Paints A Different Picture of Transportation and Economic Growth

Kevin Pozzi, 1000 Friends of Oregon Communications Intern
Fri, 05/13/2011 (All day)

Portland economist Joe Cortright is a staunch defender of smart choices in transportation. At a Transportation for America event in Bend this month, cosponsored by 1000 Friends of Oregon, he told central Oregon leaders and activists how reducing their dependence on automobile transportation doesn’t just protect the environment. It actually grows the local economy, keeping as much as $800 million a year in the region's economy, instead of

being siphoned to carmakers, oil companies, and insurance.

Indeed, “Green Dividends,” a study Cortright authored, found that because the average Portlander travels 20.3 miles a day, compared to a nationwide average of 24.3 miles per day, the region’s households save as much as $1.2 billion annually. That’s money that can be kept within the region to fuel a thriving economy here.

Back in November, before a packed crowd at the City Club of Portland’s Bright Lights speaker series, Cortright shared a similar tale regarding the Columbia River Crossing, alongside urban designer George Crandall and Zipcar founder Bill Scott.

Cortright’s contribution to the evening’s discussion centered on his study, The Financial Analysis of the Columbia River Crossing, which was commissioned by Plaid Pantry CEO Chris Girard.

“About three and a half years ago, I heard plans that the bridge was going to cost a billion dollars. And I thought to myself, ‘Wow! That is a lot of money,’” Cortright recalled after the presentation. “And then I began thinking, ‘Where are we going to come up with several billions of dollars to pay for this? Who even thinks this is possible?’”

After completing extensive research on the topic, Cortright says he reached a clear conclusion.

“Everybody wants the bridge—and nobody wants to pay for it. That’s been a consistent theme throughout the process,” he says.

While the study gained media traction and further motivated opponents of the project, it is unclear how influential the document will ultimately be with key stakeholders and elected officials. Last month, Governors Kitzhaber and Gregoire announced that they had chosen the most basic bridge design, and encouraged the process to move forward.

A Future of Clusters

Cortright is President and Principal Economist for the consulting firm Impresa, a practice that specializes in regional economic analysis. He also serves as a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a senior policy advisor for CEOs for Cities, and the chief economic analyst for the Oregon Business Plan.

Cortright has a good sense of what makes places thrive economically. “Businesses are not just randomly scattered about,” Cortright says of his work analyzing industry clusters. “Look at Hollywood, look at Silicon Valley, look at our high tech and outdoor/athletic industry cluster here in the Portland region.”

Prior to his role with Impresa Consulting, he served as the chief economic development person for the Oregon Legislature for twelve years, offering plenty of opportunity to hone and develop relationships.

 “When I’ve had the opportunity to talk with business leaders, they tell me that having access to talented people makes it easy to hire,” he said. “Having these smart people drives an economy. As the baby boomers are getting older, labor availability is going to become a huge issue.”

Similar to Richard Florida’s work targeting the so-called ‘creative class’ of post-industrial educators, engineers, and artists, Cortright co-produced a study analyzing why young, educated twenty-somethings are more mobile than their less educated [and] older counterparts. Dubbed “The Young and the Restless”, the study analyzed why certain metropolitan areas were gaining or losing population, targeting such cities as Memphis, Philadelphia, Portland, and Providence.

“It’s hard to let go of our agricultural past when those very symbols are woven directly into the carpet of our state chambers,” Cortright says, noting the forestry symbols in the Oregon House chamber and the salmon and wheat symbols in the Oregon Senate chamber. “The first fifty years after statehood, that is how we made our living. Success today does not mean access to resources; it means access to talent.”

This isn’t to say that there is no longer a need for such economies. Rather, the point he is trying to make is that an idea-based system will require such markets to adapt with the shifting dynamics around them.

“Even when the market for resources has grown, it has been because people have been able to figure out better ways to add value,” he said. “The growth in agriculture is not in commodities but rather in wineries, in organics, and in farmers markets.”

Getting the Measurements Right

So are Portland, Bend, and Oregon laying the groundwork for a vibrant new economy?

“From a land use perspective, quality of life is extremely important,” Cortright begins, launching into what he calls the ‘green dividend.’ “We should view Portland as a living laboratory, where our residents drive 20% less than other regions. While that may not seem like much, if you do the math, that’s about a billion dollars we save on cars and gasoline each year. Put simply, investments in land use that enable shorter driving distances actually stimulate the economy by giving commuters more money to spend locally.”

Tying it all together, Cortright makes the case for a new direction on the Columbia River Crossing project.

“Flat out, the Columbia River Crossing does not increase the talent base of the Portland region,” he said. “I try to get this out to the elected officials in the state—that the project is very expensive, risky, and has a high likelihood of cost overruns. All big debt like this ends up with Oregon and Washington taxpayers.”

As an urban economist studying why certain regions succeed or fail, Cortright seems a natural messenger for the movement opposing the current proposal.

 “Nowadays people look at forestry as more than just timber. Forests are measured by their global warming values, their watersheds, their recreation opportunities, their economic values.” Cortright said, contrasting the newfound respect for forests to the tremendous but often invisible assets of urban living. “I’ll continue to be very interested in urban vitality, figuring out what makes cities tick. There is a whole set of assets that actually have economic value but are underappreciated because they are under-measured.”

Whether Oregon is laying the groundwork for a new economy remains to be seen. The CRC will be a major test, as well the decisions our leaders make to invest in smart transportation and other infrastructure more broadly. But if forward thinkers like Joe Cortright continue to work for the region, we are on the right track.

For more information on Cortright’s CRC study: The Financial Analysis of the Columbia River Crossing

For more information on Cortright’s study on educated, youth mobility: The Young and the Restless

For more information on Cortright’s local, green economy study: The Green Dividend