Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick is apologizing after firing off a misquote about how much it would cost the city to plow every street in the city. He told reporters Monday it would cost the city an additional $300 million dollars. On Tuesday he issued an apology saying it would actually cost $70 million dollars. His entire written explanation is below.
Dear members of the Fourth Estate:
Yesterday I gave an inaccurate statement on how much money it would cost us to have enough resources be able to plow every street in Portland, rather than just the major streets / transit routes. I should have said $70 million, not $300 million. I wanted a number, so I pushed some very tired people to come up with a back-of-the-envelope calculation. What we came up with was, we plowed 518 miles of streets, engaging most of our maintenance staff. The cost of those maintenance staff and associated equipment is about $35 million a year; there were 4500 miles of streets we did not plow, so we were thinking it would take 9 times the resources to be in position to plow that 4500 miles.
We messed up. We ignored the fact that the 518 miles of transit streets are, basically, bigger streets than the residential streets. We should have been thinking in terms of ‘lane miles,’ not ‘street miles.’ We also underestimated the amount of maintenance staff involved; we didn’t use only staff working on street repairs but also about half of the maintenance staff used for sewer work. If we adjust for those two factors – again, this is a back of the envelope estimate, but it gives a rough idea – the additional cost of having enough resources to plow all the residential streets would be $70 million a year. Still a lot of money, but not $300 million.
Let’s be clear: I am not saying that the actual plowing would cost $70 million. But in order to have enough staff available to do the plowing, we’d have to have a much bigger staff. I don’t think we could count on being able to suddenly hire tons of contractors to do the additional work on the day the storm hit; to be sure that we’d be in a position to plow all the streets, we’d need a much bigger staff.
As an aside, I would actually be very happy if we could increase our maintenance budget by $70 million a year; we could use the additional people to do basic street maintenance. (By odd coincidence, the City Auditor has said we need an additional $75 million a year over 10 years to address our maintenance backlog.) With $70 million, we could do a lot more basic maintenance, and have those people available to plow residential streets during every-five-years snow events. (In my mind, the basic maintenance part of that would be more important than the every-five-years part.)
I profusely apologize for giving inaccurate information. I should not have been in such a hurry to get a quick, back of the envelope estimate, and I should have asked a question about the difference between lane miles and street miles. I wish I had said “millions and millions of dollars;” that would have been accurate. This is my own, personal fault, because I was the one who pushed for an estimate and I was the one who used it without triple-checking.
Commissioner Steve Novick
City of Portland, Oregon