Regional leaders hoping to put a massive transportation spending plan before voters next year face at least one major obstacle: Almost half of Portland-area residents polled as part of early work on the potential ballot measure say the region is headed in the wrong direction. 

And their overall attitude toward growth, and whether it’s good or bad, is also not so hot.

But Metro leaders say the fact that people are now feeling the pain of rapid growth, largely through congestion and rising housing costs, actually helps make their case: Everybody knows there are problems, and that it’s time for fixes. 

“People are frustrated with growth. They see that growth is going to continue apace,” said Andy Shaw, the regional government’s director of government affairs. “What we’re encouraged about is that people seem willing to make significant investment to improve the transportation systems to get ahead of that growth.”  

Leaders of Metro, the government body that oversees land use in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, plan to put a transportation spending package that could total several billion dollars on the 2020 ballot.

As part of their work to figure out what will be in the plan and precisely how much they need, they recently polled 1,463 likely voters in the three counties.

Some of the news was good for the potential campaign: Two-thirds of those polled back the idea of a ballot measure for roads, bridges and transit. That support is soft right now and will likely drop once there’s a specific ballot package and opponents began critiquing it, according to FM3 Research, the Oakland-based firm that conducted the survey.

One other complication: While local leaders are focused on a wide variety of transportation projects that both speed traffic and solve other problems – reducing carbon emissions and ensuring more Oregonians can commute by bus and rail, for example – voters seem more interested in reducing highway congestion than cleaner, safer ways to get around or expanding and improving mass transit. 

That doesn’t mean a ballot measure won’t pass. But it does up the difficulty level as Metro leaders and other regional officials debate which projects to include, how to raise the money, how much they should seek and how to sell the idea to voters. Extending TriMet light rail from downtown Portland to Tigard and Tualatin will be the biggest-ticket item included.  

Some other highlights from the poll, which was conducted Jan. 4-10 online and via land lines and cell phones and has a margin of error of 2.8 percent:

  • There’s a consensus that the region’s growth has created gaping problems: Three-quarters of those polled say the rising cost of housing is an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem, and almost that many say the same thing about traffic.

(That’s a change from a similar poll conducted in 2015, when around half of those polled called traffic and housing costs serious problems. More than half the people polled in this new survey say their community is growing too quickly. And almost half those surveyed say growth has made more negative than positive impacts on where they live.)

  • While TriMet and Metro are working to expand public transit options, voters have other priorities. Just 21 percent of those polled say a lack of convenient public transportation is a serious problem. And when asked about their priorities for Portland, public transportation improvements ranked last on a list of 11 possible answers.

(Just 43 percent of those polled said it was “extremely important” or “very important.” Almost 80 percent of those polled said improving roads, bridges and highways to ease traffic was extremely or very important.)

  • What do people really want to fix? The public schools. Almost 90 percent of those polled said “supporting quality public schools” was extremely or very important.