It’s no secret that PBOT faces historic budget cuts. But there’s a big part of the conversation that hasn’t really gotten the attention it deserves: With gas tax and other motor vehicle-related revenues (like parking meters and registration fees) decreasing, more people choosing bikes and electric cars, and federal funding as unstable as ever, we need to figure out a new revenue stream.
Unfortunately, this discussion is hampered by politics. Raising the cost of using our transportation system is always makes for prickly politics, but especially in the current economic climate, elected officials around the region are loathe to propose new revenue streams. At the outset of this year’s budget talks at PBOT, Mayor Sam Adams — a man who pushed a major “street fee” initiative a few years ago — told his bureau director that he did not want to hear any ideas about new revenue. All talks about how to find more money, Adams said, were off the table.
To help them hammer out the budget PBOT enlisted a Budget Advisory Committee made up of citizen activists and professional advocates (including members from the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, OHSU, the Small Business Advisory Council, the Portland Business Alliance, unions, and more). The BAC’s role is to help prioritize spending and cuts and to issue a formal letter of recommendation (or not) at the end of the process.
In that letter, dated January 17th, the BAC wrote:
“If council is unwilling to entertain new revenue to aid PBOT, as indicated, we reluctantly support the adoption of this proposed budget — though we agonize over its outcomes.”
In thinking about the future of the gas tax, the BAC noted that the funding formula PBOT relies on (set by resolution with Multnomah County) is also tied to vehicle registrations — which continue to fall as people switch to public transit and bikes:
“If the Portland Plan is successful, and 75% of all work trips are by modes other than car in 2035, our annual intake of gas tax revenue will by then have an effective yield of zero.”
With PBOT relying on what the BAC referred to as “a waning funding stream,” the agency’s ability to meet basic needs of the system are at risk.
To help them move forward from this dire position, the BAC gave the Portland City Council four specific recommendations. In addition to adopting the 2012-2013 budget and raising the cap on a Utility License Fee revenue stream that was reduced by Council in 2008, the BAC had two other, more pointed, pieces of advice.
The first one is to immediately put together a committee to, “consider a range of broad-based revenue options.” This new committee, the BAC recommends, should report their findings to Council no later than October 1, 2012.
The other bit of advice the BAC gave to Council reads more like a slap on the wrist. “In the future,” reads the letter, “we urge Council to refrain from directing PBOT to create new programs and projects without new dedicated funding sources that are attached or found first…”
The future discussion about a new funding stream can’t happen soon enough. And there are loads of interesting and feasible ideas. PBOT Director Tom Miller has publicly stated he’d like to look further into variable/dynamic parking meter pricing. BTA Executive Directory Rob Sadowsky has said he’s like to see more red-light cameras to enforce traffic violations with the revenue going to funding transportation safety projects. There’s also a growing appetite for congestion pricing and various tolling schemes. As part of their Active Transportation Plan, Metro seems to be laying the groundwork for a regional bond measure that would fund transportation infrastructure.
The politics around this issue will remain tricky; but in Portland, the timing could be right. We’re poised for a possible new majority on City Council next year. With a new mayor, at least one new commissioner and another (Amanda Fritz) who faces a tough re-election battle, now might be a great time for bold ideas to take hold. Stay tuned.