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The mayoral candidates weigh in on transportation funding

Posted by on September 27th, 2012 at 9:55 am

“The Bureau of Transportation has been facing budget challenges for several years; how will you as mayor create a sustainable source of revenue or otherwise ensure that the bureau has the resources it needs over the long haul?”
—Question for mayoral candidates at recent Women’s Transportation Seminar luncheon

With the election just over a month away, it’s time to get serious about deciding who will be our next mayor. A Survey USA poll released by KATU News last week showed that 34 percent say they’ll vote for Charlie Hales, 29 percent are going for Jefferson Smith, and a whopping 37 percent are undecided.

That’s a lot of undecideds.

On September 11th, Hales and Smith were guests at the monthly luncheon of the Portland chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar, a group that promotes the advancement of women in the transportation industry. It wasn’t a back-and-forth debate, but the candidates got into some good detail on important policy issues. I wasn’t there, but I’ve obtained an audio recording of the event and want to share some of their answers with you.

One of the questions they were asked was about transportation funding. The question is below and it’s followed by a transcript of each candidate’s answer (which are pretty much verbatim, give or take a word or two):

“The Bureau of Transportation has been facing budget challenges for several years; how will you as mayor create a sustainable source of revenue or otherwise ensure that the bureau has the resources it needs over the long haul?”

Here’s Jefferson Smith’s answer:

Jefferson Smith-3

Jefferson Smith

“Everyone I’ve talked to who understands transportation knows we don’t have sufficient gas tax revenues to keep pace with current and anticipated transportation needs. That’s true of developers, of shippers, truckers, pedestrian advocates, and bicycle advocates. So, I think what we need is a coalition of folks, of maybe not so odd and maybe sometimes odd bedfellows, and then we have to figure out what we want to do. I do think there’s an opportunity with front page stories about how we’ve had to reduce maintenance, to have that conversation with the city and say, ‘Yeah, we have a lot of unimproved roads and we have to pay for that somehow — and by the way, it’s not bike lanes’ fault!

And I alone can say I did not hop onto The Oregonian’s basic frame of re-posting their article; which essentially said the reason we have so many potholes is because of bike lanes. What I know is that our entire bike network cost about $60 million and that’s a little over 1/3 of just planning, lobbying and consulting on the Columbia River Crossing project…

Now what kind of money might we look at? I think we [Charlie and I] agree on some little things — like an airport surcharge and then give free access to TriMet, using parking facilities with more variable prices so we’re using our resources a little more smartly — to things that are a little bigger like a utility fee. The good news politically, about a utility fee, is that everyone would pay for it and we could make the case that it would include bicyclists. Of course, a lot of the people that ride bicycles, I think 90% of them also pay car fees.

Ultimately what it will require is will. And there have been proposals for transportation funding in the past and they have been set aside. The next transportation commissioner, with the support of the next mayor — and I will probably will not be the next transportation commissioner even if I am elected mayor — will need the will and to build the political coalition necessary to pass whatever it is. And I bet the frame will be around basics and not merely about green streets, even if some of what we define as basics has significant overlap.”

And here’s how Charlie Hales answered:

Charlie Hales

Charlie Hales

“Let me tell you the sequence of how I’ll approach this set of questions. Because how you lead matters and this sequence will make sense to those of you that have worked on these kind of budget issues before. First, if I’m your mayor, I will assign all of the bureaus to myself for the first three months; something that Mayor Katz did effectively and it’s an effective antidote to the tendency of the commissioner form of government in Portland to drift into being five little mayors with their own agendas.

During that period, we will do really serious, heads-up strategic planning; not just among ourselves but with our partners at TriMet and Metro and Multnomah County, because so much that this city does is intertwined with what those other agencies do with their services. And we will prepare our budget at the city as a board of directors with all of us taking responsibility for the whole enterprise. It won’t be just the transportation commissioner’s problem that there’s not enough money to maintain the streets and build out the bikeway network. Then I’ll assign the bureaus to each of us to carry out that shared agenda.

Then, in transportation in particular, we need to both build the public’s confidence that we are taking care of the assets that we have, and communicate what we’re doing better. Because I can tell you from campaigning in the last year there are a lot of citizens out there who rightly or wrongly believe… wrongly actually [crowd laughs]… believe that the city is spending all of their money on bike lanes and that’s why the streets are going to hell. And we need to both make a larger commitment to maintenance itself and communicate what we’re doing to people first and clearly.

Regardless of how I assign the transportation bureau; again as your mayor, I know that will be my responsibility. You need to use the bully pulpit of mayor to advance that shared agenda.

Now, once we reach that point — clarity in our own budget, hopefully a better understanding in the community about how much money we have and what we’re doing with it — we’re going to need new resources. One is a street utility fee, another is a local gas tax focused on street repair and construction. Now we all know the gas tax is a dinosaur but it might work a little longer to catch us up and help us build out the 60 miles of un-built streets. At the regional or state level I would love to see us move to a VMT charge [vehicle miles traveled, read more about that here]. And of course as a regionalist, I’ll support a regional approach wherever possible — but we do have 60 miles of un-built streets, we’re not keeping up with our maintenance obligation, and we have a capital plan that needs a lot of help. So I believe and I expect that no matter what we do regionally we’ll still have to be willing to stick out our necks locally. And I will.”


What stands out to me about these answers is that it doesn’t seem as though Smith or Hales will keep the transportation bureau if they are elected. That’s actually very common. Mayor Sam Adams took on the bureau because he had it as a commissioner and he loves the job; but most local pundits agree that it’s simply too big (and thankless, and often controversial) for the Mayor to do. I’m looking forward to not having a mayor lead PBOT because I think it makes transportation even more politicized and potentially controversial. (This of course begs a discussion of which commissioner should oversee PBOT. I’ll save that for a separate post.)

Also noteworthy is how both candidates support a street utility fee. If they do take up that initiative, they’ll have a lot of groundwork already laid for them. Before he became mayor, Sam Adams attempted to implement a “street fee” via the “Safe Sound & Green Streets” effort he pushed through City Council in 2008. Adams’ effort ultimately unraveled and didn’t come to pass; but I’m sure the next mayor will dust off that effort and give it another go ’round.

What do you think? Did these answers help clarify your choice for mayor?

— For more coverage of the mayoral race, browse the BikePortland archives.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Indy September 27, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Neither of these are committed specific answers, so are basically useless for evaluation on transportation policy. “We commit to plan our transportation future, tax/fees are likely an option.” Well, duh?

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  • Terry D September 27, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Jefferson obviously made it a point to defend active transportation more than Hales, but we need to look further when it comes to funding. We certainly need some stable local source of funding since the rest of the state or country does not seem to be on board YET to our Eco-friendly values….

    Some more funding ideas:
    1) Sellwood Bridge Toll for non-Multnomah County users (since we are already paying for it)
    2) Novick’s plan for metered parking on congested retail zones (specifically target income towards improving non- SOV alternatives)
    3) Instead of a dinosaur gas tax, institute a city or metro wide CARBON consumption tax that can be used for carbon reducing schemes (transportation or otherwise)
    4) If these highway expansions are pushed through, fund them with a metro-wide freeway tolling (congestion priced)…..coming from the Chicago area I have always found that not tolling to go into the city to be kind of …strange….

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    • 9watts September 28, 2012 at 9:29 am

      “a dinosaur gas tax”
      dinosaurs were big. Maybe a Compsognathus gas tax?
      Compsognathus was the size of a chicken and weighed about 6.5 pounds (3 kg)

      carbon tax – sure – But how would it materially differ from a gas tax when it comes to transportation?

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  • rain bike September 27, 2012 at 11:19 am

    “I wasn’t there, but I’ve obtained an audio recording of the event and want to share some of their answers with you.”

    Did you get that recording from the Hales campaign?

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  • john September 27, 2012 at 11:31 am

    How about limit studded tires to only when it snowy or icy ? that would save a pretty penny!

    My dad, a contractor, loves cyclists and mass transit, and so should other commercial drivers: when auto traffic is decreased they can actually get around and get work done.

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    • Chris I September 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm

      $50 per tire tax on studded tires at time of purchase would be much easier to implement. That would eat up all of the cost differential between studded and studless tires. Make sure consumers are paying the full cost of the tire purchase, and then let them make the call.

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      • Jeff Bernards September 28, 2012 at 7:38 am

        Your average studded tires destroy 1/2 to 3/4 of a ton of ashphalt, $50 wouldn’t cover those costs. It needs to be like a snow park permit, a yearly $200 plus fee, that’s more realistic. 84% don’t use studded tires and we seem to get by fine, it’s time, like smokers, they few who use them pay for the burden it causes the rest of us.

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    • GlowBoy September 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm

      How would limiting studded tires to only when it’s snowy or icy actually work?

      Everyone races to Les Schwab and drops 50 bucks to have their tires swapped out every time there’s a chance of snow or ice in the forecast (as if that’s reliable), and then races back to Schwab to have them swapped out again after the snow melts?

      Of course one amazing capability of cars is they can transport people to other places. Most people with studded tires live in town, where it rarely snows, but use them for driving in OTHER places (i.e., the mountains or Gorge), where it snows a lot. Would you require those people to drive on non-studded tires in the city where isn’t snowy, carrying their studded tires (mounted on wheels) in the trunk and stopping by the side of the road once it gets snowy after Sandy to swap on the studded ones?

      Here’s a better idea: a tax on studded tires. Make it steep. Maybe 100 bucks per tire. That way, the few people who desperately want or need studded tires bad can still use them. But the tax/fee will incentivize the vast majority of people who buy winter tires to the studless kind, which (though not quite as effective as studs on glare ice) can be excellent in most winter conditions and an order of magnitude better than non-winter-specific tires.

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      • dan September 27, 2012 at 2:52 pm

        The problem with a tax is enforcing it on out-of-state sales — people would just drive to Vancouver to buy their studded tires. I think we need studded tire tabs, just like the existing license plate tabs. Call it $25/year to mount studded tires, and a $200 fine if you’re caught without tabs.

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      • davemess September 28, 2012 at 7:14 am

        Why would an outright ban not be a better idea? Studless tires are just as efficient in the snow and ice, without destroying the roads.

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    • 9watts September 28, 2012 at 8:58 am

      “My dad, a contractor, loves cyclists…they can actually get around and get work done.”

      Well, my friend, a contractor, loves cyclists and does his contracting business by means of a bicycle+trailer.

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  • julie September 27, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Toll roads (especially for roads in and out of Portland, like the I-205 bridge, the I-5 bridge, and Hwy 26 and Hwy 84) and VMT fees for people who insist on driving when they have other options. Done.

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    • q`Tzal September 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm

      I don’t know the specific law but it appears that tolls can only be applied to new construction, for example new bridges and completely new road segments.
      If this is actually a law and not simply a guideline then it is a good federal law.

      Opposition to broad spectrum tolling evokes most of the same arguments as those against licensing cyclists. It will disproportionately affect the poor as they drive to employment, and often to jobs farther from their homes. Some will have jobs that involve driving; in our increasingly tight labor market employers have been paying off daily operating expenses upon workers to increase their bottom line: why should we expect any less here?

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      • spare_wheel September 28, 2012 at 9:45 am

        ” It will disproportionately affect the poor as they drive to employment”

        The bottom quintiles disproportionately use public transport. Tolling (and taxing) low occupancy vehicles is very likely to help the poor in the long run.

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        • q`Tzal September 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm

          As long as the poor have to work,
          AND as long as employment is geographically transient (non-permanent),
          AND as long as it costs more money to constantly change residence,
          AND as long as we don’t have a public transit system equal to or better than European cities
          THEN the employed poor will be disproportionately taxed by their NEED to drive over more tolled miles of road to get to employment that has moved further away to more profitable areas.

          It is one thing to say “logically, if there is insufficient employment opportunities near your home you should change where you live.” This is the cold, rational and logical conclusion and it is statistically correct. It is incapable of factoring in complications like the other spouse’s job, and children in school or the ailing elderly family member being cared for at her lifelong home.

          As long as the poor do not have the money to make life’s complexities simply evaporate then they will have to travel farther to make life liveable.

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  • Randall S. September 27, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Stop letting people store their private cars on public streets for free. I know far, far, far too many people who have garages and still park on the street.

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    • Chris I September 27, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      I would love to hear one of the candidates propose a widespread demand-based parking system like SFPark. A significant portion of the budget comes from street parking, so it seems odd to ignore this.

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      • spare_wheel September 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

        I can only imagine the screams from the suburbs as dinner and a show suddenly costs $20 in parking.

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        • Chris I September 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm

          They will pay it, or find alternatives. And if enough people don’t want to pay it, then the price goes down. Supply and demand.

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  • Spiffy September 27, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I agree that they both seemed to give the same answers…

    however, I feel that Hales’ response sounded condescending… Smith sounded like he knew how to connect with his audience…

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  • davemess September 27, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Smith’s response sounded like he’s been reading bikeportland!
    Hales just sounds confusing and confused. Now he is saying that bike lanes aren’t preventing street maintenance?

    I’m really curious about his 60 miles of “un-built streets”? Is he talking about all the unimproved roads on the east side? Or are there some new streets he’s looking to build? Not very clear and he mentioned it a few times in a short answer, so it must be important.

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    • ScottB September 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      Here’s info about unpaved streets in Portland:

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      • Jason McHuff September 27, 2012 at 9:47 pm

        Actually, the city probably considers those streets to be “un-built” since they won’t take responsibility of them until they are up to standards

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        • davemess September 28, 2012 at 7:19 am

          I wonder if these comments about the “un-built streets” was an effort to try to woo some of the east Portland vote away from Smith? I find it hard to believe that Hales has an honest interest in paving streets in the poorer areas of Portland. But it does desperately need to be done soon. I hope I’m wrong, in that case.

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