Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

City’s legislative agenda: ‘Modernize’ transportation funding

Posted by on January 15th, 2013 at 2:36 pm

“… the need for new infrastructure and ongoing maintenance outpaces available transportation revenue at the state and local levels.”
— From City of Portland’s 213 State Legislative Agenda

2013 is shaping up to be the year of transportation funding. For years now, everyone has known way we fund transportation is broken, but no one ever wanted to talk about it. Now, so many threads of the funding discussion are coming together that it’s not a stretch to think that by the end of this year we’ll have some major breakthroughs.

While ODOT continues to lead the nation in a push toward a mileage-based tax (instead of the gas tax), the City of Portland is doing some pushing of its own. Case in point is the City’s 2013 State Legislative Agenda that was released today. The agenda is a 48-page document — signed by Mayor Charlie Hales — that outlines the specific policy issues the City’s government relations staffers will lobby for down in Salem. Among the top priorities this year is infrastructure spending.

On a page titled, “Modernize & Enhance Transportation Spending,” the City states their objective as wanting to support legislation that will, “bolster long-term funding for multimodal transportation to better meet the evolving and growing needs of Oregonians and businesses.”

According to the agenda, the issue is that, “the need for new infrastructure and ongoing maintenance outpaces available transportation revenue at the state and local levels.” This is an interesting position for Mayor Hales. He painted a picture during his campaign, and has re-iterated in recent interviews that the reason PBOT hasn’t maintained roads at an acceptable rate is because of mismanagement and a reluctance to focus on the “basics” (read: too much priority on “bike projects”). This is the same perspective constantly hammered out by The Oregonian.

Campaign rhetoric aside, the City’s first post-Sam Adams agenda acknowledges the glaring financial complications facing the bureau and shows an understanding that we need more dedicated funding for bicycling-focused projects. Below are the three bullet points (followed by my notes) that go into specifics of what City lobbyists will support in Salem this session:

Support greater flexibility for local governments to raise transportation revenue by allowing the preemption on local gas tax increases to expire on January 2, 2014.

This is a reference to a deal struck by lawmakers when they passed the landmark Jobs and Transportation Act of 2009 (H.B. 2001). As part of that law, the gas tax went up six cents from $.24 per gallon to $.30 per gallon. That was the first increase since 1993. In order to get that increase, lawmakers put a moratorium on raising local gas taxes that is set to be repealed on January 2, 2014. While the gas tax is largely understood to be headed toward obsolescence, raising the local gas tax could raise revenues in the short-term.

Support dedicated state funding for non-roadway transportation modes, including investments in public transit operations and pedestrian, bicycling, and passenger rail transportation in addition to marine, freight rail, and aviation investments.

This is explicit support for a new funding program known as Connect Oregon Plus. The proposed program (that the Bicycle Transportation Alliance is also firmly behind) seeks to add additional project categories into the existing Connect Oregon, which specifically funds marine, freight rail, and aviation projects.

Support adoption of a road usage charge as a long term replacement for declining gas tax revenue to ensure that drivers pay a fair share for road maintenance and construction.

This is in reference to the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee that is being developed. As we’ve reported in the past, ODOT is leading the nation in coming up with the technology and the policy to make a mileage-based fee a reality.

Finally there seems to be real momentum for new funding ideas. 2013 should be very interesting. Stay tuned.

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

  • Allan January 15, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    We should alter state gas tax proceeds so that instead of proportionally by # of vehicles registered it is proportional based on how many miles are driven in each county.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

    • peejay January 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      That’s a great idea, in addition to the fix I have in mind.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

    • peejay January 15, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      Or, perhaps, distribute the money proportionally to where the gas tax is being collected. Most people don’t go too far from their homes to fill up.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • Psyfalcon January 15, 2013 at 4:18 pm

        But then people buy their gas in Clackamas, where it is cheaper, then drive downtown. Multnomah roads take damage from Washington and Clackamas cars, but wouldn’t see revenue to offset that.

        Recommended Thumb up 3

        • 9watts January 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm

          I think we can avoid rooting around in the weeds. The places I’ve been that have excellent transportation infrastructure have much higher gasoline taxes than we do. Once we go down that road–and we will–we’ll wonder what took us so long. No need to make this more complicated than necessary.

          Recommended Thumb up 2

        • John Lascurettes January 15, 2013 at 4:40 pm

          It’s easy enough to collect the fees based on milage, but distribute them based on vehicle density (traffic counts are taken all the time).

          Recommended Thumb up 0

          • 9watts January 15, 2013 at 4:50 pm

            I feel like we’ve had versions of this conversation before. Until someone explains where the idea that the gas tax is obsolete/broken comes from, I don’t think we can have a reasonable discussion about the merits of these administrative hijinks to solve a problem that to some of us doesn’t appear to be a problem.

            Raise gas tax 2x or 3x or tenfold. Yes we need political will but that is required to do anything sensible. Additional admin costs = zero.

            Invent new VMT tax: administrative nightmare, additional costs, and how is it better, exactly? Why are some of you apparently counting on it to raise more (net) funds than raising the gas tax? I’m missing something, and I never got an answer the last time we talked about this here either.

            Recommended Thumb up 1

            • q`Tzal January 15, 2013 at 5:40 pm

              Gasoline taxes are absolute values (list price per gallon + X per gallon) not proportional (list price per gallon + (X% per gallon). The absolute tax level was set in stone many years ago and has not been changed proportionally to real cost of upkeep.

              In the mean time:
              () The average MPG of American vehicles has risen
              () The average weight of American automobiles has risen.
              () vehicles have entered our road system that do not use an energy source that is as easy to directly correlate to VMT as gas or diesel; partial hybrids, full electrics, farm biofuels and waste oil biodiesel are not consistently taxed (or not taxed at all or incentivized) such that automobiles that use these energy sources do not contribute to the road maintenance fund. How do we tax an electric vehicle owner who charges their car off of a home solar panel?
              () road material costs are increasing:
              {} as oil prices rose refinery efficiencies were improved greatly. This greatly reduced the supply of asphalt, the chief waste product of petroleum refining.
              {} increased fuel prices disproportionately affect road repair and building transportation costs due to the weight of the materials involved.

              So the problem is this:
              Wish as we might it won’t make autos go away.
              People are switching wholesale to electrics and the SUV/heavy personal truck industry is successfully selling customers on non-hybrid trucks that achieve past performance with super tuned smaller engines.
              Vehicle weights are still increasing but revenue from gasoline taxes collapses as VMT & efficiency increases.

              The big problem is spin. A VMT * weight tax should not be pitched as a an increase in gas taxes or a push for big gubment surveillance; it should be sold to voters as a way to insure that those “freeloaders driving electric vehicles pay their fair share for the wear and tear they cause to our vital road system.”
              Then let the law makers silently sneak in the simple “weight times VMT” taxation formula that will eventually kill off the Escalade and other pointless SUVs.

              Recommended Thumb up 1

              • 9watts January 15, 2013 at 5:45 pm

                “People are switching wholesale to electrics”


                Recommended Thumb up 0

              • q`Tzal January 16, 2013 at 3:13 pm

                Okay that was a bit of hyperbole but it just feels like it after decades of viable electric automobiles being possible both to industry and to homebrew conversions,
                After so many years of big car companies actually offering electric cars ready to drive,
                After the fuel prices spike in 2005, then gas prices fell and more precipitously again after November 2008 AVERAGE people are ponying up their hard earned cash for more expensive electrics,
                THAT any statistically significant increase seems monumental.

                Even if the general public doesn’t share our knowledge that the institutional pillaging of our environment is the most clear and present danger of our time it is nice to see SOME progress towards a public that is at least aware that the “free ride-fun time-cheap energy days” are soon to be over.

                When you are working with stone knives and bear skins any progress looks big.

                Recommended Thumb up 0

              • valleybob January 16, 2013 at 11:18 am

                Can someone enlighten me on why we would switch to a system that de-incentivizes buying low/no fossil fuel consumption vehicles? I like the fact that people who buy gas guzzlers pay more tax, and those who don’t pay less.

                Recommended Thumb up 0

              • q`Tzal January 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm

                I was just listening to a podcast from the solar power installer industry; the guest, a VP of a major installation firm, talked about how despite Florida being the best state in latitude & sunny days per year that it is near impossible to get large projects started.
                This was a two prong approach by the entrenched electricity generators:
                (1) they lobbied the state law makers to make PV projects owned by businesses illegal. They got this law PASSED!!! with the threat that they would have to raise residential electrical rates to maintain their current profit margins. Not that they would lose money, they just wouldn’t make as much.
                (2) they influenced the in state financial institutions in to not ever giving loans for any solar projects … ever. The VP being interviewed described a Kickstarter-esq patchwork of private donors they have had to setup to help residential customers pay for installations that could easily break even in less than 5 years on payments for unused electricity put back in the grid. From the standpoint of a loan officer it makes sense to lend to a customer that is using the load to setup a proven income stream, this is low risk with a near 100% payback probability.

                Entrenched economic interests prevail. Adam Smith called his principal of self governing capitalism “The Invisible Hand” because what it really is, Greed(tm), is one of those deadly sins. This is bad PR to speak aloud: we don’t want the devout to give up on conspicuous consumption and greed, it would kill the economy.

                Recommended Thumb up 0

  • peejay January 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    So funny that everyone thinks the gas tax is broken because why? Electric cars or something. I have news: the gas tax isn’t broken; it’s just too damn low. And it will keep being too low as long as it is set as a certain amount per gallon, rather than per dollar of gas bought. If we could fix this technical problem, we’d guarantee gas taxes keeping up with inflation, or even inflation in the transportation sector, forever, without any hard to obtain rate changes.

    Now that change in practice may be hard, but compare that to the creation of an entirely new infrastructure that would be required to monitor and charge accurately for VMT. Gadgets would have to be added to every car, even old ones, and a cottage industry would spring up overnight in ways to hack your car to cheat this VMT monitor. People with privacy concerns would rightly complain about the government tracking their movements, people with inefficient, wasteful vehicles would suddenly start paying exactly the same rate per mile as people who drive high fuel economy cars, and the overall newness and strangeness of the new tax would be met with a wall of political resistance.

    Why do people think VMT is better than a minor fix to the boring old gas tax? Help me understand this point, please.

    Recommended Thumb up 14

    • 9watts January 15, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      Hear hear.

      “While the gas tax is largely understood to be headed toward obsolescence, raising the local gas tax could raise revenues in the short-term.”

      ->Please explain.

      Once we all stop driving we won’t need the money the tax (a real version of it) could raise. But until then I don’t see what is broken about it.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • 9watts January 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

        It looks like some folks agree with the critics of the VMT tax here:

        > Recently, the VMT fee received added visibility from a General Accountability Office (GAO) report (Pilot Program Could Help Determine the Viability of Mileage Fees for Certain Vehicles, GAO-13-77, December 13, 2012). The report concludes that “mileage-based user fees initiatives in the United States and abroad show that such fees can lead to more equitable and efficient use of roadways by charging drivers based on their actual road use and by providing pricing incentives to reduce road use.” To replace current federal fuel tax revenues ($38 billion/year) drivers of passenger vehicles with average fuel efficiency would pay $108 per year in mileage fees compared to the $96 these drivers currently pay in federal gasoline tax, according to GAO.
        > But the report added a note of caution: “Mileage fees for passenger vehicles continue to face significant public concerns related to privacy as well as cost challenges. … Implementing a system to collect fees from 230 million U.S. passenger vehicles is likely to greatly exceed the costs of collecting fuel taxes.”
        > While a GPS-based VMT system is being successfully used for truck movements in Germany and Austria (the Toll Collect system), its future in this country is still uncertain. According to GAO, “few states reported that they are likely to introduce such fees in the next 10 years.” A nationwide federally-administered system is even more problematical. GAO has recommended federally-led field tests of mileage fees for commercial trucks to see if the VMT concept might hold promise for that class of vehicles.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Andrew K January 15, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    I can hear the cries of the O-Live board already, “Require all bikes to be licensed and registered!!!”


    This document is a start though, and a welcome one if you ask me. These conversations need to happen and they shouldn’t be taboo. Part of government’s job is to make very difficult decisions.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • peejay January 15, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Now, I don’t have super accurate numbers on this, but they’re in the ballpark. The national gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, with state and local averaging about 30 cents more. I don’t know what’s happened to the state and local rates, but the national rate has been the same since 1993, when the average gas price was $1.07, vs $4.03 today, which means we went from a tax of 17% of the value of a gallon in 1993 to 4.6% today. That’s a huge rate DECREASE, while cars have been getting more efficient (less gas bought) and at the same time heavier (more damage to roads). If at least we kept up with inflation, the federal tax on a gallon would be pushing 80 cents a gallon, which I bet would be sufficient to pay for a lot of transit needs.

    I may sound like a broken record on this subject, but that record is gonna keep playing until someone lifts the needle with a real insight as to how or why I’m wrong.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • 9watts January 15, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      two small points.

      + the signal from reduced VMT is much louder than from more efficient vehicles as far as decreases in gasoline purchases goes.

      + asphalt prices have increased dramatically over the past several decades, so when we’re comparing the funds raised and what a large share of those funds are spent on, the chasm is much wider than merely indexing it to the CPI would suggest.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • CPAC January 15, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Here’s how to pass either a VMT or the per-dollar gas tax: tie it to bicycle licensing/registration. Put them both into one bill.

    Before you all jump on me, I know the licensing/registration thing wont even pay for itself, and I know it’s a lousy idea and sends the all the wrong messages, and I know it may not be actually workable. I’m opposed to it.

    But as a means of gaining broader political support for a VMT or per-dollar gas tax (or at least removing some of the loudest opposition) would you make that compromise?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • dwainedibbly January 15, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    $100/tire tax on studded motor vehicle tires.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • Gerik January 15, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    In addition to the fantastic news that the City of Portland endorses Connect Oregon Plus, I’d like to point out that JPACT adopted it into their state legislative agenda as well. We have some credible momentum behind this proposal!

    You can review the packet of materials from JPACT’s Jan. 10th meeting to see it on page 7 of the PDF.

    “Support Multimodal Investment: Oregon should build upon its lottery-backed program of investment in multimodal capital projects that support freight mobility and transit by identifying new, ongoing state funding that supports those projects as well as transit operations and pedestrian and bicycle facilities.”


    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • J_R January 15, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    As others have stated, the problem is simply that the gas tax is too low.

    The fuel economy of the vehicle fleet has not changed significantly in 30 years! We’re basically stuck at a fleet fuel economy of about 20 mpg. This is because the composition of the fleet (more SUV’s and light trucks) has increased, thus negating the relatively minor increases in fuel economy of cars.

    The fuel economy has not been going up because the manufacturers, in response to consumers (that’s US), have been demanding increased performance rather than fuel economy. Look at the auto magazines or consumer magazines. It’s hard to find a car with a 0-60 time of more than 10 seconds. Even economy cars are achieving that. My 1974 BMW 2002 tii couldn’t do 0-60 in ten seconds and it was a sports car.

    The problem is that federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents since 1993. Oregon’s gas tax was 24 cents per gallon in 1993 and was finally raised to 30 cents in 2011. That’s a 25 percent increase for those keeping track. During that same period, the consumer price index has gone up by more than 60 percent and the streets and highways construction cost index has gone up by more than 65 percent. That’s why we’re falling behind on road maintenance. Add to that new requirements, such as ADA compliant ramps at intersections, fish-friendly culverts to replace the old ones, new larger street signs, higher electricty costs to run traffic signals, etc. It’s no wonder we don’t have enough money to maintain the system, much less make improvements needed to accommodate a greater population. Instead we’re forced into a false choice between “autos and bikes.”

    The gas tax should simply be adjusted for inflation – beginning 20 years ago. If it had gone up by a penny per year, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

    The state has promised us that VMT-based charges for transportation use would be “revenue neutral.” So what the heck is the point? Do we really care if a Prius owner pays $5 per month less in gas tax than the Suburban owner? Remember they both pay the same vehicle and driver’s license fees.

    The gas tax is really pretty fair. It causes those who drive more and drive less efficient cars to pay more. Besides that the gas tax is really cheap to administer. It’s collected on a wholesale fuel level. The VMT based tax would turn every vehicle owner into a road use tax payer. How many more bureaucrats will be needed to process all those payments.

    Finally, if we don’t have enough money to maintain the entire transportation infrastructure and if construction and maintenance costs keep rising, does anyone believe it will be easier to raise the VMT tax from 1.5 to 1.6 cents per mile than it would be to raise the gas tax from 30 cents per gallon to 32 cents per gallon?

    Just raise the gas tax and be done with it!

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • GlowBoy January 15, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    I agree with everyone above who says gas taxes are simply too damn low, and we wouldn’t be in this pickle if it had been indexed for inflation all these years. I think 9watts is right in his comments about VMT, and it damn well better factor vehicle weight in if we do go down that rabbit hole.

    And I LIKE the fact that the gas tax incentivizes people to (1) drive LESS, (2), drive more efficient cars, and (3) drive more efficientLY. (Almost no one except me seems to do #3, but there’s a lot of potential there if people would stop treating their gas pedals as testosterone dispensers).

    In fact, if gas taxes had kept up with inflation over the past few decades, we might have seen less sprawl, less of an SUV craze and less of a perceived need to go 80mph on the freeway. Oh yeah, and more bike and bike-friendly infrastructure.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • bicycle rider January 15, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    why wouldnt you make gas taxes a percentage instead of fixed number, like how every other tax is collected?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Terry D January 16, 2013 at 9:30 am

    A local option gas tax may be fine in the short term and it should be indexed to inflation, but we what we really need is a CARBON TAX.

    Seattle is actually talking about a local one, similar to British Columbia’s, which I have read has been successful so far. Part of the reason gas taxes are used on public transportation and other non-auto related projects is emissions mitigation. Admittedly, as a household we have only filled up our bio-diesel three times since last March, but I do not think I should be paying the same fuel tax for Oregon grown B99 that someone running Dino-diesel from the middle east is since I have only 22% of the carbon emissions.

    That said, a carbon tax combined with a wheel-mile tax would be fair since our auto does do the same damage to the roads whatever the fuel and a studded tires annual fee (if we can not eliminate them) would be a great modernization of our financing to 21st century realities.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • J-R January 16, 2013 at 10:42 am

      A gas tax is not all that different than a VMT tax plus a carbon tax – except for the complexity of collection and administration.

      British Columbia’s carbon tax as of July 2010 was about 21 cents per gallon for gasoline; 24 cents for diesel; 24.6 cents for jet fuel; $44 – $52 per ton for coal, etc. The point is that it is levied by the gallon for vehicles, so why not just stick with a gas tax? Why replace the gas tax with two different ones?

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • Terry D January 16, 2013 at 1:50 pm

        How do you tax lower carbon biodiesel? Or next generation ethanol? Or all electric vehicles charged at home? We are close to a pure algae produced biodiesel that could revolutionize diesel production and we need to encourage the lower pollution fuels and discourage the dirtier ones….hence the difference between the gas tax and a carbon tax.

        The carbon tax is more forward thinking in that it anticipates and can adapt to changes. It also can also be applied to natural gas to encourage solar water heating and geothermal retrofits in homes, or other point sources of emissions; this makes it much broader in its impact and has more long term flexibility.

        Climate change is not just about transportation, it requires rethinking all aspects of our society in one way or another.

        Recommended Thumb up 0

        • J_R January 16, 2013 at 8:19 pm

          Terry: You ask about charges for lower carbon biodiesel, ethanol, or “electric vehicles charged at home.”

          I don’t know if British Columbia makes any adjustment for biodiesel or ethanol, but they do charge for electric vehicles indirectly. It depends on how the electricity is generated. If it is from a coal or natural gas-fired generating plant, the power company has to pay the carbon tax based on the carbon tax rate of what goes into the plant. As I stated above, for coal it varies from $44 to $52 per ton. That cost would be reflected in your home power bill.

          Recommended Thumb up 0

          • Terry D January 17, 2013 at 8:23 am

            My questions were rhetorical points meant for you. I perfectly understand the carbon trading market and carbon taxes. As a household we have decreased our overall carbon consumption from an estimated 40 tons a year (between the two of us) in 1990 (my peak driving year) to 6 tons last year. I have been paying for “green sourced” electricity since the option became available in this state, so we already pay extra for our pollution.

            We also have placed what little natural gas we use in the carbon trading market (we have an on-demand h2o heater and our bills are no more than $20 a month but I refuse to free ride since NW Natural has the option). We also buy carbon credits for the few tanks of fuel we use per year (mostly B99). This is not the point however, the point is that carbon taxes are a modernization of our tax structure that once established can be raised slowly…..as carbon becomes more dangerous and our global levels increase.

            We can start on the easy point sources, transport fuels and home energy, then move on towards all other point sources instead of just relaying on an arbitrarily and politically set gas tax rate that will continue to diminish over time.

            Recommended Thumb up 0