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Update on Portland street fee as city gears up for first major public hearing

Posted by on May 29th, 2014 at 10:28 am

(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

It’s a big day for the City of Portland’s push for a street fee (a.k.a. the Transportation User Fee (TUF)) as the proposed plan get its first public hearing at City Council today at 2:00 pm. In advance of that, we want to help you get caught up and primed for the discussion.

From the web to watercoolers, civic dialogue about the funding initiative is at an all-time high. That’s not just because the public hearing is imminent, but because the underlying policy continues to be tweaked and changed less than one week before Mayor Charlie Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick plan to ask their Council colleagues to vote on it. And so far, neither Hales or Novick has announced an intention to push back the fee’s effective date of July 1, 2015.

Here on BikePortland we’ve hosted a variety of perspectives about the proposed fee — with readers seeming to be split for and against the idea. Yesterday we published two guest opinions; one of them opposed to the fee and the other in support of it. (I also encourage you to read our friend Chris Smith’s opinion about the fee over on Portland Transport.)

One place we haven’t heard much from is the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). Reached today via telephone, BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky expressed support for the proposal, but he stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.


Sadowsky has been part of a special advisory committee that has been working with Novick and Hales to craft the fee proposal and he plans on testifying in support of it at City Council today. The reason the BTA hasn’t taken a major public stance is that they needed to process the ordinance details through their internal advocacy committee and reach consensus. “We only got a lot of the details last Friday,” Sadowsky said, “So, like a lot of the groups, we’re trying to figure out — does this proposal make sense? Is the pricing right? Is it balanced between residential and commercial fees?”

“In principal we’re behind it but we’re not ready to say we’re throwing full support behind it without any contingencies.”
— Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance

Sadowsky expressed many changes the BTA would like to see to the proposal including: making sure the residential and commercial fees are voted on at the same time; that the trip generation calculation that creates the business fee is clearly defined; that there’s not a disproportionate impact on low-income households, and so on. Sadowsky also said the BTA would like the fee to be used “as a carrot to reduce trips.” “If the number of trips are helping define the price a business would pay, we’d like to find a way for people to get a lower fee if they’re actively engaged in trip reduction. For instance, if a Portland Public School has higher than 30% of kids walking and biking, they could get their fee waived.”

“In principal we’re behind it,” Sadowsky said. “But we’re not ready to say we’re throwing full support behind it without any contingencies.”

When it comes to how the new revenue would impact bicycle access in Portland, Sadowsky said the BTA feels “we come out pretty good.” According to their back-of-the-napkin math (given the current information from PBOT), the BTA calculates that about 22% of the new revenue (about $8 million per year) would have a significant and direct impact on bicycling access. That percentage comes from totaling up the expected investment in cycle tracks, crosswalk improvements, neighborhood greenways, and Safe Routes to School, Sadowsky said.

So far, unlike former Mayor Sam Adams’ approach in 2007, PBOT hasn’t touted lists of projects that the new revenue would pay for. However, the ordinance up for debate at City Council today does include a list of six specific projects that the fee would build in the first year — all of which would impact bicycling and/or walking:

Crossings/High Crash Corridors

  • Rapid flash beacon crossing improvements for NE Sandy Boulevard to improve pedestrian safety
  • Rumble strips on Marine Drive to prevent inattentive drivers from crossing into the other lane or crashing into the river
  • Construct two new pedestrian crossings improvements on SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway

Safe Routes to School

  • Complete the missing sidewalk network around David Douglas High School on SE 135th and SE 130th, from Stark to Division
  • Safety improvements for Lents Elementary on SE 97th and Steele; traffic calming around the school boundary
  • Pedestrian access to SW Portland’s Bridlemile Elementary; traffic calming along SW Hamilton from Scholl’s Ferry to Dosch

Estimates for how much the fee would raise per year range from $30-$50 million. Right now, PBOT is asking standard households to pay about $139 per year. We were curious how that stacked up to other fees — and how it differed from the other proposed fees in the plan — so we created this infographic to help compare (note that business fees aren’t included since Council is likely to delay them):

Putting the street fee in context.
(Gas and auto maintenance figures: Commissioner Steve Novick. Vancouver sales tax figures: Washington Department of Revenue. Eugene gas tax: City of Eugene estimate, 2011. Oregon income tax figures: Oregon Department of Revenue. Portland property tax estimate assumes a $22 per $1,000 millage rate, which is around average for Portland, and a 70 percent taxable value ratio, the current countywide average for single-family homes.)
(Graphic: BikePortland)

With so much riding on the future of this fee, we’re watching it closely. Stay tuned for more coverage and thanks for all your contributions to the discussions thus far. For more on the proposal see the official website at and read our past coverage here.

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. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Joe May 29, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Looking at that photo just worries me, seems like we have over flooded streets with autos, so creating more roads is not the way, but creating moveable areas is the correct method. greenways 🙂 slay me if i’m wrong.

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    • Max May 29, 2014 at 1:34 pm

      “creating more roads is not the way”

      That’s not what this fee is going to be used for. It’s going to be used for maintenance and safety improvements.

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      • jeff May 29, 2014 at 5:22 pm

        how do you know? our city counsel has a bleak history of spending tax/fee money for it’s original purpose.

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      • spare_wheel May 30, 2014 at 8:53 am

        crumbling pavement/tarmac is a great way to calm traffic and deter unnecessary driving. i’m all for a focus on safety but i’m opposed to the idea that someone tooling around pdx in a subaru needs a smooth road surface. novick complains that if we don’t pass this fee we will “have the streets of a 3rd city” and my response is GOOD!

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  • babygorilla May 29, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Here’s a link to a 2013 PBOT audit.

    The whole tenor of the conversation surrounding this street fee seems to assume that there is a somehow a revenue problem. Is that the case or is PBOT spending in excess of its capability? A few highlights from the audit:

    PBOT plans to spend $115 million of discretionary revenue in FY
    2012-13, an increase of $23 million (26 percent) from FY 2008-09. But
    even with this total spending increase, many maintenance programs
    have been reduced.

    PBOT has identified many trends that may make gas tax and parking fees unstable revenue sources in the long term. PBOT notes that cars are becoming more fuel efficient, fewer people are registering cars in Multnomah County, and overall fuel consumption in the Pacific Northwest is down. The result may be downward pressure on gas tax revenue. However, in its financial forecast, PBOT estimates that both gas taxes and parking revenues will continue to rise through the end of the forecast period in FY 2016-17. PBOT bases the estimate of the City’s gas tax/ State Highway Fund revenues on the Oregon Department of Transportation Gas Tax Forecast, which is conservatively discounted by 7 percent

    The east side streetcar line began operating in September 2012. However, the east side parking district was not approved by Council until June 2012, and will not have surplus revenue in the first year due to implementation costs. Until those parking revenues exceed the costs of parking district implementation and operation, streetcar operations will be subsidized with
    other discretionary transportation revenues.

    From FY 2012-13 to FY 2016-17, debt service payments are estimated to increase another 80 percent, as payments begin on bonds to fund the Portland Milwaukie Light Rail line and the Sellwood Bridge replacement.
    While Council intended that payment of the Portland Milwaukie Light Rail line bonds be funded partially by dedicated System Development Charges (SDCs), according to Office of Management and Finance staff, those revenues are extremely volatile. PBOT financial managers told us they anticipatedebt service for the light rail project will be paid out of other discretionary transportation revenues at least through the next five years. PBOT management noted that prior to the downtown transit mall and Portland Milwaukie Light Rail development, PBOT funds had not been used for transit development. Again, funding for this new project will displace existing core transportation services unless and until SDCs increase.

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    • Paul Cone May 29, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      Everybody keep referencing that audit like it came out yesterday,when in fact it’s 15 months old, and was done under a different mayor, transportation commissioner, and transportation director. Yes, PBOT is still saddled with debt payments for capital projects, but that was due to past decisions made under a previous mayor and transportation commissioner. The fundamentals of the revenue sources haven’t changed, but the plan on how to spend things has. You

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    • paikiala May 30, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      1. PBOT discounts State Revenue forecasts because they keep coming in lower than the State estimates.
      2. PBOT is where City Council transportation choices reside for budgetary purposes, so conflating City Council with PBOT is a pretty simple error.

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  • Joe May 29, 2014 at 11:25 am

    parking fees where does the money go? huge structures and lots all around downtown. * some pay 300 a month for under ground parking * hmm thats alot $$ also when they double park too. max limit reached is some areas.

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    • paikiala May 30, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      Only the Smart Park garages belong to the citizens of Portland, and requests by PBOT to transfer parking rate setting authority to PBOT from City Council have been repeatedly denied. Parking revenue is a pretty stable source of income, but it would be higher if PBOT could vary parking charges based on demand, as many other cities do.

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  • F.W. de Klerk May 29, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Let everyone in city hall know NOW that they will be looking for new jobs in 2016.

    Citizens of Portland, your voices no longer matter.

    The street fee is a lazy, shotgun solution. Most of us will see little in the way of improvements or safety from this.

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    • paikiala May 30, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      I’d like to borrow your crystal ball for a few hours.

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  • GlowBoy May 29, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Some points about this infographic showing the $139 fee versus other taxes and expenses incurred by Portlanders:
    – Although it’s quite a bit less than the “average annual water/sewer bill” of $753, it is in the same order of magnitude, and remember that our water/sewer bills are generating enormous amounts of outrage.
    – Is the $3380 income tax “average” (as stated), or median? If it’s median (and I suspect it is), using the “average” label is misleading and confusing.
    – The “typical property tax for a $300,000 home” is not representative of what Portlanders are typically paying in property taxes (although it’s close to what I’m paying), because the median Portlander is not a homeowner. Also, the median Portland home is not currently valued at $300,000.

    The infographic I’d like to see is this: how does the $97 that low income households have to pay compare with typical taxes paid by a typical Portlander living at the poverty line? I’m guessing the results would look VERY different.

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    • Max May 29, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      The median home value in Portland is $297,400.


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      • GlowBoy May 29, 2014 at 4:46 pm

        The median selling price is higher than the median home value.

        Also, yesterday’s Oregonian quoted Case-Schiller as stating the median price as $280k.

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  • GlowBoy May 29, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    And personally, although I’m a huge proponent of increased fuel taxes, I was swayed by Kiel Johnson’s arguments that we all have skin in this game regardless of what transportation modes we use.

    So I could support this fee in concept if (1) it were coupled with a local gas-tax increase, and (2) households below the poverty line were exempted completely.

    $97 a year is still a big burden for a lot of people, and if that exemption cuts the revenue by a third, so be it. I suppose charging poor people a marginally lower rate satisfies the state Constitution’s mandate that taxes be based on a person’s “ability to pay”, but that doesn’t make it okay.

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    • 9watts May 31, 2014 at 9:18 am

      “$97 a year is still a big burden for a lot of people”

      I’ll say.

      But, really, this isn’t the half of it. Many of those other fees listed above can be avoided or ratcheted down through actions someone who wishes to scrimp can take.

      And to compare this to property taxes… I don’t know.

      The things our property taxes support here in Multnomah Co. are things that, one could argue we all benefit from: schools, fire protection, libraries…

      But paving streets is not, in my view, in this league. One of these days we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that the era of cheap asphalt, of smooth streets, of near universal automobility is over. The street fee is a missed opportunity to take this into consideration, make a course correction toward–not raising money to patch the autos-first infrastructure we already have–but reorient our priorities for transportation around the urgent need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Rob Sadowsky’s suggestions notwithstanding, there is zero directive potential for this street fee. Quite unlike the gas tax, which, if indexed sharply, discourages that which we can no longer afford and through enlightened spending of the funds so generated can encourage alternatives. We don’t need to reinvent this wheel. Every other country on Earth (just about) already does this.

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  • Matti May 29, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    I do think we need to increase revenue to PBOT. I am not sure if the fee system is the right way. However, the proposed method of assessing fees for single family residences is not fair, making no distinction between an oversized house with 4-5 bedrooms and a 3 car garage, and a modest two bedroom house. Which of these has the most impact on our transportation system? The fee system proposed is skewed to favor large scale residential housing.

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    • davemess May 29, 2014 at 1:00 pm

      Yes, a house in east Portland is going to pay much more than some condos/apartments in the Pearl. And I’m guessing the Pearl citizen is probably going to get a little more “band for their buck” from these funds.

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      • davemess May 29, 2014 at 1:01 pm

        ha “BANG for their buck”

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    • Rob Chapman June 2, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Matti if PBOT only gets 2% of the budget now it seems to me that the fault lies with the council for poor budgeting. They can increase that percentage at will they just don’t have the spine. I’ll say it again, the at large council ensures that city bureaus will continue to be run like fiefdoms. There will be more absurd fees after this one.

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  • Not Buying In May 29, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Needless to say the TUF initiative is grossly unequitable, but…

    The cycling community has not contributed its fair share to the transportation infrastructure. You want to use and share the roads? You need to demonstrate proficiciency in safe operation of your vehicle/cycle and knowledge of the rules of the road. Cyclist should have mandatory licensing and registration.
    There are many benefits to cycling. No car payment, no insurance payment, no gasoline purchases, no ware-and-tear expenses, no emmissions, to name a few. Not paying into the building of, or maintanance of is not a benefit, it’s a free ride.

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    • Alan 1.0 May 29, 2014 at 1:50 pm

      It’s true that non-motorists don’t pay their fair share for roads but only because they pay MORE than their fair share. Refs here:

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    • GlowBoy May 29, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      “Not Buying In”, you sound like the same guy who posted as “Tax Bricycles” yesterday in the Brian Willson thread. Check that discussion and see my response:
      – Most road work funding doesn’t come from user fees, so cyclists are already contributing.
      – The primary reason we have licensing and testing of drivers is because of their potential to cause harm. A typical person on a bicycle has less than 1/1000 the ability to cause harm to others – whether on foot, on bike or in a car – as a typical automobile.

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    • jeff May 29, 2014 at 5:26 pm

      I ride to/from work every single day. I am a homeowner. I also own two cars, which are both licensed, registered, insured and are full of gas currently. I’m a fairly typical cyclist around PDX in that regard.

      what are you blathering on about exactly, or do you even know?

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    • Concordia Cyclcist May 30, 2014 at 11:00 am

      Maybe you could try backing up these assertions with some data.

      Otherwise I’m afraid your argument will be utterly dismantled in this forum by people who have actually bothered to gether data that has many times over debunked this exact same opinion.

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  • kittens May 29, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    It would be fun to include a line on the chart for what the average Portlandler pays annually to Comcast. Goes to show how much apathy we have for economic justice when it comes to free-market accountability.

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    • davemess May 30, 2014 at 7:09 am

      or how much of the current taxes we pay actually go towards transportation. They said 2% right? So is that of ALL of our taxes (since the city gets that money front the state and feds?
      For many of us, I’m betting that number is at or above $140/year.

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  • Steve May 30, 2014 at 8:32 am

    Would the street fee mean more street sweeping as well?

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    • paikiala May 30, 2014 at 3:32 pm

      Hard to say. Street sweeping is primarily a benefit to BES, since it reduces the sediment and debris that end up in the storm water system. PBOT does do the maintenance of clogged storm drains, but once it’s in the pipe and headed toward a treatment plant, or river, it’s BES that has to deal with it. BES is cutting back on fund transfers to PBOT for the support of street sweeping.

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      • Panda June 1, 2014 at 7:41 am

        I disagree! Street sweeping primarily benefits the citizens of Portland! PBOT and BES have got to get out their silo mentality and start thinking more wholistically.

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        • Rob Chapman June 2, 2014 at 10:48 am

          A thousand times yes Panda.

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  • babygorilla May 30, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    I wonder if the City vetted this proposal with any of the federal agencies it will try to bill. Federal property is immune from local taxation, but the Fed would be required to pay for things like utilities delivered to a federal property . Here, The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal agencies didn’t have to pay a West Virginia city’s “municipal service fee”,38&as_vis=1

    The Court stated that “fire and flood protection and street maintenance are core government services” and cited a Supreme Court case that stated that the United States is immune from liability for “taxes in the nature of reassessments for sewers and sidewalks.”

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  • 9watts May 31, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Sadowsky also said the BTA would like the fee to be used “as a carrot to reduce trips.” “If the number of trips are helping define the price a business would pay, we’d like to find a way for people to get a lower fee if they’re actively engaged in trip reduction. For instance, if a Portland Public School has higher than 30% of kids walking and biking, they could get their fee waived.”

    Laudable goal, but administratively a nightmare. Rob, you realize perhaps that with as many tweaks as everyone is *predictably* suggesting this once flat fee is trying to emulate what the gas tax accomplishes effortlessly. This is a fool’s errand.

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  • 9watts May 31, 2014 at 9:00 am

    “with readers seeming to be split for and against the idea.”

    My impression, as a not impartial member of this community, is that the readership of bikeportland is heavily tilted against the idea of a street fee as presented.

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  • Middle of the Road guy June 1, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Why not just show how much people spend at New Seasons per annum?

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