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Opinion: The PBA and The Oregonian are wrong about street tax impetus

Posted by on November 14th, 2014 at 12:59 pm

DSC_5589

They’ve never said “Our Streets” is only for paving.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. Senator 1976-2000

It’s one thing to be opposed to something on principle or policy grounds, but when the facts are twisted to suit an agenda, that’s something else entirely.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what The Oregonian Editorial Board and the Portland Business Alliance have done. Both of these groups are staunchly opposed to the latest transportation revenue proposal unveiled by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick earlier this week. I’m not entirely in love with the proposal (I think a paltry 7% of total spending toward biking-specific infrastructure isn’t enough); but that’s a different conversation. For now, there’s one aspect of the argument from the PBA and The Oregonian that really needs to be called out.

Almost before the cameras were even turned off at Monday’s City Hall press conference to announce the new proposal — a mix of personal income tax and business licensing fees — the PBA put out a letter that made headlines all over the local media. Among the PBA’s four major objections to the proposal was this one:

“Finally, it is not clear that a preponderance of the newly raised revenue would go toward paving maintenance, which was the initial impetus for creating this new program.”

Note that “initial impetus” part.

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Then one day later, The Oregonian Editorial Board blasted the “street tax mess.” Like the PBA, The Oregonian’s Editorial Board wants a much larger portion of the revenue raised by this program to go toward maintenance and paving — instead of safety projects. (The current split is 56/44 paving/safety. The PBA has advocated for a 75/25 split.) And, just like the PBA, The Oregonian pulled out the following argument to make their case:

Meanwhile, only half the revenue would pay for street maintenance, which is odd considering the tax is a response to a huge backlog of deferred maintenance.

The reality is, the City of Portland has never framed this as being solely intended to pay for paving and maintenance. The “impetus” for new transportation revenue has always included safety projects.

Both the PBA and The Oregonian have just forgotten this fact or they’re intentionally misleading people.

pbotprioriitesfee

Graph showing PBOT survey results that influenced approach to Our Streets funding effort (from February 2014).

I went back into my email archives to find PBOT’s first press release about the “Our Streets” funding effort. Dated February 3rd, 2014, the release was about a telephone survey of Portland residents that asked about their top transportation funding priorities. A month prior, PBOT had convened an advisory committee to help them craft the questions. Their plan was to use the survey results to craft their entire approach to the program.

The headline of the press release was, “Maintenance, safety top Portlanders transportation priorities, survey says.”

Below is an excerpt from the press release. Note the emphasis on both paving/maintenance and safety:

Portlanders are most concerned about basic maintenance and safety. Consistent with prior surveys and audit reports, general repairs like potholes and repaving ranked among the top four “most important areas to invest in now.”
 
Four out of six safety needs ranked among the top six “most important areas to invest in now.” Responses identified safe pedestrian street crossings, safety around schools, safety at intersections and transit stops, and the addition of sidewalks as top choices.
 
The survey reaffirmed commitment to public transit and identified needs for increased bicycle safety. After road maintenance, improving MAX/TriMet and better/safer bicycle lanes were the two biggest needs identified by respondents. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed responded supportive to “safer bike routes to separate people riding bicycles from car and freight traffic.” In response to the question at the end of the poll asking Portlanders to identify “biggest transportation needs,” five of the top 14 response categories were related to public transit service.

Given the results of this survey — where 86% of Portlanders said investments in sidewalks and safety would make them support a new street fee — PBOT’s proposals have always put investments in safety projects on equal footing to paving/maintenance projects.

Going back even further, Hales told The Oregonian during his 2012 mayoral campaign that a new source of transportation funding was “necessary to to maintain and improve the city’s transportation system.”

And (as Portland Mercury News Editor Denis Theriault pointed out in a comment below) Hales was even more direct in 2013, when he told the Mercury, “I see us spending more on bikes and on paving,” he says. “I want us out of the zero-sum game. They don’t need to be in opposition.”

It’s clear that Hales’ inspiration for wanting to raise new transportation revenue was based not just on paving and maintaining what we have, but on building more of the stuff we need to keep all road users safe and happy.

The PBA and The Oregonian are promoting this false narrative so everyone thinks PBOT and Mayor Hales pulled some kind of bait-and-switch with their proposal. That’s not the case. I guess when your priorities are way out of line with what the vast majority of Portlanders want, the only tactic you have left is to mislead and hope your opinions are accepted as fact.

This has never been all about paving and maintenance, nor should it be. We need different opinions and a good civic debate about this important proposal — but that’s much harder to have when these two influential voices are muddying the waters with half-truths.

Michael Andersen contributed reporting to this story.

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Adron @ Transit Sleuth
Guest

This is a great write up showing the cluelessness behind the PBA and their general attack on Portland. I find it strange they perpurt they’re an advocacy group for Portland business when they often don’t speak for the local business that are actually on the streets of Portland.

The Oregonian, well, I’m not even sure I need to comment on that. They still have their constituency beyond Oregon that I suppose they have an intent to kiss up to. On the flip they’re just out of touch with the actual city, and seem to be, as you’ve pointed out, not paying attention to what is actually going on.

Summary: Great article. Wish the Oregonian and PBA would get in touch with Portland & the citizenry that lives here.

Jeg
Guest
Jeg

The rhetoric about potholes is dog whistle politics for “what are you doing for cars?” That’s been the “back to basics” that’s been talked about by these local conservatives. They want all the money for cars, nothing else. If they can keep pushing it in that direction, they hope people will stop thinking about pedestrians and bikes.

We must continue to advocate for multimodal improvements. Back to basics crap about potholes is dog whistle politics for “forget the bikers.”

Caitie
Guest
Caitie

Well, Jeg, I hate maneuvering around potholes on my bike. Or gritting my teeth and riding over them because of traffic. Or avoiding cars pulling out of their lanes to avoid them. Fixing potholes benefits all modes of transportation.

Blake
Guest

One of the ugliest points of opposition from the PBA is described by the Oregonian:

The alliance, she wrote, “appreciates” the newly configured business portion of the plan, but McDonough said they couldn’t support the new income tax on residents in particular.

“Under this new plan, almost half of Portland taxpayers will be exempt from paying even a modest amount,” she wrote. The new plan includes a progressive income tax that would charge a maximum of $900 per year for the wealthiest Portlanders, and would exempt joint filers that earn $35,000 or less.
(http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/11/portland_street_fund_business.html#incart_story_package)

That is, they oppose it for being TOO progressive, which is pretty clearly out of touch with most of the city where the original plan was revised after backlash specifically around its lack of progressivity.

J_R
Guest
J_R

There’s plenty of evidence that the US, Oregon, and Portland have neglected the transportation system for years because they have failed to allocate the necessary money.

There’s also plenty of evidence that the City of Portland has not been a good steward of the resources. I’m thinking of the vastly over budget BES offices. I’m also seeing within a few blocks of my home in SE a massive sewer repair project where many streets are being torn up just months after PBOT patched and sealed these same streets. These are not isolated repairs on a few sections of sewers and streets but blocks and blocks of them.

I’m all for a balanced transportation system and think that the proposed allocation of the resources for the street fee may be about right. I certainly disagree with the PBA and others that the entire focus should be on new pavement.

My problems with the income tax – street fee program are:

1. Non-Portland residents who account for a huge amount of street usage will pay NOTHING.
2. Regardless of what is promised by the current council, a future council could completely change the allocation to different transportation priorities or even sift it entirely away from transportation. It’s an income tax.
3. A future council could completely change the rates and formulas. It’s proposed to be 0% for lots of residents and 0.10% to 0.30% for middle- and high-income residents.
4. In an era where we are moving toward user pays, (as in the more use you make, the more you should pay for a service), this income tax disguised as a street fee is completely devoid of any connection to use.

As I’ve opined on this forum before, we should have higher taxes on things that are bad and lower taxes on things that are good. Something that’s bad: burning fossil fuels. Something that’s good: having a job. So why in the world do we choose to have a lower tax on gasoline than on income?

As I’ve proposed before: RAISE THE GAS TAX. Do it at the state level, do it at the local level, or both.

Denis C. Theriault
Guest

And I’ll remind everyone about this Charlie Hales quote, from the spring of 2013:

“I see us spending more on bikes and on paving,” he says. “I want us out of the zero-sum game. They don’t need to be in opposition…. Yes, we will raise your taxes. I don’t think that will be a pitched battle.”

http://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/tale-of-the-grip-tape/Content?oid=9573548

babygorilla
Guest
babygorilla

Anyone who doesn’t recognize that the City has emphasized repair and maintenance as a primary driver for the need for a new funding mechanism for transportation going back to the auditors’ reports on PBOT spending and street condition is deceiving themselves. They trotted out the $91 million maintenance backlog needed to fix “aging infrastructure” as the first finding in the initial “street fee” ordinance.

The “back to basics” narrative was part of Hales campaign and part of his administration. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/mayor/article/451624. https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/451483.

encephalopath
Guest
encephalopath

The PBA and The Oregonian are wrong about _____________.

I hope this isn’t a drinking game.

9watts
Guest
9watts

Thanks, Jonathan and Michael, for calling out these rascals.

To me their angle on this is so ironic, shortsighted, flawed. In a few short years their crowing for more asphalt is going to look pretty anachronistic and wishful when the horseless carriage—the justification for all this refreshed asphalt—will be rusting away in front of our houses, unused. Can we then sue them for causing our tax dollars to be misspent? Do they (or we) have a Plan B?

Babygorilla
Guest
Babygorilla

Here’s a slightly contemporaneous article from The Mercury identifying the new revenue source as a “Maintenance Fee.” The use of quotes imply that that characterization is not from the reporter. Someone was flogging it as a maintenance fee, not a safety fee or transportation improvement fee.

http://www.portlandmercury.com/BlogtownPDX/archives/2014/05/08/city-halls-flogging-a-street-fee-poll-is-it-any-good

Didn’t the city even change the proposal at some point to add language that a majority of funds would be dedicated to maintenance?

Given that and given that Hales appointed an interim PBOT director to focus on maintenance, that serious public street fee discussions came out at about the same time as the auditor reports on PBOT spending and pavement conditions, and that Hales ran on and trumpets his back to basics platform, I don’t see how identifying maintenance as the impetus of the street fee or that the street fee proposals was a response to maintenance concerns is remotely incorrect.

davemess
Guest
davemess

I disagree Jonathan. If you’d attended those early town hall meetings last summer, you would have heard/seen a HEAVY emphasis on our “crumbling” streets. They talked of how the back log on maintenance was so great and soon we would have streets turning back to gravel. You heard VERY little about the actual safety issues in our city (except for a few slides showing some improvements the money could pay for).

Even if the press releases seemed to give lip service to both needs, the presentations were dominated by talk of road maintenance and paving.

More importantly we should be calling out the fact that only 75% of this fee will be going to any actual improvements (paving or safety). Or the fact that PERS retirees (who also clearly use the roads) will not be paying anything.

Terry D-M
Guest
Terry D-M

There seems to be a whole series of whining amungst all the papers about this proposal. It is much better than the art’s tax which so is clearly a regressive head tax….while using a loophole to escape being declared unconstitutional.

This is only a start of what we need to upgrade, rebuild, preserve and modernize our network in a multi-modal way. User fees will come next and the state will pass a gas tax increase indexed in some way so it automatically increases over time. It is not like the federal government is going to increase funding any time soon, so we need to come together and settle on at least a small step forward. Federally, we should lobby to allow tolling on existing “freeways.”

We need to start making a dent in the sidewalks in south, east and sw Portland and bring the bikeway network into these underserved neighborhoods. If we can not pay for it locally, then where is the money going to come from? it is not like the private sector is volunteering to do it…I could site a dozen examples from around the city.

Anyone who whines about the 5 to 75 $ per month “disparity” and how this has no relation to use….and is just another example of soaking the rich. Remember, social security and medicare contributions are capped. The upper incomes will not even notice this small income tax. The “Cap” should be eliminated if you actually want to be fair about it, then have the extra resoucres be directly targeted to programs, mass or active transport, specifically designed to get Portland’s workforce to work as cheaply, efficiently and safely as possible.

Combined with congestion pricing of bridges and parking, we could then start actually repairing and modernizing our system in a serious way. Right now, even with the best management practices we are a sinking ship that keeps getting loaded with new passengers from ..well, everywhere.

Randy
Guest
Randy

Still a flawed proposal. Raise the gas tax…

Those with low vehicles miles travelled (VMT) should pay less. Big vehicles with single person trips should pay more. Those with studded tires should pay more.

Eddie Barksdale
Guest
Eddie Barksdale

Complete aside maybe, but I wish they would just stop paving roads for bicycles and instead offered unpaved options. Certainly, gravel does not become as slick as asphalt when covered in ice or leaves? At least, that’s what it seemed like the last few days. Only the paved bike lanes were dangerously slippery, but any stretch of gravel seemed like the safest place to motor.

robt
Guest
robt

Street maintenance/repair is not just a Portland need. I would prefer that the state increase vehicle licensing fees plus gas tax to raise funds. Otherwise, Portland may simply lose state/federal funding to other cities that don’t have a street fee. (This is what happens when school bond measures pass-the state steps in to aid districts in need.)

Also, if the street fund goes forward I think it’s more rational to base deductions on the number of cars people own, not the children they have. (no car=15k deduction, 1 car= 10k deduction, etc) Families already get child tax credits.

F.W. de Klerk
Guest
F.W. de Klerk

Exempting people under 40K still is unfair. Many low-income people still drive cars whether they can afford them or not. These folks can contribute something.

Trek 3900
Guest
Trek 3900

Raise the gas tax statewide so that those using the most gas, who are doing the most damage, pay the most. Cheap used cars that get good gas mileage are available – pick any old model Civic as just one example. If you just raise the gas tax in Portland, people will drive to Beaverton or Gresham to get gas. Tell Governor Kittyslobber to shut down his mileage tax plan that penalizes cars that get high mpg – it may be OK for electric only vehicles.

Put a reasonable tax on studded tires so those who damaging the roads with studs pay their fair share – I’d start with say $25 or $50 per set of 4 tires or say $10 per tire, etc. Probably will not pay for all the damage but will help.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/11/proposed_portland_street_fee_v.html

“A careful review of the street fee indicates that the largest users — trucking companies and railroads — are largely exempted from the fee.

For example, as currently proposed, a single family can pay a street fee as high as $600 per year. The Portland Bureau of Transportation estimates that Union Pacific Railroad’s Brooklyn Rail Yard will be paying only $480 per year — even though the family has only one or two cars and the Brooklyn yard has thousands of trucks loading and unloading freight from all over the U.S. The family’s cars weigh one or two tons. A single semi going to or coming from the Brooklyn yards weighs 40 tons. Something seems amiss with the city’s fee calculations.”

TOM
Guest
TOM

sure, and PBOT is paying out US$150K for help with it’s “vision” …Treat seems a puppet for Lil’ Napolean.

“Portland Bureau of Transportation paying nearly $150,000 for ‘vision’ of its ‘transportation future'”

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/11/portland_bureau_of_transportat_14.html