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Lost track of the Portland Street Fund? Here’s our up-to-the-minute guide

Posted by on January 9th, 2015 at 8:47 am

Portland City Council

Portland’s city council: Steve Novick, Amanda Fritz, Charlie Hales, Dan Saltzman, Nick Fish.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Ever since local transportation funding became one of the hottest topics in Portland media — hey, we’re not complaining — we’ve scaled back our coverage of the city council’s ever-shifting proposals for a new transportation tax or fee on Portland residents.

But it’s still the most important issue in local transportation, and this week’s developments suggest that it’ll continue to be for most of 2015. Though the Portland City Council has made predictions on this subject dangerous, it seems likely that some time this year, voters will get a chance to choose one of several options for different ways to raise money for pavements and safety upgrades on the city’s road system.

If you haven’t been following the latest twists, here’s what’s happened lately:

– On Dec. 29, Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick proposed charging a per-person fee that’s not quite flat but doesn’t slope upward nearly as fast as incomes do. It’d be $36 for the lowest-income fifth of Portlanders, $89.40 a year for the middle fifth and $144 a year for the highest-income fifth.

– On Monday, Novick’s colleague Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she wouldn’t support that plan because it put too high a burden on poorer families.

– On Wednesday, Mayor Charlie Hales (who also counts as one of the five council members) said he had a new plan: a nonbinding “advisory” vote, this May, by Portland residents. But instead of saying “yes” or “no” to a single plan, voters will be asked for separate up-or-down votes on several options including a gas tax, a progressive income tax and probably a few others. (This would mean that people could vote against any and every proposal if they wanted.) Hales and Novick both pledged to vote for whichever option was most popular with voters, even if none broke 50 percent.

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– At a Thursday night council meeting, Commissioner Nick Fish distanced himself from the gas tax option and Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she supports a progressive income tax that would exempt the poorest Portlanders.

The fifth member of the council, Commissioner Dan Saltzman, has consistently said that he wants voters to directly approve the street fee, whatever it is.

The next action is expected the week of Jan. 20, when Novick’s office is supposed to offer language for the possible ballot issues.

This latest Hales approach, to put multiple options on the ballot, is presumably inspired by the trick where instead of asking a kid if they’d like vegetables with dinner, you ask whether they’d prefer green beans or broccoli.

Other options that might end up on the ballot, in addition to the local gas tax and the progressive income tax:

– A local property tax.

– A monthly per-vehicle fee for parking cars and motorcycles in Portland streets, modeled on Chicago’s. (As the Mercury reported last night, there’s some concern about a state law that says only counties can charge for “recording of a vehicle for use within a jurisdiction.”)

Through all of this, the business side of the fee has remained intact. It’d charge an annual fee to every registered business that either isn’t based in a home or that grosses more than $50,000 a year. The fees are listed on a matrix that varies by type of business, annual revenue and number of employees. However, the business fee would only take effect after the city council chooses a fee to charge residents directly.

Both the residential and business charges are aiming to raise $23 million a year, for a total of $46 million. After collection costs, the money would be split 56/44, with 56 percent going to projects that are mostly repaving-related and 44 percent going to projects (including dedicated biking and walking infrastructure) that is mostly safety-related.

What’s next for the street fund? The only thing that seems certain is that this story’s plot will keep twisting.

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Michael Andersen (News Editor)Paul G.9wattsdavemessTodd Hudson Recent comment authors
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Peter W
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This thing is hard to keep track of.

Can someone please just make us an infographic? 😉

David Cushman
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David Cushman

Thanks! I had gotten lost, please update this every so often.

Jon
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Jon

If you can afford a car you can afford to pay a gas tax.

9watts
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9watts

I’d amend that to we as a society can not afford to keep avoiding raising the gas tax. How about ramp up to $1.50/gal, and index it to 3x inflation?

Jayson
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Jayson

Public processes like these that drag on forever lose my interest. Wake me when they’re done.

Jonathan Gordon
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Jonathan Gordon

I really like what Joe Cortright has to say about this issue on his relatively new City Commentary website:

How Should Portland Pay for Streets?
http://cityobservatory.org/how-should-portland-pay-for-streets/

nuovorecord
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nuovorecord

Great read! Agreed.

Albyn
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Albyn

Me too. Joe Cortright for mayor! Gas tax!

MaxD
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MaxD

Thanks Jonathan Gordon! I had not seen that and it is very good! I like a couple of other minor ideas like that Joe doesn’t mention like raising vehicle registration proportional to vehicle weight, raising fees at DEQ inspections based on vehicle weight and engine size, and creating a permit sticker (expensive!) to use studded tires within City limits. and raising taxes on surface parking lots (and parking in general across the City).

davemess
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davemess

What a joke this has become.
I’m not down with Hale’s and Novick’s continued combative tone. Definitely plan on voting against them in the next election (and calling their bluff). (Not that I voted for them the first time).

9watts
Guest
9watts

Let’s also not lose sight of the damage this (ongoing) debacle has done to any future attempt by the city (or, for that matter, by other elected officials) to try to institute something sensible. Credibility and trust in our local gov’t are delicate but crucial variables in making this town better.

davemess
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davemess

I think that ship has already sailed though, esp. after the water bureau issues and the arts tax.

9watts
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9watts

I suppose. Though I’d like to think that each new effort could (also) be an opportunity to regain that trust.

Adam H.
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Adam H.

I think multiple options should be implemented simultaneously. Increase the gas tax, charge a yearly fee for parking stickers, and implement congestion pricing by tolling the bridges and highways leading into the city center. These would all also have the effect of reducing auto miles traveled, so these fees would have to be raised periodically.

Todd Hudson
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Todd Hudson

Everything you suggested except for the gas tax is prohibited by state and federal law.

9watts
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9watts

Guess it’s time to work on getting those laws changed, then.

Todd Hudson
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Todd Hudson

I wish you the best of luck in dealing with a Republican Congress.

Kiel Johnson (Go By Bike)
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kiel johnson

there is still one thing missing in all this, a third yes vote to anything

Daniel Costantino
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Daniel Costantino

The fact that the publicly announced plans for this fee/tax proposal changing every 5 minutes is evidence of

(a) Insufficient research on advantages and drawbacks of conceivable options prior to proposing the fee.

(b) Profound lack of internal coordination and cohesion among City Council members including the Mayor.

The blame for (a) rests on the proponents of the fee, Hales and Novick. Proper research prior to coming out guns blazing would have allowed them to stand behind their guns instead of waffling every time a citizen, business group or other Council member sneezes.

The blame for (b) rests on Council as a whole. It’s about time people learned to coordinate a message behind closed doors (yeah, I said it!) before going out to the public and standing on their high horses (Hales, Novick, Fritz, Fish) or hiding behind their desk (Saltzmann).

It’s extremely disappointing to see that policy aims that may overall be laudable and quite useful to the whole City end up looking stupid and expensive because of the poor coordination of the process by our City’s leading decision-makers.

9watts
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9watts

“It’s extremely disappointing to see that policy aims that may overall be laudable and quite useful to the whole City end up looking stupid and expensive because of the poor coordination of the process by our City’s leading decision-makers.”
Or, worse, that thrashing out an ill-conceived policy idea in public over several years only to have it fizzle makes the eventual, sensible idea that much harder to implement.

gutterbunnybikes
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gutterbunnybikes

at least they got around to the people with small home businesses…finally.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Michael, huge kudos. I sometimes think that BikePortland is more advocacy than journalism. But your story is as complete and balanced as I’ve seen in local media (and on social networks). Few stories have noted that the ballot options will be sequential yes and no. This is about the worst way to tally among multiple options (the worst way would be a single plurality vote with all options listed at once). And you describe the Novick proposal very accurately. It has been inaccurately described as “regressive” but your description is precisely correct: graduated tiers that don’t increase proportionally with income.
Glad to see Joe Cortright’s column also on it, super informative. http://bikeportland.org/2015/01/09/guest-column-portland-pay-streets-130772