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

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.


– 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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