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Five myths and a fact about the gas tax on Tuesday’s ballot

Posted by on May 13th, 2016 at 3:32 pm

buczek walking

SW Barbur Boulevard at Capitol Highway. The city’s proposed gas tax would add a sidewalk to Capitol Highway, connecting to Barbur Transit Center. Most Portlanders like sidewalks, so the oil industry prefers to refer to them as “other things.”
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Despite endorsements from big business, small business, every significant mayoral candidate and seemingly every civic or nonprofit organization in town, two major institutions oppose the gas tax on Portlanders’ ballots Tuesday: the oil industry and the Oregonian editorial page.

Last week, a poll showed the measure with a narrow lead. The oil industry responded Wednesday with their latest mailer (the “no” campaign has raised $165,000 so far, half of it from out of state) claiming that a tax on their product would be the worst idea ever.

gax tax flyer

But even amid fearmongering campaigns like these (do you suppose a growing city might have any needs in addition to road repair?), there are also a lot of honest misconceptions going around about this gas tax.

So, in the knowledge that something like one third of Oregonians don’t fill out their ballots until the last few days, here’s a quick guide to some myths (and one truth) about the gas tax that you might find helpful in discussing it with friends and family.

1) The gas tax would burden poor people

No, it wouldn’t. The 10-cent-per-gallon tax would raise $16 million per year, which comes to $5.18 per month per Portland household. (Yes, that’s per household, not per person or per adult. It also assumes that 100 percent of the cost would be passed to residents, which it wouldn’t.)

There are definitely households in Portland for whom $5.18 a month would be a significant burden. These households do not own cars.

2) 44 percent of the gas tax revenues would go to improving walking, biking and public transit access

Absolutely true! This is a very good reason to support the tax. It would pay for much-needed projects such as sidewalks on Capitol Highway, neighborhood greenways in East Portland, separated bike lanes downtown and crosswalk markings all over the place.

Portlanders pay $3,270 per household per year just to fuel and maintain their motor vehicles, let alone purchase and store them. This, not a 10-cent gas tax, is a huge burden on poor people. You may have also heard that it’s having some bad effects on the planet. You may have also noticed that local streets and freeways have become crowded with people driving their cars.

There is only one way to change this situation while growing economically: reducing driving. The changes to our streets that this gas tax would fund are a benefit for people who would like to use biking and public transit to get around but don’t currently find it safe, comfortable or convenient to do so and are therefore using their cars instead.

If you hate congestion, you should vote for the gas tax.

3) Spending money on anything except pavement maintenance is fiscally irresponsible

False.

Yes, Portland has a huge pavement maintenance problem and every dollar spent on pavement maintenance saves us $10 in the future. This is another very good reason to support this tax.

But pavement maintenance is not the only thing in the economy that has a return on investment. Increasing walking, biking and public transit does that too — in fact, it may have an even higher economic return than pavement maintenance.

Portland’s economy is doing well in part because our past investments in walking, biking and public transit are delivering economic returns.

Just about every city in the United States that paved its roads 100 years ago is facing a big problem as deferred maintenance comes due. Portland is actually doing better than many, because compared to most cities, our economy is going gangbusters. Why has Portland been adding jobs so fast that we can almost shrug off last month’s massive Intel layoffs? Why are public budgets gushing cash, giving us money we’re rapidly reinvesting in things like schools and bus service and affordable housing? In large part because 40 years of smart growth have turned Portland into a really nice place where people are really excited about living and working.

Chris Anderson, a local entrepreneur and walking-biking advocate, phrases it in an interesting way: walking and biking improvements in a city are self-financing, because every dollar invested delivers economic returns in reduced collisions, pollution, travel costs and so on, which can then be reinvested in more improvements.

We don’t know if that’s true, but it is definitely not true that the only device for making money is a steamroller. When The Oregonian editorial page and the oil industry use this as an excuse to oppose a gas tax, that’s the argument they’re trying to make.

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4) A local gas tax is less efficient than a state gas tax

Theoretically, this would be true … if only we could count on our state to use the money wisely. Sadly, we can’t, so this is false.

We know exactly what the state government would like to spend gas tax money on, because it attempted to pass such a tax last year: widening freeways.

More lanes for suburban freeways are a great way to keep fuel taxes flowing indefinitely. They are not a good way to solve anyone’s problems for more than a few years.

This city-level tax would go toward two things: first, maintaining pavement we already have; second, reducing our local economy’s dependence on cars and therefore on this tax. Win win.

5) The gas tax excludes diesel, so trucks are getting off free

Nope. The city council unanimously approved a special trucking tax on Wednesday, and the freight industry is furious about it.

6) People who bike won’t have to pay the gas tax

False. 85 percent of Portlanders who bike to work also own cars. (For the record, so do 78 percent of BikePortland readers.) Bike users will pay every time they fuel up just like everyone else. The difference is that, if the gas tax passes, roads will be better and more people will choose to use bikes and transit. That’ll let those people fuel up less often — and people who still use cars won’t have to sit in traffic behind them.

If your household has to pay $5.18 a month for something, it may as well be that.

Ballots are due to ballot drop box sites 8 p.m. Tuesday. Obviously, BikePortland recommends a “yes” vote.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – michael@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. 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

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Joseph Wachunas
Guest
Joseph Wachunas

Completely agree! I already sent my vote in. Fingers crossed that this passes.

Nathan Hinkle (Bike Light Database and nearlykilled.me)
Guest

I would’ve voted yes anyways, but after getting several of those obnoxious ads I’m voting yes specifically to spite those poor oppressed sad lobbyists. One ad I got specifically said that Portland shouldn’t be spending money on stupid things like “taking lanes away from Naito Parkway”. Well I love that they’re taking away… I mean not taking away, giving back that lane, so here’s a YES vote from me!

Adam
Subscriber

I voted against every single endorsement of the Oregonian, and proud of it!

andy
Guest
andy

If the tax is only on gasoline and the city passed a tax for diesel trucks I can only assume I will pay no additional tax filling up our diesel car. I may be a small minority but I wish the tax was $2.00 a gallon instead of a measly $0.10.

JeffS
Guest
JeffS

There’s still a big gap in the vehicles being taxes. Why is everyone pretending they don’t see it and that Novick solved everything?

Lora
Guest
Lora

Statement #1 “These households do not own cars” is not true, and not backed up by available data. Poor people own cars. Poor people rely on cars for transportation and running errands. Poor people are less likely to live in an area well-served by public transit, poor people work at a job outside the city center, with less access to transit for the destination of their commute.

I would love to vote for a progressive, fair tax that would improve infrastructure, but the gas tax isn’t it.

Here’s the data you should be looking at, before you make claims that poor people don’t own cars:

“95 percent of American households own a car, and most Americans get to work by car (85 percent).”
http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/pamphlet/2012/05/201205165791.html#ixzz48as75ear

“The typical poor household, as defined by the government, has a car and air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR.”
http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/07/what-is-poverty

“Nationwide, about 88 percent of persons 15 years or older are reported as drivers (table A-1). Only 8 percent of households report not having a vehicle available for regular use (table A-4). Not surprisingly, the dominant mode of transportation for both daily and long-distance travel is by personal vehicle. The majority of daily trips, 87 percent, were taken by personal vehicle (table A-10).”
http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/highlights_of_the_2001_national_household_travel_survey/html/executive_summary.html

Mossby Pomegranate
Guest
Mossby Pomegranate

Burdening only Portland residents while people from surrounding counties pay nothing (while causing our traffic problems) is just plain wrong. This is like that terrible Sellwood project.

Joseph E
Guest

I appreciate what Bikeportland is trying to do with this article. But I suggest that repeating myths, even when fact-checking them, is very dangerous. Psychology experiments have shown that people have trouble remembering the truth when myths are listed; often they remember the myth, rather than the rebuttal.
In the future, it would be better to list 5 truths about the local gas tax. You could still keep the “myths” part in the headline if that helps get clicks, but write the truth in all the numbered points, so that is the bold text. It’s not good to emphasize the myths in big letters.

Truth Sayer
Guest
Truth Sayer

This tax will accomplish nothing. It will be squandered on useless crap like 90% of all taxes.

SE
Guest
SE

>> 85 percent of Portlanders who bike to work also own cars. (For the record, so do 78 percent of BikePortland readers.)

78 percent ???? not 77 or 79 ? I don’t remember any polling to substantiate those numbers (nor many of the percentages being presented as fact). If you don’t show sources, then it didn’t happen.

drew
Guest
drew

Every mile driven is heavily subsidized by our taxes. Every mile biked or walked saves money.
Using the argument that “bicyclists drive too” plays into the illusion that drivers pay their way.
The oil industry is pleased that this illusion (created in part by them) remains widespread.

9watts
Subscriber

Great article, BP. Thank you.

I will quibble, slightly, with your No. 6 above, as I did when the BTA tried this angle and Joe Rose blew it up, and ODOT made hay, and it all collapsed in a miserable heap – http://bikeportland.org/2013/11/12/do-bikes-get-a-free-ride-advocates-infographic-shows-why-not-96950

You wrote:
“False. 85 percent of Portlanders who bike to work also own cars.[…] Bike users will pay every time they fuel up just like everyone else.”

This is what I wrote back then in response to the prominent positioning of the 89% of Oregon residents with bikes also own cars… in the BTA’s infographic:
The way the above graphic presents this info (circle upper left) implies that those of us who don’t *also* own a car aren’t paying our share. The accompanying text ‘still not convinced’ sets up a hierarchy within the argument that is simply wrong. The fact that most who bike also pay gas taxes may be statistically true (I’m not doubting this), but **it is not relevant**. If Oregon citizens were neatly divided into mono-modal camps, consisting of those who drive cars exclusively, and those who bike exclusively, the larger point the BTA is trying to make would be the same: autodom costs vast sums; biking hardly any. gas taxes don’t cover these costs. Ergo those who rant about ‘paying our fare share need to brush up on the facts and shut up.
http://bikeportland.org/2013/11/12/do-bikes-get-a-free-ride-advocates-infographic-shows-why-not-96950#comment-4478429

Mike
Guest
Mike

From what I’ve read and heard, any tax or fee on motor vehicles can only be used on roads and highways. While I think this is total BS, it does seem to prevent using that money on anything that reduces car use.

Since the voters (decades ago) and the Court have decided that we can’t use fees on cars for other things that are still transportation related, then we should enact the flip side of that coin. No money can be spent on roads that does not come from user fees. I’d like to see how much money would be available for highway expansion and road widening when they have to rely on a funding source that isn’t even enough for maintenance of our current system.

q
Guest
q

Good article with good points, but I think the “myths” miss a central reason why many (not all) people will vote against it–that the things the tax would fund ARE important, so they should be being funded out of money the City already has.

It’s the same reason many people vote against levies for schools, libraries, park maintenance, police and fire, etc. It’s not that people don’t think these are important or worth paying for. It’s that they feel the City is manipulating voters, by spending money on expensive, non-essential things–without ever allowing people to vote on whether they want those–then turning around and asking for special funding for the basic services.

So when these voters vote against this tax, it’s not a vote against sidewalks, it’s a vote against things like expensive streetcars or light rail projects that they were never given a chance to vote on, and that they feel sucked all the money up that could have easily funded sidewalks, schools, park maintenance, and all kinds of other popular, essential services. These voters want an end to this game.

still riding after all that
Guest
still riding after all that

I voted NO on this gas-tax measure because I don’t trust the politicians and other powers-that-be to use ANY money for its stated purpose. Every dollar they get their hands on seems to disappear.

Example 1: 190 million $$ for the Columbia River Crossing (new bridge between Portland and Vancouver) vanished, but no new bridge was built.
Example 2: 250 million $$ – more or less – for a Cover Oregon website also vanished, but no working website ever materialized.

When, by which I mean IF, our so-called leaders – Kitzhaber, his girlfriend, Kate Brown, Sam Adams and Charlie Hales and Steve Novick and Amanda Fritz and all the rest – demonstrate some fiscal responsibility, then MAYBE we might consider giving them more of our money to play with.

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

still riding after all that
I voted NO on this gas-tax measure because I don’t trust the politicians and other powers-that-be to use ANY money for its stated purpose. Every dollar they get their hands on seems to disappear.
Example 1: 190 million $$ for the Columbia River Crossing (new bridge between Portland and Vancouver) vanished, but no new bridge was built.
Example 2: 250 million $$ – more or less – for a Cover Oregon website also vanished, but no working website ever materialized.
When, by which I mean IF, our so-called leaders – Kitzhaber, his girlfriend, Kate Brown, Sam Adams and Charlie Hales and Steve Novick and Amanda Fritz and all the rest – demonstrate some fiscal responsibility, then MAYBE we might consider giving them more of our money to play with.
Recommended 2

So, you are in favor of reducing the gas tax to zero? How about property taxes? The roads must build themselves. The bike lanes must stripe themselves. Right?

Mike Sanders
Guest
Mike Sanders

The Oregonian suggested a few days ago that passage of this proposal would kill off any chance of getting a statewide transportation bill passed by the Legislature in Salem next year. Shoot it down in Portland, the O claims, and the odds of getting that transportation bill passed in Salem would significantly increase. This illogical argument is jawdropping to say the least. The new mailer sent out last week that the Better Naito project constitutes a wasted-funds project was also quite amazing. Their argument is that Naito must be a car-oriented street only, relegating ped / bike traffic to Waterfront Park. Their argument that the surplus must be used for fixing streets only, not for ped / bike improvements (they categorize this as “other things”) is incredibly shortsighted and illogical as well.

Made up facts
Guest
Made up facts

“There are definitely households in Portland for whom $5.18 a month would be a significant burden. These households do not own cars.” That is just made up. $60 a year in discretionary income for a low income family with a car is absolutely a significant burden for some households.

Paul Z
Guest
Paul Z

I don’t understand how anyone could come up with a figure of exactly $5.18/month/household when you don’t know how many cars per household, miles driven per month, not to mention MPG.

Spiffy
Subscriber

“6) People who bike won’t have to pay the gas tax”

True!

cyclists only have to pay the gas tax when they’re drivers… their use of the street while cycling does not cost them any of the new tax…

I’ll have to pay the tax, but only about $.30 a month due to the small amount a drive… and only when I’m driving…

Gary B
Guest
Gary B

My use of a car is pretty much limited to out of town trips. Currently, I often fill up out of town because it’s more convenient (it happens to be a bit cheaper, too, but it’s more about the location).

I’m only one voter, but mark my words: if this passes, I will make sure to fill up at my local station to the extent possible, from now on.

DaveB
Guest

Michael – Regarding data on car ownership of very low income It’s been a long time since I looked at census data, specifically the American Community Survey – but I would be amazed there’s not a way to get a better answer.