The bureau that manages Portland’s transportation system has been fighting for more revenue for many years. In late 2012, the funding problems at Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) were so bad that City Council directed PBOT to convene a “financial task force” and develop a report to help aid future decision making. That 11-year old report found that PBOT’s funding model was, “antiquated, unstable and in need of an overhaul.”
Fast forward to 2023. With no major shift in their funding model since those alarm bells rang in 2012, PBOT is at the end of their line. Or, as PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps put it at a Council budget work session May 10th, “We are running out of lifeboats and the problem continues to get worse.” Mapps is so desperate he was willing to float the idea of an $8 per household fee to save the transportation bureau — a move that in a different political era could have cost him his job.
Past PBOT commissioners must be shaking their heads. The exact problem they and PBOT leadership have warned about for years — that too much of the agency’s revenue relies on driving and parking cars downtown (both of which go against the city’s stated goals and values) — is coming to fruition much more quickly than expected. PBOT has clung to parking meter fees for years, knowing full well that if they succeeded in getting more people onto buses and bikes, they’d eventually have to let them go. Then Covid came and wiped out downtown car traffic, taking a valuable piece of PBOT’s budget with it. Now there’s a chance the bureau might face devastating cuts to staff, maintenance operations, and popular programs — like Sunday Parkways and Safe Routes to School — even sooner.
Thanks to a 40-cent meter increase approved by City Council in February 2022, PBOT figured they could remain in the black for one more year. But that was before new projections accelerated the parking decline and before Mayor Ted Wheeler went on an anti-tax crusade.
Wheeler held a surprise work session at City Council Friday. It was unexpected because the schedule of the budget process is predictable for a reason. Not only do commissioners hate surprises during budget season, but by the time the Mayor’s proposed budget is released and work sessions take place, all the major reductions are already accounted for. It’s certainly not normal for a Mayor to convene a special work session on his own accord — especially not one whose expressed purpose was to question whether or not proposed rate and fee hikes should happen at all.
“We’re hearing growing concerns that Portland is an increasingly difficult place to live and work due to increased taxes, utility rates, and fees,” Wheeler said at the outset of Friday’s meeting. It was a brutal exercise: city bureau directors and top-level staff had to justify proposed increases and explain what might happen if they don’t go through. To set the mood prior to the meeting, Wheeler proposed a one-year freeze on all new city fees and utility rate increases. City staff knew what they were up against.
PBOT Interim Director Tara Wasiak was there to plead the case that the 40-cent parking meter rate increase would send the agency into oblivion if it wasn’t allowed to move forward.
“The 40-center meter increase makes up for rate increases that should have occurred since 2016 (the last time rates went up) to account for inflation,” Wasiak explained. “If the increased is not approved, we will need to find an additional $8.3 million to cut.” Those cuts would come on top of years of brutal budgets that have winnowed PBOT staff to the bone and left cash reserves nearly empty.
To put the impact of losing the 40-cent increase into perspective, PBOT put together three scenarios that would save them $8.3 million. Each one would require a terrible combination of fewer services, programs and projects. Upon hearing about a scenario to make across-the-board cuts, Mapps asked PBOT Business Services Director the most important question:
“How many people do I have to lay off at PBOT under this scenario?” Mapps asked.
“Probably around 100 FTE,” Patton replied.
PBOTers are used being in a sour mood during budget season, but this move by Wheeler has likely taken things to a whole new level. Not only is it coming very late in the budget process, but the parking rate increase has already been approved by council (Wheeler himself voted for it). Adding to PBOT’s likely frustration is that their research shows people wouldn’t even notice the higher parking price. Based on a March 2023 PBOT survey of people parking downtown, only 4% of people said cost influenced their decision to drive and 82% didn’t even know the price before leaving home. 94% of folks who took the survey said even if they knew the price they’d still choose to park. “This data indicates to us that the price of parking is not influencing people’s decision to drive and park on downtown streets,” Wasiak said Friday.
But despite PBOT’s pleas, politics might trump parking policy.
In the past week as Wheeler has sought attention for wanting to reduce Portlanders’ “collective tax burden,” he’s made the argument that people have historically been willing to pay more to live here. “What we’re hearing is about the value proposition,” Wheeler said Friday. “Portlanders… support a myriad of taxes and fees on themselves provided they feel that they are getting the value in return.”
“And during this challenging time in our city’s history, I think we can all agree with a degree of honesty and self-reflection that people don’t see the same value that perhaps they did.”
Wheeler’s not wrong in that assessment; but he should acknowledge that he’s been mayor since 2017 and the value many people used to see in this city has been winnowed to almost nothing. Now he’s trying to make things better by cutting taxes and asking his fellow commissioners to pay a very steep price, “give the programs that we’ve invested in time to show their worth to the public.”
For his part, Commissioner Mapps made it clear Friday he disagrees with Wheeler. “I think the proposal to freeze utility rates and forego the parking revenue increase are, really, frankly disastrous and unwise.” But Mapps said he would be willing to consider a rate freeze on transportation system development charges (SDCs). That move would result in a $400,000 cut to projects PBOT already has planned in the coming year.
The next step for this discussion comes at City Council’s meeting on Wednesday (5/16). Stay tuned.