Portland City Hall asking for a new tax

new taxes

by Bob Clark

Portland City Hall is holding a series of meetings with its citizens to test support for a new tax to fund street maintenance, safety, and other transportation causes.  I attended the first of these public meetings, held on February 20th by the City Transportation Bureau.  Mayor Hales kicked off the meeting by saying the primary reason for asking for a new tax is the City’s share of gasoline tax revenues is running well below projections, as state and federal gasoline taxes are not automatically adjusted for inflation and gasoline consumption is running well below projections because of improved fuel economies.  City Transportation Bureau staff additionally noted there is a backlog of $75 million in street maintenance at this time.

City Surveys for Transportation Funding Support

The City Transportation Bureau conducted a survey in association with its bid for this new tax.  This survey can be found at http://dhmsurvey.com/TNS1/TNS1logn.htm.  This survey is said to be scientific but my observation is the questions are shaped to encourage a positive response for new transportation funding.  Curiously, the Transportation Needs section of this survey asks mostly about rating the importance of pedestrian safety needs and public transit wants, while asking very little about rating the importance of improving automobile travel.

(Incidentally, automobile travel prospects in southeast Portland look rather bleak going forward, as Metro and the City of Portland have plans which most probably would eliminate two car-truck-bus lanes on major sections of heavily traveled southeast Powell Boulevard, Division Street, and Foster Road.  Metro is speeding its Powell-Division Transit and Development project, which would probably dedicate existing lanes exclusively to “high capacity” public transit.  One must wonder if Metro isn’t speeding the timing of its Powell-Division Transit and Development project in anticipation of potential defeats for its CRC and Southwest Corridor light rail oriented plans.  The thought being here public transit construction projects fed by state and federal government monies exist mainly to enrich a certain complex of local private and government interests.  So, if one project becomes deferred or stopped, others are promptly waiting to be launched.  It’s an Eisenhower-Military-Industrial-Complex like conspiracy theory on my part, anyways.  Some folks give its genesis as the 1970s and the Neil Goldschmidt mayoral tenure.)

Citizen Feedback at the City of Portland Transportation Bureau Meeting on February 20th

One of the most astonishing discoveries made during the audience question and comment period on February 20th is there are no safety studies confirming or suggesting the advantages of curb extensions.  In the past decade, many Portland main streets have been reconfigured to have curbs extending into what were second lanes.  In response to a query about studies to support this recent wave of safety features constructed on City of Portland thoroughfares, Mayor Hales said the City Transportation Bureau has been largely experimenting on its own accord (without scientific study) with safety features such as curb extensions for the past decade or more.

Concerning other audience comments:

One rather esteemed member of the audience criticized the Oregon Department of Transportation for spending on lightly traveled rural roads while it simultaneously neglects heavily trafficked roads with higher mortality rates, such as Portland’s southeast Powell.  One member of the audience voiced support for a new street maintenance tax.  Yet, one other person recommended taxing bicyclists, TriMet and other users of Portland roads who do not yet pay directly for their use of the City’s roads.  I recommended using the projected $5 million increase in the City’s general funds next year for street maintenance, rather than on other City department wish lists.

The Portland Transportation Bureau Has a Questionable Spending History

It was about two years ago when the Oregonian ran a review of the Portland Transportation Bureau (Beth Slovic, “Why can’t Portland repave its rutted roads,” Oregonian, February 26, 2012).  The Oregonian’s review found not a declining budget for the Transportation Bureau but one with a surging budget.  In 2011, a six cent increase in the State gasoline tax went into effect and should have helped restore spending on street maintenance.  Instead, the Transportation Bureau decided shortly thereafter to shelve overhauling any badly deteriorating roads.  The Transportation Bureau instead spent its increasing budget among other things on the following:    “…$900,000 to build 13.5 miles of bike routes; $665,000  to add eight permanent employees to oversee streetcars; $200,000 for Rose Festival prep work, $15,000 to help sponsor a Rail-Volution conference in Los Angeles; and….$250,000 to buy fancy planters and streetlights for the downtown retail core.”

Even with this year’s Portland Transportation Bureau budget (2013-14), $5 million in gasoline tax revenues is being allocated to streetcar operations.  There is a definite disconnect between the Transportation Bureau’s spending priorities and the street maintenance needs of citizens directly paying gasoline taxes and parking fees.

The Proposed New Transportation Tax May Take One of Several Different Forms

City officials talk of asking city voters to approve either a new street fee (charged each homeowner and business) or a special city wide gasoline tax.  A vehicle registration fee increase is also mentioned as a possibility.  Mayor Hales even mentions a soda tax (somewhat in jest).  (Mayor Hales in another meeting suggested this proposed new transportation tax – no matter the form – may not be referred to voters, after all, but instead approved by simple Portland City Council vote.)

Sam Adams during his tenure as Transportation commissioner in the late 2000s proposed implementing a $5 per month per home fee, which staff estimated would raise $25 million per year.  This proposal was shelved because of a lack of unanimity among commissioners and then Mayor Potter.  The $5 fee would have been tacked on to water and sewer bills.  (This makes this May primary election even more interesting for Portland citizens, as one of the measures on the ballot would take the water and sewer bureaus away from Portland City Hall, and make it into its own independent government entity with its own elected board.)

One suggestion which occurs to me is to re-allocate $5 to $10 of the $35 per year (per Adult resident) Arts Tax to street maintenance, taking it away from the City’s surrogate Arts bureaucracy called the Regional Arts and Cultural Council.   The Portland Public School District would still fully receive its share of the Arts tax.

As for a special gasoline tax, I can foresee citizens avoiding a city wide gasoline tax by simply filling up outside the City limits.  By comparison, a vehicle registration fee increase or a new fee for homeowners would be much more difficult to avoid. So, if you are a Portland resident, you maybe want to side with a gasoline tax proposal (if you feel you have to side with one tax over another).