Robust Road Debate Rocks Council Resolve

By Don MacGillivray


The search for badly- needed Portland street funding is finished for now, but it is not over. At the final public hearings before City Council on January 8, it was clear that much more work still remains to be done. Now, since the Oregon legislature is beginning its session this month, they will try to address this challenge for the entire state. The last year has been a disappointment for many people, proponents and opponents of street funding alike. Everyone agrees about the need, but not the solution.

Portland’s streets were ranked the ninth worst in the nation in 2000. The current condition of the streets is that 29% are in good or very good condition and 52% are in poor or very poor condition.

The price for the street repair backlog has grown to $910 million from $780 million since 2004. Portland needs to spend $75 million dollars annually to effectively bring down the backlog. Every dollar spent on less expensive street repairs can save almost ten dollars in later years. Investing in preventive maintenance is proactive and relatively inexpensive to keep our transportation system in good shape.

The issue of delayed street maintenance has been with the city since before 1988, but few people really seem to realize how much of a problem it is. This effort to find a way of funding the needed repairs was begun in early 2014.

After a number of public meetings and a telephone survey, the first street fee was unveiled in May. A contentious five hour public hearing May 29 led to a pause in deliberations on the fee. As there was much consternation, the decision was postponed until November.

As is the “Portland Way”, it was decided to have a more inclusive process using three community task forces meeting over the summer to come up with more appropriate ideas about the residential and business fees.

In recent years, Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) repairs about 30 miles of streets each year. Under the current administration in fiscal year 2013-14, a total of 103 miles were repaved or sealed.

With 5,000 lane-miles of roadways worth $5 billion, much more revenue is needed. The streets are the city’s largest asset and 100 miles of repair yearly is not enough. At the current level of funding it will take 50 years to do the needed repairs.

In May, the initial amount to be raised to fix our streets was set at $56 million dollars. This was reduced to $46 million with half of the funds coming from Portland businesses and half from residents. In May 2014, an annual flat fee was to be $144 for most homeowners. In June, it was changed to a progressive income tax that could have been $900 a year for those earning over $350,000.

Now the latest residential tax proposal would charge individuals $36, $60, $90, $108, or $144 a year based on the income quintile in which they fall. The annual business fee would be from $36 to $1,728 for most businesses depending on type, size, and the revenue of the business.

Large institutions like  schools, the Port of Portland, the Airport, hospitals, and government would pay more according to their size. At the end of the hearings process, it was well-known that the math for both street fees was flawed.

Hearings were held in mid-November with a decision expected by the end of the month. Southeast Uplift coalition requested to see the documents used to calculate Portland’s street fee from residential income taxes and from business fees. When they weren’t forthcoming, SE Uplift filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court claiming that Portland city officials were refusing to release the public records.

On December 12, before the  Multnomah County Circuit judge, SE Uplift and the City of Portland agreed the city would deliver the documents by December 22 and SE Uplift would pay half of the $2,720 demanded by the city.

The deadline passed without the city providing the requested documents to the neighborhood coalition. When received, the street fee spreadsheets from PBOT were found to be full of errors. that would cause many businesses to be over or under-charged.

A council vote on the business fee was to take place January 14, but this was postponed for one week. In the meantime it was announced that the work on the street fund proposals would be tabled for several months to allow the state legislature time to formulate a transportation package.

It is expected a large transportation funding package will be a high priority in this year’s session. In 2011 the Legislature approved a 6 cent gas tax increase. An 8 cent state gas tax increase would provide Portland with an additional $10 million a year. This would still leave some heavy lifting for Portland to address street repair challenges.

The discussion over street funding will continue in the summer after the Legislature finishes its work and after the City Council has finalized its 2015/16 budget.

It is hoped a satisfactory proposal will be negotiated so that the city council can adopt a street fee without it being referred to the voters.

Robust Road Debate Rocks Council Resolve

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