By Don MacGillivray

The congestion and poor condition of Portland streets is a frequent public complaint. The first effort at “Fixing Our Streets” was a 10 cents per gallon gas tax narrowly approved in 2016. 

This is an excellent beginning to address a chronic problem, but the work is far from complete. Therefore, the renewal of this fee will again be on the ballot this May. 

Some thought the 10 cent gas tax would not be renewed after the first four years, but, even with its success, problems are far from being resolved.

Portland has 4,834 lane-miles of paved roads. 40 percent of Portland’s busiest streets were deficient and 47 percent of residential roads were in poor condition as judged by a 2013 City of Portland audit. Two years later, these statistics were 49 percent and 56 percent, respectively.

In 2015 Portland identified a $1 billion street maintenance backlog estimated to take 10 years to fix. The City Council was tentative about referring a tax on gasoline to the Portland voters. 

The first Fixing Our Streets ballot measure in 2016 was for $76 million and there was another $8 million gleaned from a tax on heavy vehicles, but at $21 million per year, it would take 50 years to bring Portland’s streets back into first class condition. Now the Portland City Council is criticized for trying to renew this regressive tax.

During the first four years of the Fixing Our Streets program its $84 million improved 40 lane miles of road, constructed 300 new sidewalk ramps, made 58 intersections safer and built 49 projects for Safe Routes to Schools. 

In addition, money has been used for the improvements to SE Foster Rd., NE Halsey St., NE Weidler St. and to sections of SW Capitol Hwy. 

These programs are audited annually and the Fixing Our Streets Oversight Committee reviews the progress continuously. They have advised the formulation of this ballot measure and will continue their work into the future. 

40 percent of the work of Fixing Our Streets has been contracted with minority-owned and emerging small businesses, twice the goal set for the program. Over the last four years, the Portland Department of Transportation has increased their work efficiencies, established stronger management systems and enhanced businesses relationships. 

The 2021-2024 program is divided into three primary focus areas: smoother streets, safer streets and community transportation services. 

$25 million includes paving and preventative maintenance for busy neighborhood streets. 

$26 million will provide new signals, beacons, sidewalks, lighting, improved access to businesses and transit, safety improvements for pedestrians and bikers, and Safe Routes to Schools projects. 

$23.5 million will be for basic maintenance and safety improvements like fixing potholes, repairing failing roads, gravel streets, speed reduction, safer intersections and Neighborhood Greenway retrofits.

Not all of the gas tax money is used for fixing streets. Part of the strategy is to make streets safer, encourage alternative forms of transportation and to target areas of greatest need in overlooked neighborhoods. This all fits within the larger scope of Fixing Our Streets. 

The proposed project list collects extensive public input from neighborhood stakeholders, transportation justice advocates and business groups. The program prioritizes projects addressing inequities of our transportation system and allowing underrepresented communities greater access to social and economic growth. 

These programs are advised by numerous plans and programs including: the Vision Zero Action Plan, PedPDX, Portland’s Citywide Pedestrian Master Plan, Safe Routes to School, Southwest and Northwest in Motion, Portland Climate Action Plan and many more. 

The Fixing Our Streets proposal has the support of Business for a Better Portland, Oregon Walks, 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Rosewood Initiative, Street Trust, Northwest District Association, Professional and Technical Employees of Local 17, as well as Portland’s Pedestrian and Bicycle advisory committees.

Some people believed that the 10 cent tax on gas was temporary and would end this year. While this tax is intended to be temporary, it should be obvious that a 10 cent tax on gasoline can only reduce the backlog of needed maintenance incrementally over many years.

Roads in a deteriorated condition cost exponentially more to repair and it is 10 times as expensive to replace them as fix them. To really solve Portland’s street maintenance issue, the federal government will need to be involved. Without them as a partner, a gas tax or another local source of funding will be required. 

A future potential source of funding will be a Metro bond measure being developed for the November 2020 election.

The Fixing Our Streets project represents a continuation of the relentless focus on street repairs and improvements that make it easier and safer for all Portland residents to get where they need to go. 

In May, Portland will have the opportunity to vote on renewing this initiative.