Why the street maintenance proposal makes sense… this time
By Mitch Hornecker, Howard S. Wright
Last week, the Portland Business Alliance board of directors voted to support the 10-cent/gallon gas tax to fix city of Portland streets headed to the May 2016 ballot.
We all know that Portland’s transportation system is desperately in need of attention. Backing new taxes is never something we do lightly, but putting our support behind this proposal is consistent with the position we took throughout the prolonged – and frequently difficult – street fee debates of 2014 and 2015 that additional revenue is warranted, but the details mattered.
The plan that the City Council is referring to voters for the May 2016 ballot would establish a 10-cent per gallon gas tax, which would sunset in four years if it is not renewed by voters. It is projected to raise $58 million over that initial four-year period which, although still woefully short of what’s needed to address Portland’s transportation maintenance backlog, at least gets us started in the right direction.
We’ve seen the city establish new fees to fund transportation before only to later divert the revenue to other, non-road programs (think utility franchise fee). The elegance of this new proposal is that Oregon’s constitution requires that all gas tax revenue be used for transportation programs, so diversion at a later date will not be possible. It is a user-based tax, something we have advocated for, and, as a gas tax, the constitution requires that it win voter approval before it can become effective. I hope Portlanders will vote yes.
In the wake of last year’s difficult street fee debate, I think many of us seriously questioned whether Portland’s leaders would be able to find a path forward on the street maintenance issue. The fact that they have is due largely to the diligence of Commissioner Steve Novick who, to his credit, took a step back after last year’s failure and brought all interest groups to the table to help him devise a plan that would win broad support. I want to thank Steve for his leadership.
Our support did not come without conditions. Throughout the discussions we have maintained that a majority of the money from a new tax must go toward addressing the huge transportation maintenance backlog. That condition is met in this proposal, and we are also supportive of the plan’s much needed safety improvements. We remain watchful that vehicle lanes will not be lost as the city makes road improvements, but we feel comfortable that our voice will be heard as the Bureau of Transportation moves forward implementing the plan.
While the revenue from this plan is a gain, it is certainly not sufficient. Another condition we put on our support was that the city would have “skin in the game,” devoting funds from existing sources to transportation improvements. We have seen that happening over the last year, and we will advocate for its continuation. Transportation is a basic city service and it cannot be overlooked.
All in all, we feel the proposal City Council has put forward for voter approval in May is sound. I want to again thank all five members of Council for their work on this issue and, especially, Commissioner Novick for his leadership. With Portland City Council now recognizing the importance of transportation investments, maybe we can expand that enthusiasm to the state and work together toward a statewide transportation investment plan.
Please join me in supporting the Portland gas tax proposal in May.