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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

Frequently asked questions about street fees

Throughout my ongoing conversations at community forms or when hearing from community stakeholders about a possible transportation funding street fee, a few questions come up over and over: “Isn’t a street fee regressive?” “Weren’t you the guy that called the Arts Tax ‘incredibly regressive?’ Why explore another regressive funding mechanism?” “Can’t you just ban studded tires?” “What about registration fees?” “What about basing fees on the weight of vehicles?” “What are my property taxes paying for, anyway? Or my state income taxes?”

All of these questions deserve answers.

Yes. A flat street fee is thoroughly regressive. That’s why I insisted we poll numerous other funding option, including income-based options. None were as popular as a flat street fee.

Maybe people are use to funding transportation through user fees that everyone pays equally, so they think differently about fairness in this context.

Only Oregon counties are allowed to levy registration fees (and Multnomah did one for the Sellwood Bridge recently). As to fees by weight of a vehicle, there isn’t really a dramatic difference between the wear and tear an SUV imposes versus a sedan—and much of the ear and tear just comes from weather. “Water is the enemy of pavement,” experts tell me. Even if we all rode nothing but bicycles on our streets, there would be weather-related wear and tear.

Freight trucks are a different story; they impose lots of wear and tear. Because of that, the State has a freight weight-mile tax. Eugene considered a local one some years back, but concluded it was just administratively impractical to track how many miles a truck drives within the city limits of Eugene. In Portland, City staff have concluded that not only we would have similar administrative problems, cities are also legally preempted from applying a local weight-mile tax because of the existing State assessment.

Some people at our forums have asked why we don’t ban studded tires, which damage the roads. I agree, and that’s why the City Council asked the Legislature to ban studded tires in the last legislative session. The legislature did not act. We’ll try again.

As to where your property taxes go: The vast majority of city property taxes go to police, fire and parks; hardly any go to transportation. The vast majority of your state income tax dollars go to education, health care and prisons; hardly any go to transportation.

Your state and federal gas taxes do go to transportation… but only a fraction comes back to the City for use on our local roads. The Federal money can’t legally be used for basic maintenance.

The bottom line is that I am just plain desperate. Our streets are crumbling, and every year that goes by they get worse … and it gets more expensive to repair them. Roads are like teeth; if you don’t do regular brushing, flossing and cleaning, you start needing root canals and extractions. Meanwhile, there are neighborhoods that have been waiting for years for sidewalks along busy streets where children need to walk to school, or seniors need to walk to transit. I don’t want them to keep on waiting. That’s why I’m prepared to accept an ugly solution to an even uglier problem.