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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

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Frequently Asked Questions about the Transportation User Fee

Below are 14 of the most commonly asked questions and answers on the proposed Transportation User Fee. The Transportation Bureau will update this as we hear more questions and concerns. If you have other questions or comments, please email them to OurStreetsPDX@portlandoregon.gov.

1. Why is the City seeking more money for transportation?

Our streets are deteriorating under the pressure of weather, age and regular use. The main source of funding for maintenance - the gas tax - has been shrinking for decades as people drive less and buy more fuel-efficient cars. Congress has not raised the gas tax in 21 years, so with inflation, it buys about half (check?) what it used to. Instead of providing money for maintenance of city streets, the federal government mainly helps cities pay for expansions like wider roads or new light rail lines.

The average Portland household pays $25.19 in state and county gas taxes each month -- and only 11 percent or $2.82, goes to the City for our streets. The rest goes to the state. Portland's proposed Transportation User Fee (or any other Portland specific fee) would provide a way for Portlanders to help maintain our own streets, make them safer for everyone.

2. What are the consequences of not having enough revenue for maintenance?

Portland will always have its streets, the City’s largest asset. In addition to 4,827 lane miles of streets, Portland owns and maintains 55,477 streetlights and 157 bridges.

Without adequate resources to maintain the transportation system, it will continue to deteriorate. Currently, 48 percent of the City’s busiest streets are in poor or very poor condition. When streets become so deteriorated, they are more expensive to fix. It would require $91 million a year to provide enough maintenance to meet the City's goal (80 percent of busy streets in fair or better condition and 70 percent of residential streets in fair or better condition) in 10 years. The City Auditor estimated two years ago it would have cost $75 million a year. Without adequate funding, the problem will continue to grow.

Across the city, 53 percent of corners have no ADA ramps, further limiting access to many parts of the city for people experiencing disabilities.

3. What are the consequences of not having enough revenue for safety?

There were 36 traffic fatalities in Portland in 2013, far more than the 16 homicides in the city that year, and neighborhoods continue to identify difficult intersections that the City cannot address with existing gas tax revenues.

4. Didn’t the Auditor you'd have plenty of money if you didn't blow it all on pet projects?

Not really. The auditor said that an extra $75 million a year is needed for pavement maintenance alone. The projects that the report did point to as being prioritized above basic maintenance were as follows:

 

  • The Sellwood Bridge. The City made a commitment to Multnomah County to help replace the Sellwood Bridge. That commitment will cost the City $6.5 million a year for years to come. It is true that technically, the bridge is the county's responsibility, but it is an important part of the entire Portland Metro’s transportation system, and the County could not have paid for the bridge itself without cutting into funding for things like jails and services for seniors and the poor. Clackamas County residents use the bridge a lot. It would have been nice if they had paid something, but they said 'No.'
  • The Streetcar. The Transportation Bureau spends about $4 million a year to help run the streetcar. The streetcar has helped bring a lot of development to the city, which increases property tax revenues and in turn helps to pay for police, fire and parks. Also, there were nearly six million rides on the Streetcar last year. Many people with property along the line agreed to pay extra, special taxes to help build it because it would increase their property values, so it would be rather unfair to them to shut it down now. Commissioner Novick has suggested that the City's general fund should help pay for it because the development along the line increased general fund revenue.
  • Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail. The Transportation Bureau pays about $2.5 million a year for bonds to cover the City's portion of the cost to build the line. The Federal government put up half the $1.4 billion needed for construction. TriMet and other governments are helping, too. One could argue, again, that we should have figured out how to fund our street maintenance needs before making that commitment, but light rail is an important part of our transportation system. 
  • The Downtown Marketing Initiative. A few years ago, the City told downtown business groups that if they were willing to accept an increase in downtown parking meter rates, the City would put some money into helping to market downtown as a place to shop. For a few years, the City's general fund helped pay for it with money that comes from property taxes. But that support declined to the point that the entire budget of $828,309 in 2013-14 was covered by PBOT using its discretionary revenue, including gas tax dollars. This program has actually been eliminated from the city budget for 2014-15, and the downtown business community is hopping mad. 
  •  The Portland Mall Management Inc. (PMMI). TriMet, property owners, the Portland Business Alliance, Portland State University and the Transportation Bureau have developed a successful partnership to manage and maintain the Portland Transit Mall. The Transportation Bureau spends about $750,000 a year as part of its agreement. Before the 2009 reconstruction project, the mall had fallen into disrepair and PBOT was unable to maintain its assets, including the light poles, signals, signs, pavement and benches. By working together with these public and private entities, the mall is being maintained at a cost that PBOT may not be able to afford alone. 


5. Do other cities have a Transportation User Fee?

Cities across the nation have implemented transportation user fees. There are currently 28 Oregon cities with Transportation User Fees, including Hillsboro, Oregon City and Milwaukie in the Portland area. See a map of the Oregon cities as of May 2014.

6. Why not just raise the gas tax, which could discourage people from driving?

Surveys show that gas taxes are extremely unpopular with the public, and this effort has been shaped by public input. A survey of Portland residents in March 2014 as part of the Our Streets PDX conversation showed that residents favored a street fee over a gas tax and other alternatives.

A gas tax would keep the transportation system financially dependent on the growth of driving and the associated pollution, climate change and negative health impacts. It would continue to diminish in purchasing power relative to inflation. It would also increase the perception that people who bike, walk or take public transit do not financially contribute to the transportation system. With a transportation fee, everyone pays and everyone benefits. 

7. Can’t we have higher fees for cars, since they cause more wear and tear on streets than people who use public transit or bicycles?

Weather and oxidation over time are the main threats to street pavement condition. Buses and freight cause far more damage and general deterioration to streets than passenger cars do. Portland remains committed to public transit and freight access. Having a fee based on use of the transportation system means everyone helps maintain the assets we all own as Portlanders.

8. Why not just charge the big vehicles that impose the most wear and tear?

Freight trucks do 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 we would have similar administrative problems. In addition, the City’s Attorneys tell us that the freight companies would have a pretty good argument that cities are legally preempted from applying a local weight-mile tax under law.

Transit buses also impose wear and tear on the roads. But transit is of special importance to low-income people and seniors, and using transit is environmentally preferable to driving, and reduces congestion. There have been discussions with TriMet and the Federal Department of Transportation about whether it might be possible to develop double-axle buses that impose less wear and tear.

9. Why not charge bicyclists, who don’t seem to pay for the transportation system?

The proposed transportation user fee would be paid by bicyclists and everyone else using the streets. A fee only on bicyclists would require expensive new administrative costs to track bicycle purchases and use.

10. Isn’t there a way you can charge people from outside of Portland who use our streets to work here and shop at stores in the city? Can we charge them for using our streets?

There’s no perfect system for accomplishing that, but the transportation fee could help. By charging non-residential uses such as businesses and large public institutions, the fee could potentially be passed on to everyone who visits those businesses whether for work, shopping or other purposes, wherever they come from.

11. Why the seemingly sudden sense of urgency about the condition of our transportation system?

It's been a big issue for a long time-- we just haven't focused on it enough. Some of the problem goes back to the late '80's. Transportation used to get a lot of money for maintenance from 'utility license fees,' but in the late '80's, the City Council diverted that money and started using it for police, fire and parks. Consequently, in the '90's, property tax cut ballot measures in Oregon made it more difficult for Cities to fund police, fire and parks, so the diversion of the utility license fee money to those services got really locked into practice.

12. But still, why the hurry right now?

Two answers. One: we've actually been having widely publicized town halls and advisory committee meetings since the beginning of February 2014. Secondly, every day that we don't act the problem gets worse and more expensive. A stretch of street that might need $10,000 worth of "fog seal" treatment to extend its life for several years will fall into significantly worse condition without any maintenance. Instead, that same stretch of street will eventually need $100,000 per lane mile to grind and pave.

If left unmaintained, a stretch of street that could have used a 'grind and pave'  will further decay to the point where it needs a complete rebuild, at a cost of $1 million or more per lane mile. The costs get worse and worse the more we delay. Meanwhile, every year a new group of students goes to school and too many of them don't have safe sidewalks to walk on. That's why we're eager to move forward with an equitable revenue solution.

13. How would the City use the money?

The proposed fee would mainly be used for basic maintenance and safety improvements. The Portland Bureau of Transportation expects to allocate 53 percent to maintenance, including paving that will prevent potholes and cracks on our streets. In the first five years of full implementation, preventive maintenance for pavement could grow to 150 miles a year, up from 100 miles in 2013-14. The maintenance program could also install more synchronized traffic signals that reduce congestion and improve safety. It would replace old street signs with modern, reflective signs that help emergency responders.

PBOT would invest 44 percent on safety improvements that are proven to reduce serious injury crashes and fatalities. In the first five years of full implementation, the safety program could build an estimated 400 blocks of new sidewalks, add crosswalk striping or beacons to 100 intersections and provide faster response to residents who express concerns at the safety hotline 503-823-SAFE.

There are 343 miles of busy streets in Portland with no sidewalks, and the need is especially great in East Portland, which has more children and low-income households than many other areas.

Missing sidewalks and concerns about safety at high-traffic intersections lead people to walk and bike less. Parents are less likely to let their children walk and bike in areas where they have to walk in a street or through ditches to get to school. Low-income households are disproportionately impacted by these conditions.

14. How would the fee be collected?

As of early June, several options are being considered. Learn more at www.OurStreetsPDX.com