IMAGE: Lukas Ketner
When city Commissioner Sam Adams rolls out his “Safe, Sound and Green Streets” proposal this week , he’ll be asking Portlanders for $463 million over 15 years to fix city streets, at the same time he’s running for mayor.
For political cover against any charges that he’s ramming through a tax, Adams convened an 89-member stakeholder committee that seemed to include every special interest except Eskimos. Adams, the commissioner in charge of transportation, also spent $420,000 of city money to send three citywide mailers and hold a dozen open houses and town halls.
The outreach was effective: Trade unions, cyclists and the Portland Business Alliance back his proposal. But one group that potentially has the muscle to thwart Adams has big concerns. And on Tuesday that group told WW it would work to refer the tax to voters.
While the tax would cost each Portland household about $4.50 per month and businesses would pay according to the number of customer trips they generated, a coalition of convenience stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants says the trips-generated calculation is too confusing. And unfair, given that big stores such as the Hollywood Fred Meyer that sell a variety of non-food items will be classified as “shopping centers” and charged a lower rate than coalition members.
“For us, it is a predictability issue,” says Danielle Romain, who represents the coalition. “How much will a local store owner pay each month? We’d like it to be fair and proportionate to other stores.”
Adams plans a first reading of his measure at council Wednesday, Jan. 9, followed by a council vote on Jan. 16. The tax would then go into effect June 1, 2008—unless Romain’s clients collect the 18,000 signatures needed to refer the tax. The very threat of such a referral in 2001 caused then-city Commissioner Charlie Hales to junk a council-approved street maintenance fee.
Here are three reasons voters might take issue this time with Adams’ carefully constructed measure:
The tax does far more than fix potholes: Adams’ office has emphasized the city’s deteriorating streets, often stressing $422 million in unmet maintenance needs. Nobody would deny the city’s streets are in lousy shape, with a growing 627-mile backlog of streets in crummy condition. Yet a healthy $24.2 million—or about 5 percent of the total tax—won’t go for maintenance but for building 112 miles of new “bike boulevards.”
Adams says the expenditure acknowledges bicycles’ growing share of the city’s transportation load. Somewhere between 4 and 6 percent of Portlanders commute primarily by bike, according to the city Department of Transportation. And the $24.2 million also addresses safety issues highlighted last October when two cyclists were struck and killed in less than two weeks.
“Safety has been up front and center in our thinking,” Adams says. “It’s what the public wants us to spend money on.”
While the city will still have plenty of unpaved streets 15 years from now, Adams says the boulevards will reduce oil consumption and pollution, reduce car-bike conflict and ease congestion. In the event of a referral, that’s essentially a bet that bike-lovers trump tax-haters.
The new tax will be expensive: When the city issues bonds for capital construction, such as the $54 million bond floated in 1998 to renovate and build new fire stations, about 2 percent of the proceeds goes to administrative overhead.
But because the new tax would involve ongoing tax collections, customer service and accounting and engineering oversight (involving the hiring of more than a dozen new PDOT employees), it would be far more expensive to administer than other city capital projects.
Two line items for the street tax—“city billing and customer service costs” and “program oversight and accounting”—would eat up a combined $50.1 million, or 10.8 percent of the total. Adams says an independent oversight committee would review all such costs annually and make recommendations directly to City Council about whether PDOT is spending the tax money efficiently.
“This will be the most scrutinized and picked apart program in the city,” Adams says.
The tax will be complicated: Romain’s clients dislike the proposed schedule, which would charge them based on number of trips their businesses generate, because they claim consumers typically visit their stores as an afterthought.
Such calculations could indeed be an administrative headache for the city and rate payers.
But so is a proposed system of “green” discounts for individual transit users, ratepayers who don’t own cars, and ratepayers who “own one of the U.S. EPA’s top 10 highest-rated vehicles for fuel economy.” (Imagine the frustration if you had the 11th most fuel-efficient car.)
Businesses located within 300 feet of a transit route or that subsidize employees’ transit use could also qualify for discounts on their tax bills.
In total, ratepayers could qualify for up to a 30 percent discount, which could cost the city up to $700,000 per year.
John Charles, president of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute, says green incentives have nothing to do with fixing potholes and should be handled separate from a tax.
Adams disagrees. He says the discounts have two purposes: first, to encourage conservation, and secondly, to reward that desired behavior.
“Our polling showed that people want to do the right thing, but they also want to be rewarded for it,” Adams says.
Adams recognizes not everybody will love his proposal, although he’s confident he has the votes he needs on the council. He questions whether Romain’s group was ever willing to reach an agreement—or can reach a referral.
“They have 30 days to gather 18,000 signatures,” he says of potential opponents. “I don’t know if they can do it.”
Fact: PDOT gets about two-thirds of its maintenance budget from the state gas tax, which is 24 cents per gallon and has not been raised since 1993. The city agency has cut its budget by $42 million over the past seven years.