Why the Proposed Portland Street Fee is Good for Active Transportation

Tomorrow I’ll be testifying at City Council in favor of the “Transportation User Fee”.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz in the last day or two that this fee is unfair because it charges all households the same fee, and gives no credit for reducing auto-dependence. Some have even said it perpetuates an auto-dependent system.

In other forums, a preference has been expressed for increasing fuel taxes instead.

I strongly disagree with those perspectives.

But first, let’s deal with the valid criticism that’s also being widely discussed. This fee is regressive. That’s absolutely true. I’d much prefer a progressive, income-based tax for this purpose. Commissioner Novick has indicated the same preference. But it’s a political non-starter. And to their credit, the Mayor and the Commissioner have created a break for lower-income households, making this less regressive. I hope they’ll do more, and I will testify to that tomorrow.

Despite its regressiveness, I think this is a clear win for active transportation. Here’s why:

We desperately need the revenue, and it’s not going to come from a fuel tax

First, the gas tax is not going to solve the problem. The Portland Plan makes this clear:

In 2012 the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s largest single source of revenue remains the state gas tax. State gas tax revenue is increasingly volatile and unsustainable due to economic fluctuations and and increasing use of electric vehicles. In addition, the goals of this plan to encourage more resilient, human-scale travel choices (walking, use of mobility devices, biking and the use of transit) will put additional pressure on this revenue source.

Do you get it? The more we succeed at moving people to walking, biking and using transit, the less money we have to maintain the transportation system! Even if we could garner the political will to keep raising the gas tax, we eventually get to the place where the last driver of a gasoline-powered car has to fund the entire street system. Should we continue to have gas taxes? Yes! Should we continue to raise them? Yes! Will that fund our needs by itself? No!

The Portland Plan also identifies that we need to spend about $300M more per year on maintaining the City’s infrastructure than we do today, and the City Auditor has identified the need to spend $75M per year specifically on transportation just to catch up on street maintenance. The simple matter is that without substantially more revenue, the City will never be able to address our needs for sidewalks, bikeways and safety improvements. They’ll simply be pouring all their resources into an ever declining sea of potholes.

This is not about perpetuating an auto-dependent system

As the explanatory materials make clear, this revenue will be spent on two sets of priorities: maintenance and safety. There are no buckets of cash in here for expanding auto capacity.

As every cyclist knows, Portland’s streets are getting bumpier and bumpier. We can’t walk, bike or take transit around the city if the streets are in a total state of disrepair, and they are definitely headed there. Letting the streets turn to gravel is not an effective strategy for reducing VMT. It will simply hurt the livability and economy of our City.

And the safety agenda in this package is all about the things we value:  dealing with high-crash corridors, safe routes to school, sidewalks, crossing treatments, and even protected bikeways. Not enough, to be sure. But way more than we are getting today.

We have skin in the game

As virtuous as we may feel for reducing (or eliminating) our driving, we still benefit tremendously from the transportation system. We should pay for those benefits. Users of fossil-fuel vehicles should pay more, and they will – they’ll pay both the user fee and gas taxes. But because I walk and bike, that does not exempt me from a responsibility to pay for the system.

I will happily pay my family’s $11.56 each month and will feel good about the things it will pay for. I hope other active transportation advocates will feel the same way and join me in supporting this fee.

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