Speaking of Things that are Overdue

Someone let the cat out of the bag that the Portland Bureau of Transportation is beginning to explore a street utility fee, local gas tax or other revenue sources to augment or replace declining state gas tax revenues.

All I can say is it’s about time. The Portland Plan makes clear why this is an absolute necessity: our policies for shaping the future of Portland in a way that is healthier, more affordable, more resilient and more sustainable are pushing us to drive less – which in turn undermines our ability to maintain our transportation facilities, since the current revenue stream is based primarily on fuel taxes.

That alone would be enough reason to think about a different way to pay for our streets. But in addition the state gas tax is not indexed to inflation, and increasing fuel economy (another good thing!) further reduces the revenue.

Let’s get on with it! Certainly it’s going to be a challenging conversation with voters, but there’s really no way around it.


22 Responses to Speaking of Things that are Overdue

  1. bjcefola
    December 3, 2012 at 9:00 pm Link

    The memo describes a road tax based on how many trips the residence or property generated:
    A street maintenance fee would be assessed monthly on a water/sewer bill to all property owners based on trip generation models derived from the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ manual.

    I’m curious how that would (or should) work. Does the home with no cars pay the same as the home with three cars? Does a home with 5 residents pay more than a home with one resident? For businesses, do those with off-street parking pay more than those that rely on street parking?

    How do other municipalities administer such a fee?

  2. ws
    December 3, 2012 at 9:19 pm Link

    Why are you cheering this Chris? It is attached to a person’s water/sewer bill. What does that have to do with transportation? Water and sewer rates are already high.

    This should be a gas tax-only fee. That is the most fair. That, along with collecting more user fees from bicyclists (I bicycle, btw).

  3. Chris Smith
    December 3, 2012 at 9:31 pm Link

    We went through this back in 2007 with the “Safe, sound and green” project (which resulted in a state gas tax bump, but no local fee).

    The trip generation calculation is based on zoning type and land area. So a 100,000 sq ft Fred Meyer pays a lot more than a corner store. A single family residence pays less than an apartment building. But it doesn’t depend on vehicle ownership.

  4. Chris Smith
    December 3, 2012 at 9:33 pm Link

    I think I described in the post why the gas tax is unlikely to ever generate adequate revenue to maintain the assets.

  5. ws
    December 3, 2012 at 9:48 pm Link

    Then what happens when water and sewer fees don’t generate enough revenue for…water and sewer functions?

    Do you catch my drift?

    So increase the gas tax and find a way to tax bicyclists. Something other than hampering one bureau to pay for another.

    Or maybe build out downtown and increase employment density so people aren’t travelling as far. Sounds more logical to me.

  6. Chris Smith
    December 3, 2012 at 10:11 pm Link

    The street fee would be collected on the same bill as water and sewer fees, but it would be an additional fee, not something subtracted from current water and sewer fees.

    To make the gas tax work you would need to index it to both inflation and rising fuel economy. And we’d have to find an alternate tax for electric vehicles as well.

  7. Douglas K.
    December 3, 2012 at 11:04 pm Link

    This “tax on water” thing was bandied about by opponents the last time around. I think the City should address this in context of sending out a separate bill and not even mention using the water/sewer bill as a collection mechanism. It creates an easy way for road fee opponents to engage in misleading demagoguery.

    Discuss the merits of the road fee and pass it. If necessary, spend a year wasting money by sending out redundant billing. THEN fold the collection together on a single bill with sewer/water.

  8. Douglas K.
    December 3, 2012 at 11:18 pm Link

    One way to help pass this: set it up so 75% of the road fee money will be spent in the neighborhood where it’s collected. Park Rose money gets spent in Park Rose. Give each neighborhood the right to vote locally to increase or decrease its own road fee money for local improvements.

    Let neighborhood organizations set priorities for spending the money in each neighborhood.

    Also, restrict the use of road fee money to maintaining and improving streets (including sidewalks), period. It should be available to pave dirt streets (improvement), but not to put down streetcar tracks or build bus or bike infrastructure (except where incidental to a road improvement project). As a practical matter, you can get a lot of bike benefit out of lane striping and traffic control, and better bus stops out of sidewalks and curb extensions.

    I think that putting an emphasis on spending most of the money for local street improvements, neighborhood-level control, and guarantee that road fee money can’t be diverted to non-road projects will make the whole package much easier to sell. If it includes money that neighborhood organizations can direct, I expect most of the neighborhoods will get behind it.

  9. Chris I
    December 4, 2012 at 8:22 am Link

    I would support this as long as the added revenue goes directly into active transportation improvements (sidewalks, bike projects, paving streets). Absolutely no road capacity expansion projects! Otherwise this tax just encourages driving. This should be something that pedestrians and cyclists can point to and say “see, we pay our fair share!”

  10. Chris Rall
    December 4, 2012 at 11:27 am Link

    While street maintenance is the original need being addressed by this proposal, Chris I makes an interesting point as far as opportunities to also fund transportation options with this fee. Corvallis uses a utility fee to fund transit operations.

  11. Ron Swaren
    December 4, 2012 at 11:30 am Link

    A different solution, which I discussed with an ODOT engineer yesterday, is anaylzing projects to see if there are less expensive way to accomplish the needs. For example, standardized prefabbed components would cost less ( example: sidewalks on the Hawthorne Bridge) since built-in-place structures tend to run a lot higher, because of higher labor costs. Incorporating several purposes in one project reduces duplication too. Which is why I think a “Northwest Passage” from Vancouver to US 26 makes sense. All modes (well maybe not flying) can be incorporated from the beginning, and VMT for all modes reduced. This is better than a piecemeal approach.

    Highways went to formed in place concrete overpasses and ramp structures, in the Eisenhower Interstate Highway era. But there may be cheaper ways to accomplish the ends by standardized, prefabbed components. Also there are some improvements coming in asphalt which should reduce maintenance costs.

    Innovation first, not more taxes.

  12. zefwagner
    December 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm Link

    People seem to be getting tripped on the water/sewer thing, which suggests the city should be very careful in how they explain this and frame it. It should be clear that adding the fee onto sewer and water bills is a purely practical matter that actually saves money! The suggestion above to send out a separate bill is silly and wasteful. Cost of collection is a major cost, plus people take a long time to adjust to paying a new bill. Since everybody already pays a water bill, this makes the cost of collection just about zero.

    I support this over a gas tax for a simple reason–everybody pays. This can help us end the constant fight over whether bicyclists or transit riders who don’t own cars are paying their fair share. This way everyone will pay a basic fee, plus car drivers will continue to pay the gas tax. That way everyone pays something, but the people who put more wear and tear on the system pay more. Seems pretty equitable.

  13. Douglas K.
    December 4, 2012 at 10:32 pm Link

    No, talking about sending out a separate bill is not silly and wasteful IF it’s what is needed to get past the absurd notion that putting a road fee on the water bill is somehow a “tax on water.”

    The City should talk about the merits of the street fee and either leave the details of the collection aside until after it’s passed, or propose a separate billing and collection method. AFTER it’s passed, then look at efficient billing. Don’t hand opponents a nonsense issue to muddy the water (no pun intended) instead of focusing on the merits of the proposal.

  14. Dave H
    December 4, 2012 at 11:16 pm Link

    Considering how much TriMet fares have gone up recently it’s tough to be opposed to raising the gas tax also.

  15. EngineerScotty
    December 5, 2012 at 10:20 am Link

    A tax tacked onto the water/sewer bill isn’t subject to the State Constitutional limits on what gas tax money can be spent on (roads).

    And to get around the political problem, one possibility would be to reframe the bill that gets sent out as the City Infrastructure Bill. Transportation fee, water, and sewer are all line items, but make it clear that this is not hanky-panky at the city water bureau.

  16. Jerry
    December 5, 2012 at 11:04 am Link

    If you want to shape transportation decisions to provide more livable and sustainable neighborhoods stick with the user fees. Raise tolls, gas taxes and license fees to support 100% of the road and bridge maintenance and construction. People will drive less, demand for new infrastructure will drop, and maintenance needs will drop.
    No free rides!

  17. EngineerScotty
    December 5, 2012 at 11:55 am Link

    One other possibility:

    Dedicated right-turn signals for cars, which work FTMP like left-turn signals–they only turn green when there are no conflicting movements; right turns are illegal when one of these is red.

    In a four-phase intersection, these can work well: Right turn signals can turn green either as part of a protected phase with the straight-ahead turning movement (just like how left-turn signals work), or when the cross street has a matching left-turn phase. But in the ordinary both-lanes-go-straight phase, right turns are blocked and peds/bikes get the green/walk signal.

    This might not work well downtown, as doing this would require a dedicated right-turn lane; and in the two-phase lights of a downtown grid there isn’t any phase for a right-turn signal to safely be green on. One possibility for the downtown grid would be to have three phases (one for straight traffic and peds/bikes on one street, one for straight traffic and peds/bikes on the other street, and one for vehicle turning movements–but I’m sure that would give traffic engineers fits.

    Another thought: A recent “innovation” in many Portland-area traffic lights has been the blinking yellow left-turn phase. While left-turn-yield-on-green has long been a feature of Oregon intersections where left turns may conflict with oncoming traffic, the blinking yellow phase makes it clearer when an unprotected left turn movement is permitted (and when it is not), and helps to avoid the phenomenon of “yellow trap“. A similar indicator for right turn movements might be useful, to remind motorists to yield to bikes and pedestrians.

    Another follow-up thought: How about (re)-introduction of blinking red signal phases in traffic lights? (Some states, such as Michigan and Maryland, do this). Right now a blinking red phase (proceed after stopping) is only done either to augment a permanent stop sign, as a failsafe/special mode in certain traffic signals, and in special-purpose signals like HAWK crosswalk signals. If potentially-conflicting turning movements received a blinking-red phase (meaning stop at the stop line before completing the turn), this might also improve safety.

  18. al m
    December 6, 2012 at 10:35 am Link

    What you are seeing played before our very eyes is the American version of GREECE. Slowly and slowly STEALING the wealth of the citizens for the advantage of the government.

    No on any tax increases, sorry, time is up for the theory that we need more taxes, of any sort, to keep things going.

  19. Chris I
    December 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm Link


    Are taxes higher now than they have been in the past? What data leads you to making the statement that the government is stealing wealth?


  20. Jim Howell
    December 6, 2012 at 2:24 pm Link

    How about paying for street repair with the $36 million a year, for the next 30 years, that the Governor wants to pay in debt service for the CRC.

  21. al m
    December 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm Link

    Chris I-the only tax increases I support are increases in capital gains and bring the rate up for the rich to the same level as everybody else.

    Also end corporate tax exemptions.

    No on all other tax increases, especially any taxes on people that work in jobs paying less than 75k a year

  22. Ron Swaren
    December 6, 2012 at 7:19 pm Link

    Our politicians don’t know much about construction. Which is why they get fleeced all the time.

    But, here’s a little Northwest project that they left to the people who knew what they were doing. And was fun to watch at a safe distance:

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