In Support of a Street Improvement Fee

On Thursday, I’ll be joining what I hope will be a large group of transportation enthusiasts and activists in attending PBOT’s Our Streets Town Hall. Motivated by a series of missed opportunities that have made our 2030 bicycle plan look more like a naïve aspiration than a realistic, achievable goal, and appalled by a recent spate of pedestrian deaths, I’ll offer this argument in support of the street fee.

Winston Churchill once described democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Similarly, a per-household fee may be the worst way of funding our transportation priorities except for all of the other ways that we’ve tried. I say this mindful that I’m fortunate enough to be able to pay the fee without it being too burdensome. For many Portlanders, this fee will hurt, and I hope we can find a way to soften the blow to them while preserving the idea that we all have ‘skin in the game.’ I also would have preferred to see us first take the step of charging fair market rates to those who store their private belongings on our streets by reforming parking throughout the city.  But it is defensible, I suppose, to ask all Portlanders to contribute something before asking those who demand more to contribute more, so long as it’s certain that the latter step will follow.

There’s no doubt that implementing this fee constitutes an improvement to our current funding system. What we’re trying to do at present—fund a multi-modal transportation system with revenues generated largely by motor vehicle travel—is equivalent to trying to fund a methadone clinic with a tax on heroin. It’s a Catch-22 where our ability to provide a solution depends upon the continuing severity of the problem. This new fee is an opportunity to reshape that vicious circle. As such, I expect to see it immediately and drastically change our funding priorities, placing much less emphasis on preserving access and capacity for motor vehicles, and much more on projects that focus on safety, particularly for the most vulnerable road users.

Make no mistake: With regard to demonstrating a commitment to active transportation, we are stagnating. We are stagnating. We have no bike sharing program, nor any concrete plans to deliver one nearly three years after Council voted to do so. And as I write, we are squandering a chance to improve bicycle access on 28th Avenue—a key component of the 2030 bicycle plan. It joins too long a list of recent missed opportunities that includes SW 12th Avenue, NE Holladay Street, and the NW Park Blocks, to name just a few. The news of plans to improve crosswalks along some of our most treacherous roads is welcome, but it’s a modest step. Portland’s walking and bicycling networks remain frustratingly—and often dangerously—incomplete.

I support this new revenue stream because it presents our best opportunity yet to end the stagnation. However the name that seems to have taken hold—“street maintenance fee”—misses the point. The goal here must be to improve our streets. The name of the fee should reflect that. I understand that the finances around street maintenance appear daunting at this moment. But if we were to invest in making our streets excellent public spaces—by holding safety paramount; by prioritizing walking, bicycling, and transit in practice as well as we preach it; and by recognizing that our streets are, as Jane Jacobs so eloquently stated, the setting of an intricate ballet that “never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations”—I’d bet that those numbers would start to look a lot more manageable in a hurry.

In fact, I’d bet twelve bucks a month on it.


37 responses to “In Support of a Street Improvement Fee”

  1. If you want to ride down to the Town Hall from close-in with a (hopefully) fun and robust group, or socialize afterwards:

    ~~ Ride to the Town Hall ~~
    – Meet at Lucky Lab’s Hawthorne location (915 SE Hawthorne Blvd.) starting around 5ish.
    – Talk with others. Be inspired. Inspire others.
    – Depart Lucky Lab just before 6:00pm to ride casually as a group. Route:

    ~~ Town Hall ~~
    – 6:30 to 8:30 p.m, Thursday, May 1st
    – Woodstock Elementary School, 5601 SE 50th Ave.
    – More Details Here:

    ~~ Post Town Hall Socializing ~~
    – Meet at Delta Cafe for Food/Drinks:
    – Menu/Website:

  2. Chris,

    An excellent summary of the “pros” but you have an uphill battle with the “cons.”

    PBOT has some explaining to do re: the auditors reports before they ask for a street tax (and yes, it is a tax- not a fee). Also, I am aghast at what appear to be serious mis-representations on the Connect Oregon grant application.

    “First there is a sponsor/ then there is no sponsor /then there is (Apologies to Donovon).

    What is your response to the notion that PBOT is bad with money and we don’t want to increase their budget substantially without an admission of past sins. And, what happens if that grant application was false. Do we still trust PBOT?

    Maybe we need an independent street board ala the proposed water board.

    As the recent skirmish on NE 28th shows- this is a deeply divided city. We don’t have shared values or a shared vision.

    May the best side win.

    • I’m not sure what good it would do to make PBOT issue some kind of mea culpa. Conditioning our willingness to properly fund upkeep of the system on that seems a bit petty.

      I do wish that the process were more open and I share your frustration about the fact that they have not been forthcoming with regard to bikeshare. My hope is not that this is not run-of-the-mill incompetence but a direct result of a silly funding model where we’re asking for a private sponsor to match federal dollars in launching the thing. This makes PBOT accountable to some extent to the private partner rather than to the public. Unfortunately, using public funds for the local match seems to be a non-starter politically. But it’s important to recognize that, in asking it to attract a private sponsor, we’re asking bikeshare to meet a higher burden of proof-of-concept than we’ve asked of any other infrastructure project.

      I disagree with the notion that we don’t have shared values for 28th Avenue. I think everybody involved wants it to be safe for all users, welcoming for all modes of transportation, and designed to generate the maximum economic return for the businesses along it and the greater community. That we disagree on how best to accomplish this is both healthy and inevitable.

      • Brian, if PBOT can’t produce a binding sponsorship document dated before November 25, 2014, that will not be “incompetence.” That will be dishonesty.
        That would be lying in order to secure 2.5 millions dollars. That is not legal.

        I bring it up because PBOT is not trusted by many Portlanders. Being caught in a big lie will undermine their credibility further.

        As for the mea culpa- why shouldn’t PBOT “own” the decisions they made that led to this mess. Why give them more money without forcing them to trim non-critical programs. As a taxpayer, I want assurances that a street tax will not be used an an excuse to spend money on pet projects.

  3. My biggest concern is that this appears to be regressive… and doesn’t vary based on damage caused to streets. A DMV surcharge for vehicle registration might make more sense than what (like the arts tax) is essentially a poll tax.

    • Well, as long as commercial trucks are taxed, Engineer Scotty, you may have a point.
      I would like to see Hummers taxed more than Smart Cars. Weight-based tax? Also- who pays for the damage that a Tri-Met bus does? We need to be clear about who causes what damage.

      Someone else floated the idea that PDC money could fund some of the safety improvements. Safe streets arguably help business.

      PS- ES’s idea may be a true fee and not a tax.

      • “Someone else floated the idea that PDC money could fund some of the safety improvements. Safe streets arguably help business.”

        You realize, of course, that PDC doesn’t actually have any money. Suggesting that they “pay” for something really says “let’s go into debt and pay the investor class for 20 years at 6% interest so we can get some basic municipal infrastructure.”

        I think we’ve been doing that for far too long, and it’s time for a more pay as you go approach.

      • Vehicle registration should be weight-based. This would start to make up for the hybrid/electric cars that avoid paying their fair share.

    • Bike Walk Vote is pushing the idea of a “sticker system” similar to what Chicago does:

      I hadn’t heard of this until I’d read their statement, but it’s an intriguing possibility. I wonder if there’s also a way to do something through DEQ that would charge a fee based on vehicle weights or emissions, since that infrastructure is already in place (although obviously that’s at a regional level and we’re talking about a City program here).

      I don’t like the regressive nature either, but as I said, I think we can build more complete streets this way than we ever could relying on revenues produced by driving.

  4. A few thoughts:

    1) I don’t get credit for the post, Brian does!

    2) To the criticism that PBOT doesn’t spend money well, my experience is that what they spend on, they execute efficiently. The issue is a lack of strategy. When you don’t have enough money to maintain your basic system, you improvise. What we’ve see is a lot of improvisation driven by political leadership. Sam’s strategy was to focus on “streets of City-wide significance”, Charlie pushed for paving 100 miles of streets to help build trust with the citizens. Leah Treat is working to pull together a strategy now, but it can’t succeed without something reaching toward an adequate funding base.

    3) The responsibility to find a bikeshare sponsor falls on Alta, not the City. The challenge with bikeshare is that in many ways the City has too little skin in the game, but having no risk to City funds was part of the deal to allocate the $2M in Federal grant funds. Sigh…

    4) To Scotty’s points, I very much like that the fee is not tied to vehicle travel because I want users of all modes to have some skin in the game, although I too regret how regressive this arrangement is.

    • Some skin in the game may be appropriate, but the SAME amount of “skin”? If you use transit, or walk, or bike, or telecommute, your impact is generally less than if you drive–depending on what the proceeds of this proposed fee are spent on, it could easily represent an additional subsidy of motorists by non-motorists.

      As much as possible, unconstrained funds should be spent on things where constrained funds cannot–fuel taxes (and a hypothetical DMV surcharge) are constrained, and can be spent on street repair, but probably not on bike lanes and such.

      Someone mentioned above the damage that busses do–as heavy vehicles with only two axles (more axles on a bus works great for motor coaches, but inhibits the maneuverability needed for transit applications), they are very hard on the pavement. Should transit agencies be subject to similar fees for their bus fleets? How would this change the bus/rail question?

      As to why the area is “stagnating”, I’d suggest a few things:
      * Ineffective leadership in City Hall since Vera Katz left office. Tom Potter was simply a poor politician who probably lacked the gladhanding and coalition-building skills to be mayor, Sam Adams was undone by his sex scandal, and Charlie Hales bread is buttered by the business community, not by Portland’s more liberal residents.
      * Much more organized opposition, and a public that is highly suspicious of any new government programs. Existing functions like street repair and expansion are still seen as “basics” and as vital public goods, but bike infrastructure is being portrayed, rightly or wrongly, as a diversion from the basic functions of good government, rather than as part and parcel of it. (In some parts of town, transit–particularly capital-intensive transit projects, are viewed with the same suspicion).
      * And of course, decreasing revenues and increasing expenses–an issue that is affecting all areas of government. While I can see why the city is experimenting with various poll taxes as a way of getting around this issue (property tax collections are limited by state law, sales tax is not available, and the City lacks the infrastructure to collect income taxes), there’s a more fundamental structural problem.

    • “The responsibility to find a bikeshare sponsor falls on Alta, not the City.”

      Yes- but PBOT still has to be truthful on grant applications. it looks like there may be hard evidence that PBOT was not truthful in Questions 14 and 20. Their application stated that either the city or Alta had secured 5 million in private sponsorships. Alta took a 40k payment that was a progress payment conditioned on “securing” a sponsor.

      At this point, PBOT needs to show that they had a signed document by 11-25-13 and it was pretty much binding (presumably with an escape clause or two- that would be okay) and it promised 5 million. If they can’t, well any logical person would have to wonder how that grant application was truthful.

  5. “I also would have preferred to see us first take the step of charging fair market rates to those who store their private belongings on our streets”

    So bike corrals should be fee-for-use?

    • I would pay. Given that they are about 20 bikes parked in a standard car spot, I’ll gladly pay my $0.10 per hour.

    • Yep, I’m happy to pay too, if you can figure out how to administer an enforceable program given all the problems any jurisdiction that’s tried to do so has encountered, and make it pencil out financially knowing that a parked bike requires roughly 1/10th the space as a parked car. And no reduced rates for kids bikes either! They may take up less space, but still require the same half-staple as other bikes.

      Maybe we can also charge pedestrians who are standing still. That’s another source that has the potential to generate, literally, dozens of dollars.

      Otherwise, we’ll just have to settle for the fact that under the new funding paradigm, non-automotive trips are massively subsidizing automotive ones, and live with free bike corrals.

      • “I’m happy to pay too, if you can figure out how to administer an enforceable program ”

        Why do I have to figure it out? It was your idea. You said we should charge for storing “private belongings on our streets.” Pedestrians aren’t “private belongings,” but bikes are. I was just looking for a little consistency in your argument. Of course, if you mean “cars” you should just say it. I might even agree with you.

        • I’m actually more serious than you might think about being all for a bike parking surcharge, if _someone_ could figure out how to administer such a program. I certainly cannot.

          It’s not only the principle that if cars should pay for their space, bikes should too (although charging for bike parking might be a disincentive for a travel mode we’re trying to encourage). But parking is one of the few examples where bike infrastructure actually requires more than a comparable piece of auto infrastructure. While cars just need the space, bikes need some metal to lock to, preferably a staple and even better would be a staple with an extra bar across to provide more contact points and an additional layer of defense. In an ideal world, maybe we’d have covered bike corrals, what with this being Portland and all, or perhaps even a security camera in each corral as an added measure of theft prevention.

          Would I pay a fair market rate to store my bike if that money could then be used for excellent bike parking facilities? You bet! I just think that it’s an impossible scenario, so yeah, mostly I meant cars. :)

          Chris Smith actually led a fairly robust brainstorming session several months back where we talked through some of the present and future needs around bike parking, potential funding mechanisms, and whatnot. I’d be curious to know if any other discussions around that have occurred.

          Oodles of bikes clogging up public spaces actually is a legitimate problem in the densest parts of Dutch cities. It’d be a good problem to have in Portland too, but better still if we can stay ahead of it…

          • I’m in discussion with Bureau of Planning and Sustainability staff about where we can fit bike parking zoning into the Bureau’s 3-yr workplan.

            I agree charging for bike parking is fair game if we can figure out how to administer it efficiently. I’m pretty sure there would be a market for the kind of premium service you get at the OHSU bike valet (free there) if offered in downtown.

  6. I like the idea of the road fee, but it seems high to me. $12 per month? Tualatin charges $3.92 for a detached single-family dwelling, and $3.36 per unit for multifamily housing. It strikes me that something in the neighborhood of $3 to $4 per month would be more reasonable.

    I also think the majority of road fee money raised should be spent in the neighborhood where it’s collected, and should be used for repair/improvement priorities set by each neighborhood association.

  7. this is a basic function of municipal government & should be paid for out of general funds-that we will all pay for. i will not support this regressive tax, no matter how good the services are that it will fund. why not charge monthly fees for library cards or fees per books taken out at the library, etc? your proposing a fee-what exactly are we getting for this, has this entirely been decided?

    and i think the metaphor bout heroin & funding transit is out of line. i dont own a car but wouldnt compare car use/ownership to dealing/use of a deadly narcotic.

    sometime i wonder if transportation use should all just be paid for with general funds-no more trimet payroll taxes, gasoline taxes, bus fares, etc. just buy all that down with local property taxes & state income taxes.

    • The City of Portland General Fund (generated from property tax revenue) pays for Police, Fire and Parks. Which of those would you be willing to cut to the tune of $50M+ per year to fund PBOT?

      • $50M+, is that what this fee will generate or is that already what pbot gets as a budget? regardless of that i think that these type of uses should be paid for with the property tax, pdx biz license tax, etc? broad base taxes to pay for services that are pretty normal & used by a broad base of the city. look im not against spending more money, im just against all these little fees, etc.

        im the guy who gets mad at paying like $2.50-$3 or whatever for a glass of dt pepsi when i eat out, i know they just jack the price up of regular/non alcoholic drinks so they can keep meal prices lower and make extra $$$.

        as far as reducing spending-well as far as pbot, trimet, etc go-since theyre always doing construction to build new infrastructure or repair/modernize existing infrastructure i would highly suggest they just have their own building/maintenance dept. shut the spigot off for the contractors. to me this is just permanent outsourcing.

        speaking of which-does the city or any other govt own its own asphalt plant? i grew up in the Pittsburgh, PA area & when i was a kid the city owned its asphalt plant & was able to spend much less & pave more streets doing this.

      • i wanted to point out that the reason i used that metaphor bout drink prices at restaurants is that i think its best if govt is funded with broadbased taxes to pay just about everything it does-not fees for arts or transportation, or additional fees when u get a library book or take a book out of the pub library, etc.

        i think fees for use of water/sewer (which wed like to minimize that usage as much as possible), or for electric, gas, wifi/telecom use are appropriate-as long as that money stays with that function-isnt diverted to other, worthy uses.

        further, i look very forward to (hopefully) when portland dumps its property tax (at least on residences if not all property) and instead collects taxes/revenue to fund govt with a broadbased income tax based as a levy/% of the statewide rate. all taxes must be paid with money, therefore all taxes are income taxes-based on ones income.

  8. This fee is just going to push more people into the suburbs. Why would I buy a house in Portland and pay the arts tax and street fee, when I can live just outside the city boundaries and drive into the city for free?

    If this fee happens, my friends that live in Gresham will pay less than I do to improve the streets in Portland, while at the same time damaging the streets in my city more than I do. How is this fair?

    • Nobody (or rather, a statistically trivial number of people) is going to make a housing decision based on a $35 per person arts tax and a $144 annual street fee. Is anyone going to say “well, I was going to pay $200,000 for a nice house in the neighborhood I wanted and sign up for a lifetime of insurance, maintenance, taxes and utility fees … but darn it, there’s that $15 a month in local taxes. I’ll just have to move elsewhere.”

      And if someone did decide to live in Gresham instead of Portland, so what? Another person will occupy the house or apartment in Portland and pay the fee. Unless taxes actually result in homes or apartments sitting empty, the decision of a few people to live elsewhere is inconsequential.

      • I got distracted by your example…Is there a popular Portland neighborhood that still has nice houses available for $200,000?

      • Where does the reliance on per capita taxes end? Portland along with most Oregon communities face chronic funding shortages because of the property tax caps. Are we going to fill that gap with an ever increasing admission price for living in Portland? That approach makes sense on a certain level. It goes hand in hand with policies that inflate housing costs and a view that economic segregation and livability go together. They don’t.

        I’d rather have potholes than a city surrounded by white walls.

    • your friends in gresham already pay nothing (i assume) for the streets you spoke of in portland. and this is just the way things are funded-how do u compensate gresham or any other city/town you go to? if you dont pay some sort of tax for your “damage”/use arent you doing the same thing?

    • $179 a month to live in Portland instead of Gresham sounds like a pretty good bargain to me!

      In all seriousness, I think reforming parking is half the equation. The other half is that, yeah, Portlanders will be, at least to some extent, subsidizing trips to Gresham. But I think we’ll expect something in return. The new funding paradigm means that it’s now a financial injustice whenever an East Portlander has a hard time crossing Powell because a Greshamite is speeding through. It was already a moral injustice, but money talks.

      The key point is that you not only get what you pay for, but you get how you pay for it. We’ve so far funded our streets by revenues generated largely by driving, and we’ve gotten so very drivable streets. If we are now incorporating fees generated by living here, I hope the result is livable streets.

  9. or we could erect giant stone gateways at the perimeter of the city, on every arterial and freeway, to collect entry fees. kinda like the middle ages. anyone need a designer for giant stone gateways, I am free.

    • And to residents sporting Clackamas County license plates, the gatekeepers will say “You have displeased us with your refusal to help fund the Sellwood Bridge. Be gone with you!”

      • Not to be picky–but unless the frame identifies some car dealer on McLoughlin (and even then, that’s not a foolproof test), how would we tell a Clackamas County motorist from his license plate? :)

        • In an alternative future where we have stone gateways, we would have licensing by county. Of course in some states that have that already.. the plates have different prefixes, or actually state the county name.

  10. I am concerned that the street fee money won’t be used for street maintainance and improvements. Well actually it will be used for that but I am concerned that it will simply replace money that the city already spends on those things and we won’t get any increase in spending on street infrastructure. When I was on the Ciizens Advisory Committee on Transit in Corvallis we crossed over into having enough population that the federal government gave us an extra 500 thousand dollars to spend on transit, the city of corvallis promptly removed 500k that they had been putting in from the general fund and so there was no improvement, it just gave Corvallis 500k to spend on other stuff. Already we see Hales reducing the budget for safety improvements because the street fee might be coming.

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