Archive | Transportation Funding

Broaden uses of Oregon Gas Taxes?

Doug Allen retired after 35 years with TriMet Service Planning and Scheduling and belongs to AORTA. He is a long time supporter of good transit and land use planning, and lives in SE Portland.

Senate Joint Resolution 16 would refer a constitutional amendment to Oregon voters in November 2016 that relaxes constraints on the use of motor vehicle revenues. A hearing is tentatively scheduled before the Senate Business and Transportation committee on Monday, March 30, at 1:00 pm.

In brief, this amendment adds to the list of allowable uses: “Surface transportation infrastructure that reduces the traffic burden of, or pollution from, motor vehicles on public highways, roads and streets in this state.”

It covers construction and operation of certain bus, rail, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities, but not aviation or waterway projects.

Follow SJR 16 here: https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2015R1/Measures/Overview/SJR16

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Fair Voting for Portland’s Street Fee

Tony Jordan is a software engineer by day, but a rabble rouser all of the time. He is particularly interested in seeing Shoupian parking policies in place on Portland’s streets. Tony has a BA in Politics from UC Santa Cruz and serves on the board of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association as well as on several parking related stakeholder committees.

Since January 2014, Mayor Hales and Commissioner Novick have proposed a variety of ways charge the average Portland resident some amount between 90 and 150 dollars a year for road safety and maintenance.  None of the plans have been particularly popular with the public and it seems likely that any fee passed by council will be referred to the voters.

In the first week of the new year, Novick and Hales floated an “advisory vote” to take place in May 2015.  They will ask voters to choose the most palatable of an array of fee options.  It’s not yet certain what the options will be, but the list will probably include a progressive income tax, a local gas tax, some sort of property tax, and a flat monthly assessment.

With three to six official proposals on the ballot, there’s a good chance we’ll end up with a muddled mess of votes and no clear winner.  Indeed, Novick himself is “not sure a majority can agree on any particular solution” in the election.  Fortunately, there is more than one way to conduct an election and this non-binding hold-your-nose ballot is a perfect opportunity to try a different scheme.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and Approval Voting (AV) are excellent fits for this type of poll.  In each system voters would be allowed to select multiple options from the ballot.  With IRV voters rank selections order of preference, with AV the voter simply selects any item they approve of.  We can avoid the chance of this election providing no real insight into the will of the people by adopting a system which will produce a clear winner.  Under an IRV system the first choices are tallied, if there is no clear winner the worst performing option is thrown out and those votes are given to their respective second choices.  The process continues until a winner is chosen.  AV is even simpler, the most “approved of” option wins, no runoff required.

Neither of these methods is particularly new.  AV has been used for centuries and IRV was devised in 1870 and is used all over the world.  In fact, IRV is used in Portland, Maine for mayoral elections!

Determining a clear winner is important, but perhaps an even better result of using AV or IRV is the ability to put more, and better, ideas on the ballot.  Novick says that a pseudo-gas tax based on income is “the best user fee [he] can come up with after a year.”  Perhaps he should pay a little more attention to his constituents.

Since the first town halls in February of 2014, constructive Portland citizens have proffered hundreds of suggestions on how to set and collect these fees.   PBOT seated three separate committees to brainstorm ideas and there are dozens of threads on blogs such as this full of suggestions.  At a June 2014 town hall, for example, transportation activist Jim Howell proposed a “triple nickel” solution consisting of a 5 cent local gas tax, a 5 cent commercial parking space tax, and a 5 cent per pound annual vehicle registration fee.  For whatever reason, Novick and Hales haven’t promoted compound ideas like these.  Other than a local gas tax, which has problems of it’s own, direct user fees have been notably absent from official proposals.

Let’s try a more fair voting system in May.  Expose the public to some innovative solutions and let us choose the best in a meaningful way.  It can’t be any more frustrating than the process we’ve endured already and perhaps an experience with IRV or AV will lead to their adoption in other elections as well.

Update: As noted in the comments, coverage by the Mercury suggests that one option Council is contemplating is a series of yes/no questions, which would be a form of Approval Voting.

A Primer on Trip Generation

As a key factor in determining rates for Portland’s proposed street utility fee, the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ (ITE, henceforth) Trip Generation Manual has gotten a lot of love lately among local transportation wonks. It is worthwhile, then, to take a quick trip through the weeds of the manual to better understand where the opportunities and complications lie when it comes to using this data as the backbone of our fee structure.

First, a bit of context. The art/science/guesswork of predicting the trip generation of various land uses is the first of four steps undertaken in transportation forecasting. Along with the ensuing three steps—determining where, generally, the trips will originate and end; choosing which mode they will utilize; and identifying the time, route choice, and other properties of the individual trips—the goal is to understand the future needs of the transportation system based on current land use and development patterns. Because most jurisdictions have a concurrency requirement—a stipulation that roads and intersections must have adequate capacity to accommodate new demand concurrent with a proposed development—trip generation is of particular interest to folks in my line of work so that we might identify what developers must do to meet this requirement, blissfully ignoring any notion of induced demand.

To this end, ITE has been aggregating and disseminating trip generation data since the first edition of the manual was published in 1976 (the current edition is the ninth). The context manifests in the data in myriad ways. For any of the 172 land uses listed in the manual, the robustness of the dataset is likely a function of both how often that particular land use arises, and how much NIMBY-ism it’s likely to inspire. The well-known suburban bent of the data owes to the fact that most development over the last 40 years has occurred in the suburbs or exurbs, so this is where the vast majority of studies have been conducted.

The trips described by the manual are one-way trips, so what one might colloquially describe as “a trip to the grocery store” is actually two trips: the trip from home to the store, and the return trip home. This is important for analysis purposes—the “trip to the grocery store” will indeed traverse an intersection along the way twice—but results in quantities that are twice as high as what one might intuit. This means that in a closed system each trip is double counted, as both the home and the grocery store would be credited with generating both an inbound and an outbound trip in this example.

The manual provides two general mechanisms for determining the trip generation of a given land use. The first is a mathematical function derived through what’s called regression analysis, which attempts to fit the cleanest possible curve to a set of disparate data points. The second is the trip rate, often expressed as a number of trips per thousand square feet. But it’s important to recognize that square footage is often not the best (or even a viable) independent variable for predicting trip generation. For example, student enrollment is a much better predictor of trip generation for schools, employee count is a better predictor for offices, and the number of ‘fueling positions’ is a better predictor for gas stations.

Interestingly, there’s another predictor for trips generated by a gas station that works better than floor area: the amount of traffic using the street that it’s located upon. That’s because gas stations generate a large number of pass-by trips, which are trips that are ultimately headed to another destination (this destination is credited with generating the primary trip) but stop at a business located directly along the way. A similar type of trip—a diverted trip—is also a trip ultimately headed elsewhere, but in this case the pit stop entails a small amount of out-of-direction travel. There are also internal capture trips, which describe trips that take place entirely on roads and facilities located within a mixed use development. Note the suburban bias there; in the city, this would likely take the form of a person parking once and visiting several locations on foot, using the public streets.

And here we have arrived at the biggest failing of the Trip Generation Manual with regard to our purposes: The manual implicitly considers only vehicular trips. Assuming that only a nominal number of trips are non-automotive might work for the ‘burbs, but this often causes the stated trip rates to be wildly inaccurate in the city. Recent work by Professor Kelly Clifton’s research group at Portland State University confirms what we might have suspected: The more “urbany” a built environment, the more inaccurate the assumption that all trips are automotive is likely to be.

Thus, there is a need to distinguish between the vehicular trips quantified by the ITE manual and what are generally called person trips, which include all trips regardless of mode. Fortunately, as Clifton verifies, the latter seems to be relatively consistent regardless of the built environment. So perhaps by considering only vehicular trips, but doing so primarily in auto-centric locations, the manual has inadvertently provided a good proxy for estimating the differences in person trips generated from one land use to the next. There are exceptions, of course—the manual will understate the person trips generated by a school compared to other land uses, for example, due to the prevalence of buses in travel to and from schools. But it seems that basing a potential street fee on person trip rates inferred from Trip Generation Manual data is defensible and keeps with the spirit of the residential fee in being mode-independent. Basing the fee on vehicular trips, by contrast, would be far more complicated to implement and would leave unsolved many of the issues with the gas tax that Chris Smith wrote about last week.

The manual offers a lot of utility with regard to predicting trip generation, but really it’s just one piece of a puzzle that fits together differently from one land use to the next, and one business to the next. To accurately model the trip generation of a particular business requires a heck of a lot more than the published trip rate, which does not consider countless predictors and is often derived from a small sample size. While using these rates as the basis of the street fee would hardly be the first or most egregious misuse of the data, it seems inevitable that it will result in some businesses substantially overpaying and others substantially underpaying. As luck would have it, that seems to fit with the spirit of this fee quite well.

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.