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Street fee tax needs broad community support

Portland needs better roads and transportation services, and short of money, there’s no easy answer to how to make it happen. But we need a better plan than the proposed Street Fee racing through City Hall.

The transportation fee on households and businesses is a poor tool for fiscal management and puts yet another bill on the books for families who, after paying their taxes, their mortgage or rent, and their bills, don’t have much left to hand over to a government bureaucracy.

The proposal from Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick would charge $11.56 a month for households, and $8.09 a month for low-income households: $138.72 and $97.08 a year, respectively. Businesses will take an even bigger hit, in some cases much bigger. We question the fee structure.

In the first few days of Mayor Charlie Hales administration, the City Auditor released its audit of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, calling it out for a lack of a long-term strategy on transportation priorities and budgeting. As a result, “new transportation projects have displaced core services such as maintaining streets.” Despite an increase in transportation revenue – yes, it’s been rising since 2008 to beyond pre-recession revenues — the bureau reduced its funding in contract paving work and street maintenance. Instead, money was increased for projects such as the east side Streetcar and debt service on the Downtown Transit Mall and the Portland Milwaukie Light Rail line.

It’s being sold as a safety issue, but the fee is largely to back fill maintenance costs.

Are there valid safety concerns rolled into the commissioner’s argument? Absolutely. There are too many dark intersections and missing sidewalks throughout the city, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods. But is this the “crisis” that the mayor is purporting to compel or justify support for a new tax?

There is no question that PBOT needs financial support. But we cannot support a transportation fee of this size with no end in sight that will disproportionately hurt low-income families and small businesses regardless of their use on the roads.

There’s no question there’s work to do to bridge the gap between transportation needs and people experiencing poverty. The best outcome we can hope for is that a proposal like this develops a broad coalition of support from the community that can deliver a message that the public can understand and support.