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Our Opinion: City shouldn't rush street fee decision

Portland’s streets are in need of help and Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick seem to be in an unbridled rush to fix them. If the two city leaders want to succeed in this worthwhile endeavor, however, they need to slow down long enough to listen to the people most affected and build appropriate support.

At a morning press conference last Thursday, Hales and Novick released for the first time their formal proposal for a Transportation User Fee. It would generate an estimated $40 million per year for the first five years through assessments against businesses and residents alike.

Although Portland’s street maintenance problems are well known, most Portlanders have heard very little about this particular plan. It was unveiled at the start of the Rose Festival and the Memorial Day weekend. Granted, dozens of public meetings were held to let people know that something was in the works, but specifics have been noticeably lacking.

People who were paying close attention might have understood that Hales and Novick were considering a fee, but they didn’t know how much it would be, who would have to pay it or exactly how the money would be spent.

So the news conference on Thursday contained some surprising information. That’s when we learned households would be charged almost $140 a year and the fee also would be levied against businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Plus, the fee as envisioned would help pay for much more than maintenance projects.

Did we mention that the first public hearing on the proposal is today, May 29, and Hales and Novick want the council to vote on it next Thursday?

If this all seems a bit hurried to you, take heart — it does to others as well.

Among the groups miffed at this proposal is the Northwest Grocery Association, which is fine with a maintenance fee for “projects between the curbs” but doesn’t believe businesses should be charged for residential street projects. The group is considering placing the fee on the ballot — through either a referral or initiative drive — if the council passes the proposal as presented. It’s worth noting that the grocery association has proven its ability to force a public vote in the past.

It’s not just grocers, however, who might be interested in seeing this go to the ballot. Proceeds from the fee aren’t limited to street maintenance. They also would fund sidewalks, bike paths and mass transit projects. Given such an array of potential uses, the levy is arguably closer to a tax than it is to a single-purpose fee — and the public always wants to vote on new taxes.

That’s not to say that the public will automatically be opposed to paying something extra for transportation upgrades. This proposal has worthwhile elements to consider. Fifty-three percent of the funds would go toward maintenance projects, including 150 to 250 miles of pavement maintenance, conversion of 7,000 streetlights to LEDs and the replacement of 40,000 of those impossible-to-read street-name signs.

Improvements to greenways, safety improvements around schools and shoulder improvements would make up 15 percent of the spending. Another 29 percent of the revenue would be used to improve the safety of busy streets, including 380 to 400 blocks of sidewalks.

The remaining 3 percent would be used to increase earthquake resilience to bridges, enhance public transportation and pave gravel or unimproved streets.

For better or worse, that’s a lot more than just filling potholes.

The proposal from Hales and Novick creates a large amount of fodder for discussion, but such a conversation cannot take place in the brief period of time they have allotted

for it.

This fee would not take effect until July 2015. That should give the council ample opportunity to slow down, do a better job of explaining the fee to constituents, work with the business community and others to resolve their concerns and then proceed once a true consensus has been reached.