Commissioner Sam Adams' Safe, Sound and Green Streets Executive Committee just wrapped up, and were nice enough to brief me as a committee. A press conference for one, as Adams put it. (Though the Oregonian's city hall reporter did pop in later.)
Long story short: Thanks to the economy, the proposal is currently dead. A poll on the proposal showed that while 29 percent of the 600 voters polled named transportation issues as the "most pressing problem" facing the city--which is a big deal, points out committee member Chris Smith, in that "the public has started to get that transportation is a big problem"--only 55 percent support a monthly $4.54 street maintenance fee to pay for the $464 million backlog in road fixes. With a margin of error of +/- six percent, putting the proposal on the ballot isn't going to happen. "Going to the voters at this time would be very problematic," says pollster Adam Davis.
Commissioner Adams says his new proposal is to "not put a measure on the November ballot, to delay implementing SS&G, to focus our efforts on the next state legislature," where hopefully we'll score some local funding. "We will wait for the economy to get better. In the meantime hopefully we will get some help from the state."
So what do we do about the massive backlog--not to mention the $4.3 million the city will be short on next year "to maintain service levels"? ("We’re short $4.3 million in revenue we need to maintain service levels as defined by about a year ago," Adams explains. More on that after the cut.)
Here's Adams' new plan: Both natural gas and electrical utilities want to raise rates (NW Natural wants to boost rates by 30 to 40 percent). The city charges a utility license fee (ULF) on those bills, and the rate increases mean the city will see additional funds to the tune of "$4.3 and 6.3 million a year," says Adams. He'll ask the city council to dedicate the "first $4.3 million" in bonus ULFs--as in, more than what the city has already forecasted they'll receive--to transportation for maintenance.
The executive committee is behind this proposal, and Adams will now take it to the 89-member SS&G Streets stakeholder committee for their input.
Why not just enact the street fee, as Adams originally wanted to do (calling such a move "a question of leadership," repeatedly)?
"The opposition has made it clear they will refer [the measure, if the council enacts it]," Adams explains. "The current economic downturn makes it easier for them to get signatures and makes it harder for us to mount a successful campaign either by trying to defeat a referral or campaign for it ourselves."
More from the poll:
Transportation ranked as the most pressing concern, at 29 percent. "In the past education has been at the top of the heap, but we have a new player, and that is concerns related to transportation," says pollster Davis.
Following that up is "economy/jobs/cost of living"--a catchall that includes things like a gas tax--at 14 percent. Education is eleven percent, population growth and overdevelopment are 8 percent, crime and public safety are 4 percent. "Other," which is everything from homelessness to the sewer system, was named by 34 percent.
On the question of paying for the fixes, 55 percent supported a $4.54 monthly fee, but 39 percent opposed it. In the 55+ age bracket, only 50 percent supported the fee.
A smaller fee, of $3.49 per month, actually fared worse. Only 54 percent supported it, and 40 percent opposed it. Only 45 percent of those 55+ folks supported it. Those numbers were similar to a poll taken in March 2007.
More on the $4.3 million shortfall: Transportation director Sue Keil explained that since 2000, her budget has fallen $10.3 million behind what they need just to maintain current service levels (the city council backfills the gap with one-time funding). Next year, she explained, she'll need to find $4.3 million in cuts, thanks to revenue shortfalls and the increased price of everything from asphalt to employees' health care. Instead of trimming back the already squeezed transportation department, Adams wants to dedicate the city's windfall of ULF money to her bureau.
"The $4.3 million is just a band-aid," says Ken Turner with the Eastport Shopping Center, a neighborhood business representative on the committee. "It's not even a band-aid. We’re still going backwards all the time."
Richard Beetle with Laborers' Local 483--the folks who maintain the streets--talked about employees' view of the state of transportation funding. "They can’t deliver the service that they’ve been mandated to do. There have been no increases in our funds or staffing levels. What we’re seeing now is bare bones," he says. They're keeping service intact, but not expanding it "like it needs to be expanded. We’re going to see a further slide in our infrastructure."