If there were still any doubts about how city leaders want to inject new money into Portland's underfunded transportation system, they were just obliterated.
Flanked by sundry charts, and with a projector flashing more behind him, transportation Commissioner Steve Novick told reporters this afternoon that the city's taken the pulse of the public... and the public sort of supports monthly "street maintenance and safety fees."
According to polling carried out from March 27 to April 1, Portlanders are roughly split on kicking in $8 or $12 per household. And polled participants grew more enthusiastic for the proposal when told what it might go to fund— things like street maintenance, safety improvements, bicycle infrastructure, and potentially non-City of Portland projects like transit and seismic retrofits for a county bridge—according to John Horvick, a staffer at DHM Research, which carried out the 800-person poll.
Still, it's hardly a groundswell of support. Even when keyed in to all the desirable ends more transportation funding could achieve, only a bare majority of 52 percent support an $8 monthly fee per household. A $12 fee garnered 51 percent support.
Novick said the split may be a sign Portlanders don't hear enough about transit funding (though both he and Mayor Charlie Hales have relentlessly pressed the issue since Novick took over the Portland Bureau of Transportation last summer).
"What that tells us is there hasn’t been as much discussion in this community about having enough money for transportation as there has about not having enough money for schools," Novick said, apparently referencing a schools bond voters passed in 2012.
Novick says a street fee isn't his preference—he'd like to toy with income tax rates to find more money—but that he's convinced by the poll such a fee is the most-palatable option. He explained dozens of cities in Oregon had instituted similar policies.
But Horvick made clear that the poll was heavily focused on a street fee, only asking about other potential funding mechanisms—income and sales tax changes—briefly, and toward the end. (Results from a previous poll asking about a gas tax increase never saw the light of day, but were apparently highly opposed. It wasn't mentioned this time around.) Asked whether that format may have skewed results in favor of a street fee, Novick deferred.
"They told us this would give us a valid result, and we took their word for it," he said. "It’s partly a measure of cost. Ideally, I’d have liked to do 8 different surveys."
So is a "street fee" looking like the answer?
"I have to say yes," Novick admitted.
PBOT's funding woes have loomed for a long time, but fixes have been tough to come by. The bureau gets much of its funding from gas tax revenue and parking fees, but those haven't kept pace with the rising cost of materials. Plus, PBOT's committed to big regional projects like light rail and the Sellwood Bridge that sap its available cash.
And even the fees being discussed will only partly dig Portland out of its enormous street maintenance pothole. Still, Novick says, it would be a start.
According to PBOT calculations, an $8 monthly fee could raise $17 million to $25 million a year. A $12 fee could raise between $25 million and $35 million a year. Update, 4 pm: PBOT has revised those estimates. It now says an $8 fee could raise about $34 million, and a $12 fee could raise $52 million. The Portland Auditor's Office has said PBOT needs to spend $85 million a year to do right by our roads. That number is currently closer to $10 million.
"It’s not that much, but it's a heck of a lot better than what we’re doing now," Novick said of the fee proposal.
But just how that proposal takes shape is, of course, still a matter of discussion. Novick conceded city council could implement a fee system on its own, though it could also put the matter to voters. And there's no indication yet how the city would move to collect the fee—survey participants were opposed, unsurprisingly, to the money being tacked onto their water and sewer bills.
Whatever proposal Novick and Hales come up with, we'll be hearing about it within the next several months.
"We feel a real sense of urgency," Novick said. "The longer we wait, the worse things get."