U.S. Dept of Labor

EVERY YEAR as the City Council begins thinking about its spending priorities for the next year, it gets a stern talking to.

This year, the lecture came on March 14, when City Budget Director Andrew Scott once again laid out the increasingly dire state of Portland’s nearly $36 billion worth of infrastructure.

You’ve heard it before. The roads are crumbling. The parks need work. Bridges need repair.

“We really are robbing future generations of the level of service that we’re currently enjoying,” Scott said. “We see this as the roads continue to deteriorate. We see this as playgrounds shut down because we didn’t deal with lead paint.”

Only the numbers seem to change year to year. All told, Scott explained, the city would need to kick more than $280 million more toward infrastructure each year to maintain the assets we have now. That’s about $12 million more than the number he rattled off last year.

Meanwhile, 43 percent of Portland’s transportation infrastructure is in poor or very poor condition, according to the city.

Maybe it’s all this repetition that made me perk up last Friday, when Mayor Ted Wheeler started talking about municipal bonds.

Tucked into Wheeler’s first State of the City Address—between a pledge to further regulate landlords and fanciful visions of Willamette River swimming holes—the mayor dropped a brand new plan that elicited claps from a stingy crowd. It’s a proposal certain to please Scott, and pretty clearly had the budget director’s influence.

The plan is to use millions of dollars that will soon be freed up from Portland’s urban renewal areas (URAs)—geographic zones that snatch up property tax money to pay for improvements within their boundaries.

With several URAs slated to expire in coming years, the money they’ve been scooping up will find its way back to Portland’s tax rolls. Wheeler wants to use that cash to pay for millions in bonds to fund repairs throughout the city.

“We can no longer put off needed investments in this area,” Wheeler said “The time for talk is done. The time for action is now.”

“Now” as in this budget. Wheeler’s office also says it will propose borrowing $50 million for infrastructure repairs. As URAs continue to expire, and available cash balloons, the city could see bonds of $100 million or even $150 million in coming years, according to Wheeler spokesperson Michael Cox.

There’s even a name for the idea: Rebuild Portland.

The beauty of the proposal is that—unlike a “street fee” former Commissioner Steve Novick and former Mayor Charlie Hales ruffled feathers by promoting years ago—it doesn’t require citizens to pay anything extra.

That’s not the same as saying it doesn’t have a cost. The money generated by URAs has long been a central source of funding for affordable housing in the city. Loss of that money could be sharply felt.

Which means that, as with anything involving newly available money, this conversation could become heated fairly quickly. But it’s necessary, and it’s to Wheeler’s wonky credit that it’s happening sooner rather than later.