ON THURSDAY AFTERNOON, July 24, Commissioner Sam Adams hunkered down in city hall's Rose Room around a massive conference table, with some of his closest advisors.
The group—the Safe, Sound, and Green Streets executive committee—examined the results of a hot-off-the-presses poll, and decided to pull the plug on one of Adams' most ambitious proposals to date, a $464 million package of projects to address the city's "unmet transportation maintenance and safety needs."
Adams had been pushing the plan since last year, making the rounds in neighborhoods to explain how it would work—the money would come from a $4.54 per month fee tacked onto city water bills, plus a gas tax increase—and to tout the projects in the proposal, a list crafted in part by an 89-member stakeholder committee.
The plan included $340 million in repaving projects on busy arterials like Alberta, Burnside, MLK, Grand, Hawthorne, and Lombard. There was $24 million for bike corridors, and more for fixes for high-crash intersections and citywide signal optimization. Another $12.4 million would have put sidewalks on streets that don't currently have them.
But all of those projects will be shelved.
In February, as the council prepared to enact the plan, oil lobbyists targeted the proposal—and the fees it would place on high-traffic businesses like gas stations—and threatened to refer it to the ballot if the city council passed it.
Adams pulled back, and pledged to look into putting it on the November ballot directly. But the recent poll showed that "going to the voters at this time would be very problematic," pollster Adam Davis says.
The poll Adams' office commissioned showed that 29 percent of voters polled named "transportation" as the city's most pressing concern—a change from the usual top concern, which has traditionally been education, notes Davis.
But while voters are currently concerned about transportation, they weren't willing to fund fixes in a wide enough margin to pass the measure in November, Adams says. Only 55 percent of those polled supported the monthly $4.54 "street maintenance fee," with a six-point margin of error.
The plan now? To "not put a measure on the November ballot, to delay implementing Safe, Sound, and Green Streets, and to focus our efforts on the next state legislature," Adams says. "We will wait for the economy to get better. In the meantime, hopefully we will get some help from the state" to tackle pressing transportation concerns.
Adams will also ask the city council to allocate an unexpected bump in "utility license fees" (ULF)—the cash the city collects on gas and electric bills, which will increase by "$4.3 and 6.3 million a year," Adams says, thanks to impending utility rate increases—to transportation maintenance. The city's Department of Transportation (PDOT) is facing a $4.3 million budget shortfall next year alone, says PDOT head Sue Keil.
Next year, Keil explains, she'll need to find $4.3 million in cuts, thanks to gas tax 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 to avoid cuts.
That $4.3 million "is not even a band-aid," says Ken Turker with the Eastport Shopping Center, a small business rep on the Safe, Sound, and Green Streets executive committee. "We're still going backward all the time."