The day after bicyclist Tracey Sparling died while riding through downtown (see story this page), I found myself sitting in Commissioner Sam Adams' office, listening to Adams and the transportation staff give a spiel about raising taxes to pay for street safety and maintenance. It was, as one person in the meeting said, "unfortunate."
That is, Tracey's death was unfortunate, as was the timing since, conceivably, engineers will be using all that extra money to make Portland's streets safer for bikes and cars. Had Tracey been riding on SW 14th and Burnside a few years from now, after Adams' Safe and Sound Streets initiative went into effect, perhaps she wouldn't have died.
At least, that's the argument I'd use if I was a cynical political consultant trying to get the initiative passed.
Currently, though, Adams still jokes that it's political stupidity for someone who's running for mayor to propose an increase in gas taxes and property fees in order to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, even if it's for road safety. Consider Walter Mondale, who suffered a dream-crushing defeat in the 1984 presidential race (he lost 49 states) after pledging to raise taxes. The promise of higher taxes doesn't often lead to electoral success.
But Adams knows what he's doing. Months in the making, the transportation funding package has seen more public process and input than perhaps any other city decision in the past year combined. There's been more than one public opinion survey, plus multiple rounds of town halls, all designed to identify what levels of funding Portlanders will agree to, and what messages they're most likely to agree with.
Plus, the proposal has had a large steering committee, including members of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance—all but ensuring their organizations' endorsements. The PBA has gotten a pledge that money will go to businesses that are affected by road construction, and bicycle projects will get $24 million.
On top of all that, all seven neighborhood coalitions in the city will receive a chunk of money—$4.6 million total—which will fund transportation projects that they get to choose, all but assuring neighborhood sign-off on the package. And if that's not enough, the initiative also provides money to expand the "Green Streets" program, which uses vegetation to keep contaminated storm water from running into the river, which should please enviros.
Far from being politically stupid, Adams has lined up a tax measure that simultaneously has broad support and helps him say he's "tackling tough, unpopular issues"—his unofficial campaign motto.
Mondale could learn a thing or two.