Artwork by Alex DeSpain
Artwork by Alex DeSpain

IT DIDN'T MATTER that the call came in the middle of a Portland City Council meeting. Governor John Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek—keen observers of the city's street fee saga—were both on the line. Waiting.

Which gave Mayor Charlie Hales barely enough to time to politely announce a recess, drop his gavel, and then hustle upstairs to his office alongside Commissioner Steve Novick and some top aides.

A day later—after initially refusing to say whom they'd humored with so much haste (Uber? Lobbyist Paul Romain? The Portland Business Alliance?)—Hales and Novick got around to explaining the unusual urgency.

Sufficiently persuaded that their Democratic leaders really meant it when they promised to focus on transportation this legislative session, the two city officials announced they were delaying an advisory vote this May on their much-bedeviled plans to raise up to $46 million in new transportation revenue.

Instead, Hales and Novick now say they'll wait and see what comes out of Salem before trying again for a vote, as soon as this fall.

"Up until two weeks ago, it wasn't at all clear the Legislature was going to take up transportation funding," Novick told the Mercury last Thursday, January 15. "We didn't know it was going to be a focus of the session."

But now they do. And they've agreed to hold off, lest the somewhat toxic tenor of the conversation in Portland poison the one Kotek and others hope to have in Salem.

"I don't know if they were having heartburn or not," says Dana Haynes, Hales' top spokesperson. "But they were aware we were fighting for a long time on this issue and they wanted, perhaps, the city and the state to move in the same direction at the same time."

Here are some of the places this shared path might lead!

STATEWIDE GAS TAX HIKE: The tax, a portion of which feeds the Portland Bureau of Transportation, last went up in 2011—by six cents. Hales and Novick had long been pushing for increased state funding, listing it on the city's lobbying agenda. The idea was the city would still need more money for transportation, even after passing a street fee. Now, thanks to surprisingly stronger Democratic majorities in the Oregon House and Senate this fall, there's real hope in Salem that 2015's the time to strike again.

LIFTING PRE-EMPTIONS: If a statewide gas tax hike somehow ends up a casualty of partisan negotiations and tradeoffs in a legislative session already eyeing fights over big subjects like education funding, the Legislature might instead be willing to give cities like Portland more avenues toward raising the money on their own.

The leading possibilities include letting Portland levy its own vehicle registration fees, assess some kind of surcharge on road-shredding studded tires, install remote speeding cameras, or require people who live and work here to purchase a parking sticker.

"Some of that stuff's going to have traction," Haynes says. "Some of that won't. How few have traction will tell us what happens next."

"SKIN IN THE GAME": Of course, some things are still in Portland's purview. The upcoming budget season, which opens next month, promises millions in surplus cash—both ongoing and just for the next fiscal year. Novick tells the Mercury he'll look to grab some of that money for road maintenance and safety projects as a gesture of good faith. And sources say other commissioners may follow.

Novick, on the other hand, also won't mind taking a break.

"It might be nice to talk about something other than the street fund for a couple of months."