Hall Monitor 

A "Pitched Battle" After All

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A LITTLE MORE than a year ago, Mayor Charlie Hales agreed to sit down and talk about bicycling and street paving and other transportation basics—and the need to slay a "zero-sum" conversation that had been pitting those priorities against one another, instead of finding ways to pay for them all.

And the new mayor was surprisingly blunt when asked how. One possibility? A street maintenance fee—something Hales tried and failed to cement during his first city council incarnation 13 years ago.

"Yes, we will raise your taxes," Hales told me ["Tale of the Grip Tape," Feature, June 5, 2013]. "I don't think that will be a pitched battle."

So let it be written. So let it be done... except maybe not as easily as the mayor might prefer.

After months of polling and politicking, Hales and City Commissioner Steve Novick have finally unveiled a "transportation user fee" (TUF) meant to cure some, but not all, of the city's transportation ills. The proposed TUF—$11.56 a month for most families, but up to thousands annually for businesses—will raise at least $200 million over the next five years and hopefully slow the city's growing backlog of deferred maintenance.

But as for Hales' spoken hope he might get the thing passed without a serious fight? Call it hubris, call it confidence—whatever it was, it's long since vanished.

Rather than risk the fee's defeat at the polls this fall, Hales and Novick now plan to risk it in front of their colleagues. Portland City Council will take up the TUF this Thursday, May 29, with a vote as soon as June 4—provided Hales and Novick can persuade Commissioner Amanda Fritz to join their side.

Fritz actually likes the idea of a street fee. She's also remained open to a council vote, unlike Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish. But she's got doubts over the specifics, including the amount. And she seemed greatly annoyed Hales had prematurely declared her fealty when reporters asked.

But even if Hales and Novick manage to squeak a vote through, a surprisingly strident, fluoride-style backlash—fueled by sticker shock and a simmering fury over rising rents, taxes, and utility bills—has already begun.

Smaller businesses have taken to Facebook to vent their rage. The big business lobbyists who killed the last two street fee plans (in 2001 and 2008, both also approved by the city council) are quietly plotting. And fretful voters are emailing and calling city hall—occasionally threatening to start recall petitions.

None of this is lost on Hales and Novick. Especially Novick. He's told me he'll push for a council vote even if Fritz says no. And he's been personally answering his critics.

He's willing to battle for something unpopular but necessary, as he sees it, even if it costs him his career.

"I don't want to lose my next election," Novick wrote one constituent, in an exchange shared with print reporters. "But I'd rather try to solve this problem and lose than not try and win."

Presumably, the mayor feels the same way.

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