Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

IT WAS MAY 29 when Commissioner Steve Novick confirmed the first major concession in his and Mayor Charlie Hales' epic quest to raise $53 million in revenue for road maintenance and safety projects.

Owing to ballot referral threats and outright rage, a vote on the business side of the proposed "transportation user fee" would wait until November 14—giving everyone a lot more time to work out kinks.

That fallback came just days before the fee was supposed to head before Portland City Council. And it was just the beginning. The day before that planned June 4 hearing, Novick and Hales abruptly announced they'd also be tabling the other half of their proposal, the part that applied to residents and property owners.

The delays made sense. And November seemed to provide enough time to devise some kind of revised fee that not everyone would hate.

But maybe you've been watching the calendar. Labor Day's suddenly upon us. School's starting back up. Summer's almost over. Time's running out.

Hales and Novick are now about halfway through their self-appointed window for (1) figuring out the finer points of a new street revenue plan, and (2) rallying sufficient public support to avoid a voter rebellion. And neither appears close to happening cleanly and neatly.

So far, the volunteer work groups asked to help refine the street fee can't even agree on basic concepts—how much to raise from whom, and how to do it—let alone any of the devilish details that could very well doom whatever proposal emerges this fall.

Consider the questions that have yet to be definitively answered:

Will smaller businesses get to pay a flat fee? (Maybe.) Will nonprofits get some kind of a break? (Probably.) Will the residential part of the fee actually become an income tax? (Seems likely, but not if business lobbyists have their way.) Will the $53 million revenue target be lowered? (Probably, even if no one knows by how much.) Will voters have a chance to kill the program after a couple of years? (That all depends.)

Each of those questions, once settled, will come with several more questions just as difficult to answer. How will businesses be sorted? How much money will the city shift from other priorities over to maintenance? How long until any so-called sunset provisions take effect?

The only thing city hall does seem to know? Even if the street fee morphs into an income tax, city attorneys say it still won't have to go before voters first.

More difficult (an understatement if ever there was one) will be finding political support.

Hales and Novick desperately need buy-in from business owners and lobbyists, one reason they got their very own work group. But at that group's most recent meeting, on Monday, August 25, it was clear that the loudest voices in the room remain just as skeptical and outraged as ever.

They're worried that a residential income tax—more popular with voters than a street fee—will hurt small business owners. They're even more worried they won't have a final say on whatever heads before city council.

"We're spinning our wheels," said Heather Hoell, director of the small-business lobbying group Venture Portland.

And with so many variables and so little time, it seems like they could be getting ready to pull the emergency brake.