Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

IF DAN SALTZMAN'S willing to play the role of street fee savior when Portland City Council weighs Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales' seemingly final revenue proposal this Thursday, January 8, the longtime commissioner's office isn't saying.

Saltzman's still holding to his months-old stance—namely that even the best street fee imaginable would need to go before voters first. And Novick and Hales have yet to budge over that point.

"He's still very supportive of referral. But he's appreciative of the work people have done," says Saltzman's chief of staff, Brendan Finn. "He'll go into the hearing and cast a vote."

But Finn's being modest. After Commissioner Amanda Fritz announced Monday, January 5, that she couldn't say yes absent a progressive income tax and a public vote—and with Commissioner Nick Fish, sources say, still implacably opposed—the street fee's survival very much depends on Saltzman and whether he might be willing to play ball.

Even Fritz noted as much to me when explaining her decision. When Novick and Hales appeased the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) last month, swapping the income tax Fritz preferred for an income-graded user fee based on gas consumption, they also offered a way for opponents like Saltzman to justify a change of heart.

Instead of sending the street fee to voters immediately, Hales and Novick have proposed letting voters have their say in 2020. Fritz suggested that might be enough to woo Saltzman.

"That's maybe where folks need to focus their energy," she told me, referring to citizens hoping to lobby city council not to say yes without an initial public vote.

Of course, that kind of shift would mark a huge turnabout for Saltzman, who famously angered Novick early last year when he questioned not just the potential mechanism for raising new transportation cash, but also the need for the revenue itself. (Even the PBA, for what it's worth, acknowledges the city needs millions more every year to maintain and improve its roads, bridges, sidewalks, and traffic signals.)

Saltzman followed that irritation with another during the first major hearing on the street fee, back on May 29. Instead of waiting until the end of the hearing to air his concerns, after citizens spoke and after a presentation assembled by Novick and Hales, Saltzman broke with decorum and spoke before the dog-and-pony show.

Novick, in the immediate wake of Fritz's pseudo-defection, insisted his and Hales' plans for the street fee wouldn't change. He "respectfully" declined to say whether he'd been discussing further deal points with Saltzman, or whether he'd even tried wooing him at all. Hales' office also offered a nonplussed non-reaction.

But that belies the tension in city hall right now. A loss, after so much back and forth, would be seen as an embarrassment for both Novick and Hales. And it could hobble any hopes for re-election—especially for the mayor, as a symbol of the city's political health.

Novick, at least, is willing to play a longer game. A defeat in city hall will give him a pass to pursue his self-styled "plan B": a revived income tax that's more progressive, plopped on the November 2016 ballot.

But Hales might not be up to play another round. And, for now, that makes Saltzman someone to impress.