Ryan Alexander-Tanner

YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN the optimism in May 2014, when an assured City Commissioner Steve Novick unveiled an $11.56 monthly "user fee" he planned to leverage to repair Portland's deficient streets.

Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales had arrived at that number after months of "town hall" hearings, and were confident they had the votes to push the new fee through Portland City Council.

They even had a cute way of packaging the fee. As Novick told reporters gathered in a sun-dappled park for the proposal's unveiling: "11:56 is four minutes to midnight. Our transportation system is also about four minutes to midnight."

It's actually alarming to go back and read all the ways those sunny park vibes were wrung out of the plan in the eight months that followed. The user fee became an income tax, then an income-based fee tied to gas consumption. Then there was the brief promise of an "advisory vote," in which voters would essentially recommend a fee structure to city council.

And finally, blessedly, we were at rest. In mid-January, Novick and Hales announced they'd be taking a break while state leaders—including a governor who would soon be punted from office—promised to use all their muscle to find more transportation money.

Now it's time to talk about the street fee again.

Governor Kate Brown announced Thursday, June 25, that slapdash efforts to raise the state's 30-cent gas tax —while keeping in place new fuel standards that will reduce Oregon's carbon emissions—have failed. Gone with them are hopes for paltry millions in new state revenue to help fill what's been estimated as a nearly $900 million need for Portland streets in the next decade.

So are Hales and Novick readying their latest proposal? Hardly.

In the face of Brown's announcement, staffers in both men's offices stuck to the same hashed-out script—thanking Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek for the attempt, and insisting they'd still wait and see.

"The pavement is littered with people who assume issues are dead," Hales' spokesman Dana Haynes told the Mercury shortly after the announcement, from the governor of Oregon, that the issue was dead. "That's rarely true in Salem."

It's easy to understand the reticence to take up a fresh battle cry.

Both Hales and Novick are raising money like crazy in preparation for presumed challengers in next May's primary election. They've enjoyed the five months away from the constant screaming of the "street fee" war—the biggest muddle either politician has found himself in while in office, and a ready drum for opponents to beat (as one of Novick's challengers, Nick Caleb, has already indicated he might).

They've also given themselves breathing room, injecting an unheard-of $20 million for roads into the budget that kicked in July 1. Novick and Hales will point to that money, no doubt, as a show of goodwill when the streets debate reignites.

As to the timing of that debate, it may be determined more by political considerations than practical ones.

But it's got to be three minutes to midnight by now, right?