For the past week, Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams has been out campaigning—errrr, I mean, holding town halls, to collect public opinion on paying for street maintenance, like repaving, filling potholes, and replacing street signs.
It's a curious political endeavor—"filling potholes" (literally and symbolically) ranks near the top among things Portlanders want from their city government, but when it comes to paying for it, they'd rather just get a new commissioner. No, really, a poll conducted by the "Mark and Dave" radio show—they're the ones with the self-defaced billboards—listed 11 percent support for a gas tax, and 84 percent support for replacing Adams. Youch!
But the numbers are fairly obvious: The state gas tax, which funds most street maintenance and safety repairs, is a flat rate, not indexed for inflation, and hasn't been updated since 1993. Worse, the City of Portland gets back less than half of every dollar we pay into the fund at the pump. The Democrat-controlled legislature has followed their Republican forbearers by opting to not increase the tax; meanwhile, costs for street maintenance have skyrocketed. It doesn't take an accountant to figure out the problem there, and the result is a $425 million maintenance backlog that grows by $9 million every year.
That doesn't leave a lot of options, other than something like a citywide gas tax, or a "safety and maintenance fee" on top of property taxes. Not surprisingly, neither of those options is terribly popular, which is why Adams is beating the campaign trail (I mean, "town hall trail") to drum up support.
Of course, no politician (especially not one with an eye on the mayor's seat) would go swinging at this blindly, so it probably doesn't come as a huge surprise that Adams has already commissioned a public opinion survey by polling firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, which shows tenuous support for-low-to-moderate increase in either gas or property taxes. Suffice it to say there's a bit over majority support for a tax that would raise $15 million to $20 million per year. That may sound like a lot, but, according to Adams' figures, that barely gets the car out of the garage. Plus, there's bound to be organized opposition (calling all libertarians!) that could kill the whole thing.
Why doesn't Adams take advantage of our commissioner form of government, and just sit tight until the next politician takes over the transportation bureau? Why not make it someone else's problem?
"If I was a better politician, I would leave it for the next transportation commissioner," Adams says. "But I'm not, and as unpopular as this issue is, the lack of funding is a truth we're all going to have to face."