Illustration by Shawn DiCriscio

STEVE NOVICK swears he's not making threats with pebbles.

"It is literally the case that, on our current trajectory, we would have to decide which of our paved roads will have to be turned to gravel," the city's transportation commissioner told the Mercury earlier this month.

That is, unless you're willing to help out?

New schemes to fix the Portland Bureau of Transportation's (PBOT) busted funding structure pop up as predictably as summertime detours. But the latest effort is the most concerted since 2008, when then-Commissioner Sam Adams had his own plan run down by business interests.

Under a proposal shopped around town by Novick, Mayor Charlie Hales, and a roving cast of PBOT employees, households would be charged up to $144 a year. Some businesses could pay thousands.

It's pricier than Adams' proposal, but would still generate less than half the money PBOT says it needs for adequate maintenance. What's more, some of the proposal's most ardent fans sort of hate it—Novick included—and there are disagreements and hurt feelings on the Portland City Council over whether Portlanders should first vote on the fee.

Banish the Bull Run from your mind for just a moment. As 2014 progresses, roads and safety could very well supplant water as Portland's fiercest debate. And the outcome, according to Novick, might decide whether your pothole-stricken street becomes a rutted, gravel hellscape.

Here, we answer your most pressing hypothetical questions.

WHY DO WE NEED MORE MONEY, AGAIN?

PBOT's funding model is a mess. It relies extensively on state gas taxes and parking meter fees, but people aren't driving as much as they used to. (In fact, one of PBOT's big goals is to get people to drive less.) Tack on inflation and huge council-approved obligations for non-city projects—light rail, the Sellwood Bridge replacement—and PBOT doesn't have enough money to do right by its $8 billion transportation system.

SURE, SURE, BUT WHY A "STREET FEE"?

Novick says it's got the most support.

PBOT recently released results from a telephone survey of 800 Portland voters, by local firm DHM Research. After some haranguing, a bare majority of those voters signaled they'd be willing to support a fee—with 52 percent backing an $8 monthly fee and 51 percent supporting the $12 suggestion.

Toward the end of the survey, pollsters also asked about other ideas, like an income tax increase or a sales tax. A majority of respondents said they'd be less likely to support each of six alternatives.

Polling experts consulted by the Mercury disagreed on how much the poll's emphasis on a street fee might have swayed results.

Beth Osborne Daponte, a social scientist in Connecticut who's worked for the United Nations and US Census Bureau, felt the survey had elements that were biased and leading. Andrew Thibault, a Seattle-based principal at EMC Research, thought the survey appeared sound.

HOW MUCH ARE WE TALKING?

The current choices are $8 or $12 per household per month (with a discount for low-income households). Businesses would be assessed fees based on square footage and an estimation of how many trips they create. PBOT Projects and Funding Manager Mark Lear says 67 percent of Portland businesses would pay less than $60 a month, on average, under either funding model. But figures released by PBOT, and first reported on bikeportland.org, also show larger businesses could face fees of hundreds, even thousands, a month.

PBOT thinks the street fee would raise $34 million to $53 million annually. That's not nearly enough to meet all of the city's expected road maintenance needs, estimated to be $92 million a year over 10 years. Still, both options are more expensive than the roughly $31 million annual tax plan Adams proposed in 2007. That effort was eventually killed by opposition from a subset of business owners, who took umbrage with the "trip-generation" model for taxing businesses.

BUT WON'T BUSINESSES JUST INCREASE THEIR PRICES?

That's possible, PBOT's Lear concedes. It depends on the business and its market forces. But he also said the business fee is one of the only options for collecting money from non-Portlanders who use—and thus help ruin—the city's roads.

That doesn't sit well with everyone.

At a town hall-style meeting on May 1, Portland salon owner Ann Sanderson complained that many of her customers are neighbors, who drive minuscule distances to appointments, if they drive at all.

"I'm gonna be charged on trips nobody's making," said Sanderson, who will consider raising her rates if the fee is implemented.

Still, the street fee idea hasn't yet drawn formal opposition from business groups—including the Portland Business Alliance.

"Put it this way," says Novick, "it is somewhat comforting to know that going with an option that would not be my first choice, it's at least acceptable to some segment of the community."

WHERE WOULD ALL THIS NEW MONEY BE SPENT?

A lot of people are asking the same question. Some even accuse the city of trying to snatch their money to improve other people's neighborhoods.

Actually, PBOT doesn't know precisely what it would do with all the money. Novick says the bureau is deciding what promises it could make if a fee is passed. But officials say they will prioritize preventive maintenance on hundreds of miles of streets. PBOT also plans to fit in safety-oriented projects like crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalks, and neighborhood greenways.

Under the model Novick has been taking to community meetings, most of the funds will go toward maintenance (63 percent under an $8 residential fee, 53 percent under a $12 fee).

A PBOT report released in late April found 48 percent of Portland's busiest streets are in poor or very poor condition. Smaller streets are worse off.

Safety efforts would take up much of the rest of the revenue—34 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Part of the money would likely also subsidize TriMet bus service, and help prepare a Willamette River bridge for an earthquake.

HMMM. SO MY NEIGHBORHOOD COULD GET PASSED OVER? I'D LIKE TO VOTE ON THIS THING.

And you might get that opportunity. But, then, you might not.

Novick has hinted he's leaning against a public vote on the street fee, telling the crowd at the May 1 meeting: "If we decided to punt every tough decision to voters, there really wouldn't be such a thing as political leadership."

There are good reasons he might want council to go it alone. As mentioned above, the recent phone survey indicates a bare majority might favor the fee. That majority is likely to melt away in a campaign fight.

"We typically argue a ballot measure needs six to eight points minimum favoring the 'yes' side," says Andrew Thibault, a Seattle-based principal with polling firm EMC Research. "What tends to happen is that these things close toward the 'no.'"

Thibault made clear the eight-point guideline applies to campaign polls, which PBOT's was not. A different set of questions could produce different results.

He also pointed to a factor on display at PBOT's May 1 meeting: Many of the voters likely to support more money for road projects detest the idea of a flat fee on households. It's regressive, assigning the same burden whether your household pulls in $30,000 or $300,000 a year.

"Any time you give progressives a values-based out to vote 'no,' that's when measures can get in a lot of trouble," Thibault says. "You kind of fracture your base of support." 

Even Novick has made no secret of disliking the street fee. He'd prefer an income tax increase. "I'm holding my nose," he tells the Mercury.

If Novick and Hales hope to pass a fee without a public vote, they'll have to politick. Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish say they'd support referring the matter to voters. (Saltzman's skepticism over the proposal irked Novick enough that he pulled a campaign endorsement.)

And even if city council does pass a fee, it's feasible opponents would rise up and gather the signatures to put it to a vote, anyway—just as in the council's bid to fluoridate Portland's water supply.

That council decision, it's worth noting, came before Hales and Novick were in office.