WHEN MAYOR Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick finally reissued their bedeviled plan for transportation funding on Monday, November 10, their rhetoric—on what could easily be seen as a legacy-defining achievement—somehow walked the line between tepid and bullish.
Words like "bearable" and "reasonable," repeated during a lengthy Portland City Hall press conference, drowned out occasional praise and hopeful exclamations about the possibility of a unanimous city council vote. Only later, after the unveiling, did Hales' spokesman declare his boss "excited" about the street plan.
That's probably as it should be.
Hales and Novick are proud of their rechristened $46 million Portland Street Fund, which they've cast as a "much improved" blend of a progressive personal income tax and a sliding fee for businesses—with a slight majority of its proceeds now earmarked for paving and maintenance work. They've tentatively scheduled a vote for December 3, with a public hearing planned for November 20.
But the fine print in that hybrid plan amounts to an amalgamation of compromises meant to find an intensely tiny—and likely elusive—political sweet spot.
"No one is going to love what we put on the table," Hales said early in the press conference.
The mayor and the commissioner are still hoping to win over at least one more colleague on the five-person city council—all while doing their best to rally supporters without, in turn, giving their critics in the business community enough ammo to pick a fight at the ballot box next spring.
That's already looking difficult. Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish have long insisted on having the council call for a public vote—something that's still not part of the proposal. And Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who loomed as the swing vote before Hales and Novick tabled their intensely controversial plan in June, has not yet said whether she'll sign on again.
Worse, petroleum industry lobbyist Paul Romain waited only hours after the proposal re-emerged to guarantee opponents would gather enough signatures to put it on the May 2015 ballot, should city council approve it.
And one of the groups Hales and Novick had hoped to assuage with some of their tweaks, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), also sent out word that it "cannot support" the new plan.
The PBA singled out the income tax provision for opprobrium, suggesting a flat fee that would see more poor people pay up every month. It also demanded the city spend more on paving—and less on safety projects in places like East Portland. Hales and Novick already budged a bit on that point, agreeing to increase the share of money spent on maintenance to 56 percent. But that's still a far cry from the 75 percent the PBA demanded.
Giving in to the PBA, however, would cost support from nonprofits and transportation funding advocates—who see fixes in lower-income parts of Portland as essential and who'd hoped the tax would be even more progressive than what was laid out during Monday's press event.
The PBA told the Mercury on Monday, November 10, that it didn't yet have a position on whether its lack of support would translate to an active attempt to stop the effort by putting it on the ballot.
"We are not going to do exactly what either of those groups suggested in either of those areas," Novick said. "We're trying to strike a balance."
For all the back-and-forth, the proposal still hewed fairly close to a rough draft floated during a public session last month.
Back in May, businesses hollered at the prospect of paying hundreds or thousands in monthly fees under a complicated formula built around how many trips they generated. Now, they'd pay dramatically less, from $3 to $144 a month. And residents, initially facing flat fees capped just below $12 a month, would now pay a graduated deductible income tax (with $5,000 credits for children) meant to shift the burden away from low-income Portlanders.
The cap, however, would top out at $75 a month for married couples earning a combined $350,000 annually. That's down from $200 a month—a figure supported by Novick, but too high for Hales, who floated a cap of just $50 last month.
Also unchanged: Revenue would be split evenly between the two collection methods. About $45 million would be spent on paving over the next three years, with millions more funding projects like new sidewalks and crosswalk improvements.
Novick and Hales, joined by Transportation Director Leah Treat, made a familiar case for the new revenue, citing the $91 million the city would need to spend every year for 10 years to catch up on deferred maintenance—not including money for the other transportation enhancements also captured in their plan.
Treat said the new paving cash would save the city $650 million in future work, most of that on busy streets. And Novick read from a list of some of the safety projects expected to be funded in the next three years, including fixes to SE 122nd that would presage frequent bus service upgrades by TriMet. Some 40 percent of the money on safety projects in the next three years would be spent in East Portland.
Hales also reminded everyone that he's proposed, as part of this fall's budget adjustment process, pouring an additional $2 million from the city's general fund into the Portland Bureau of Transportation's capital budget for maintenance work.
But he stopped short of promising more ongoing money in next year's budget, pointing to hope the state and the feds might step up with gas tax increases.
"We're here because we have to be here," Hales said. "We own these streets and we own these unmet needs and it's time to get on with it."
—The Mercury's Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.