Hundreds of people packed into Portland State University's Lincoln Hall last night to hear the top three mayoral candidates discuss Portland's favorite nerdy topic: transportation. I moderated the debate along with PSU Dean Lawrence Wallack and the candidates spelled out their approaches to transit planning, making the city safer for biking and walking, how to create jobs around active transit and, of course, how to pay for it all. It was an interesting debate—at one point, Jefferson Smith used a metaphor from Where the Red Fern Grows to explain the problems with the CRC.* Definitely go read Jonathan Maus's extensive write-up over at BikePortland.org!
While most of the night was the convivial politeness you'd expect in a mayoral race between three Portland Democrats, there was a little bit of backbiting between Eileen Brady and Jefferson Smith.
Asked about new revenue sources to fund transportation, Smith said that the gas tax revenue is decreasing and offered some new ideas like variable parking rates and a street maintenance fee. When it was her turn, Brady sniped, "Jefferson, you need to do your homework..." and said that gas tax revenues were increasing (she also didn't offer any new revenue ideas, suggesting—as I understood it—that the city should just downsize PBOT).
So is gas tax revenue increasing or decreasing? To the wonky graphs!
So! Revenue from the gas tax was decreasing, but in 2009, the legislature passed a long-overdue gas tax increase. Because of that bump, the revenue from the gas tax has increased recently.
However, gas tax revenue is below projections because Oregonians are driving less. Though he bungled the wording, Smith's point is valid: our transportation funding system is unsustainable as long as it relies primarily on the gas tax. As the city and state encourage people to drive less, the state collects less money and transportation planners essentially plan themselves out of jobs.
*The convoluted literary metaphor went, I think, like this:
CRC planners = Raccoons who love shiny things
Bloated bridge project = Very shiny thing stuck in the bottom of a stump
Steamrolling forward with current plan = Raccoons refusing to let go of shiny thing
Budget = Hunter who eventually comes along and kills the stubborn raccoon