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  • Illustration by Jess Smart Smiley
Ahead of a deadline at 5 tonight to put a street fee advisory vote on next week's council agenda, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick have just sent word they're pausing their revenue-raising efforts for several months while Governor John Kitzhaber and legislative leaders work on some kind of statewide transportation funding package.

It's the latest twist in the street fee saga after months of twists—and it marks another dramatic shift just within the past several days.

The plan to seek an advisory vote this May—and then pair the leading option with an already-proposed business fee, to raise $46 million—was only eight days old. It was put forward after it became clear Hales and Novick didn't have a third vote for their previous plan: an income-graded gas consumption fee that replaced an income tax hated by powerful business lobbyists. But as I reported in this week's paper, the timing and complexity still left as no sure thing.

The announcement, describing the cessation as a "pause" and not a "defeat," references recent conversations with Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek. Emboldened by stronger Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate, as well as an improving economy, it's widely believed that lawmakers see the 2015 session as a good chance to bump up the state's gas tax, among other possibilities. The state tax sits at 30 cents per gallon and last went up in 2011.

“Because they recognize the importance of efforts to fund transportation infrastructure, they will hear the needs of local governments and ensure they are part of state transportation conversations as they work to give communities the tools to build and maintain critical infrastructure,” Hales said in the statement.

But Hales and Novick's announcement also indicates the funding conversation could include giving cities permission to levy revenue mechanisms currently pre-empted by state law. That could include a vehicle sticker fee paid by people who park their cars or drive in Portland, whether they live here or not.

Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish expressed interest in looking more deeply at that solution during a hearing last Thursday. Hales and Novick said they hadn't initially considered it because their attorneys told them it was too close to a vehicle registration fee, which is the purview of states and counties.

“During the passionate conversations we have had in Portland regarding transportation funding, many options were discussed, none of which prove to be popular,” Hales said in the statement. “Some options were put forward by Portlanders that we do not have the authority to enact. As your mayor, I will go to Salem to seek that authority.”

Yesterday afternoon, Hales and Novick recessed a city council meeting to take a sudden, emergency "conference call." But neither office would say, when asked, who was on the line. Hales' office hasn't responded to a question asking if that call was related to today's announcement.

Update 5:30 PM: Novick has confirmed that the call was directly related: He and Hales hustled to the mayor's office because both Kitzhaber and Kotek were waiting on the line. They had spoken with the two earlier in the week about the state's intentions on transportation funding—and they were waiting to hear explicit assurances that transportation would be a top-line agenda item in Salem in 2015.

Those conversations were unfolding even as plans were advancing for an advisory vote, which was supposed to be the subject of a hearing January 20. The council would have needed to approve ballot language by January 22, the city's elections office recommended, to ensure final, challenge-resistant language in time for the May ballot.

"Up until two weeks ago, it wasn't at all clear the Legislature was going to take up transportation funding this session," Novick told me, adding that he "wasn't as optimistic after the initial conversation" as maybe Hales was. "We didn't know it was going to be a focus of the session."

He also said this wasn't wrapping paper around what was otherwise a political loss. He and Hales will wait to see what they can do after the session adjourns before returning to the advisory vote, which Novick said could come as soon as September. Having permission to levy a fee on studded tires, require a city vehicle sticker, or set up unstaffed remote speeding cameras could offer more options than the mechanisms he and Hales were considering.

Of course, he noted, "we have no assurances that they will address any of these things specifically."

Novick sees another upside, he says. He can spend some time on subjects not only including Uber vs. the city's cabbies, but also on emergency preparedness (he runs the Bureau of Emergency Management, not just the Bureau of Transportation) and his old election-year goal of helping lower the city's healthcare costs.

"It might be nice to talk about something other than the street fund for a couple of months," he said.

Read their entire release here (pdf).