• Francois Vigneault
Next Wednesday, Portland's city commissioners will take up the question of whether you, the people, should have the option of voting on a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax in the city.

As we've reported, the tax would apply to vehicles that use gasoline, and diesel vehicles under 26,000 pounds—meaning big semi trucks wouldn't have to pay. It's estimated it would net $64 million over four years, which amounts to a tiny fraction of what estimates say we should be spending on streets.

A public vote looks likely, and it's a long-time coming. One reason talks over a "street fee" were recalibrated again and again in 2014 was that some city commissioners had heartburn over enacting a controversial fee without the public's formal say so. Now, it seems, you'll have it. And we've got our first picture of what exactly the ballot measure looks like. Check it out here.

Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick's proposal would put 56 percent of the money generated by the tax ($35.8 million, in theory) toward paving projects, and the remaining 44 percent to safety efforts like road crossings, protected bike lanes, and sidewalks.

That spending would be audited every year, and a 16-member oversight committee— comprised of business input, residents, and advocates for different modes of transportation—would help prioritize projects worthy of funding.

Here's a spending summary the Portland Bureau of Transportation wants to put before voters:


And here's a more-precise breakdown.

PBOT says it's pretty firm on what safety projects it'll pursue if the tax passes. Its list of likely paving projects is more fluid, says PBOT Projects and Funding Manager Mark Lear, and could change if projects are more costly than anticipated.

"We want to be able to maximize the amount of paving work we do," Lear says.

Lear also says much of the administrative work behind the tax would fall into the Oregon Department of Transportation's hands. ODOT would be listed as the city's "tax administrator," meaning monthly reports and tax payments would head to Salem before reaching city vaults.

The resolution that would put the measure on the May ballot seems likely to find city council approval, though changes could emerge during what promises to be a lengthy hearing Wednesday afternoon. And a wide range of groups have come out in favor of a tax, after decades of failed attempts to find more-stable road funding. The two most prominent mayoral candidates have voiced support for the idea, as has the City Club of Portland, which recently released a report welcoming a gas tax.

Even if City Council does refer the tax proposal to the May ballot, it faces big questions. Public opinion polling has suggested a majority of Portlanders, around 55 percent, might support a tax, but that's not as strong a showing as pollsters often want to see.

"It’s really sort of on the knife's edge of whether you want to run a campaign on it," says John Horvick, vice president and political director at DHM research.

The decision to put the gas tax on the May primary ballot also could present difficulties, according to Horvick. The ballot won't have the huge draw that November's presidential election will offer, and more voters likely means better odds for a tax. But May's election also won't also have a bunch of competing tax measures, like November's might. Horvick says a deciding factor could be the state of the Republican presidential primary.

"If there were a live Republican primary, the Republicans might be more likely to get a ballot in," he says.

That wouldn't bode well for Novick's gas tax proposal. Nor will the specter of motivated opposition. Paul Romain, executive director of the Oregon Fuels Association, has promised to fight the gas tax measure, and recently told the Mercury he's confident it'll be defeated.

"Local gas taxes are notoriously unpopular," Romain said. "[Novick] knows it."

Incidentally, Troutdale voters approved a 3-cent gas tax in November