Portland’s city street repair program—funded by gas tax dollars—is behind schedule and needs better oversight, according to a city audit released Wednesday.
In May 2016, Portland voters approved a 10-cent gas tax and a tax on heavy vehicles to make needed safety and structural improvements to Portland roads (think more accessible crosswalks, repaved roads, and sidewalk additions). The tax, which will expire in 2020 unless it's voted on again, has generated $43 million so far.
The audit report from City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero’s office stated that the projects promised under the tax program, called "Fixing Our Streets" are mostly being completed on budget, and that the selected projects align with promises made to Portland voters. The audit also found some room for improvement:
“We found that Fixing our Streets projects were behind schedule and that City Council did not require owners of heavy vehicles to pay what experts said was needed for them to contribute their share of costs for maintenance, operations and improvement of City streets. We also found that monitoring and oversight was not effective, that the Bureau did not fulfil Council’s commitment to obtain annual audits, and that the spending split between street repair and safety projects was difficult to assess.”
Here is some key takeaways from the audit.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is behind schedule for project completion.
According to the audit, a full two-thirds of Fixing Our Streets projects that had been scheduled to begin before 2019 had not actually started. This was likely the result of poor planning on PBOT’s part.
“Bureau staff said the schedules were not realistic,” the audit reads, “and that it took longer than anticipated to break ground because the scopes of individual projects were not yet well defined.”
In PBOT’s formal response to the audit, Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly promised that 20 of 59 original Fixing Our Streets projects would be completed in 2019—including the $9 million Foster Transportation and Streetscape Project, which is promised to transform SE Foster into a more bike- and pedestrian-safe road. PBOT will also break ground on 21 more projects this year, Eudaly wrote.
The heavy vehicle tax isn’t yielding as much funding as expected.
Most freight trucks that travel through Portland don’t stop at neighborhood gas stations inside city limits, meaning that their contribution through a regular gas tax wouldn’t be proportional to how much they use the roads. To mitigate this, the city enacted a Heavy Vehicle Use Tax, in which it taxes freight trucks and other heavy vehicles based on the state’s weight-per-mile system.
The Heavy Vehicle Use Tax was supposed to generate a total of $10 million for Fixing Our Streets, or $2.5 million during each of the program’s initial four years. But during the tax’s first year, it raised just $1.8 million, significantly less than the projected $2.5 million per year it was supposed to raise.
Despite the shortfall, the Portland City Council decided against adjusting the tax rate in November 2018 to meet the projected revenue goal. Judging by PBOT Interim Director Chris Warner’s written response to the audit, that could change soon.
“We are currently preparing a range of policy adjustments for City Council to evaluate as they consider extending this program,” Warner wrote. “We believe the heavy vehicle use tax is an innovative approach that allows us to collect revenue based on the state weight-mile fees, and the amount of use our streets see from heavy vehicles.”
More oversight is needed.
Before Portlanders passed the Fixing Our Streets taxes back in 2016, they were promised that the purpose of the projects would meet a very specific split: 56 percent street repair, and 44 percent safety projects. But both the Fixing our Streets Oversight Committee and the city auditor’s office found it was difficult to determine whether PBOT is actually sticking to that goal.
That’s partly because those two priorities can often overlap—before adding a new crosswalk to a street, for example, it might be necessary to rip up the pavement and replace the base of the road.
And there's another reason.
“The Bureau provided the committee volumes of information," the audit states. "However, we found that the committee could not effectively fulfill its monitoring role because the project lists and financial reports the Bureau provided were incomplete, inconsistent, and outdated.”
In PBOT’s response, Warner wrote that the city is already taking steps to improve oversight, and that “we fully expect our final spending totals will match the 56% to 44% split promised to voters.”
In her letter to the city audit office, Eudaly wrote that despite these setbacks, Fixing Our Streets is a crucial program for addressing “urgent maintenance issues” on Portland streets.
“The audit of the program as it is getting off the ground will help make it successful,” Eudaly said.