SE Foster Road is one of many Portland streets to benefit from the Fixing Our Streets program.
SE Foster Road is one of many Portland streets to benefit from the Fixing Our Streets program. PBOT

A gas tax first approved by Portlanders in 2016 is heading back to the ballot this May.

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On Thursday, Portland City Council heard an annual progress report for Fixing Our Streets, a program that funds road repair and transportation safety projects through a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax narrowly passed by Portland voters in May of 2016. The council also unanimously voted to put a renewal of that tax before voters in May 2020.

"I urge all voters to cast your ballots this May in support of renewing this gas tax," said City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), before casting her "yes" vote. "It's well worth the dimes we pay at the pump, and it will provide us with the tools we need to advance safety, equity, and sustainability in Portland's transportation system."

When passed in 2016, the gas tax established the city’s first fund dedicated solely to improving roads and safety conditions—a welcome revenue source, after years of budget cuts and a dearth of dedicated funding left the city with $2 billion in sorely needed street repairs, according to PBOT. It also outpaced revenue expectations, bringing in $76 million rather than the predicted $64 million over a four-year period.

A city audit released last May found that while PBOT was lagging behind its promised schedule, the projects were aligning with the goals of the program, and were mostly being completed within budget.

A new report from PBOT documents projects completed using the gas tax money so far: 370 “base repair” projects, or heavy-duty street rebuilds; 300 new wheelchair-accessible ramps; 58 safer intersections; 40 miles of new or fixed-up road pavement; and 53 Safe Routes to School projects, which establish safe walking routes for kids going to their neighborhood schools.

While making the case for renewing the tax, PBOT Director Chris Warner placed an emphasis on Vision Zero, a PBOT incentive to reduce the number of traffic-related deaths down to zero. Last year saw 49 traffic deaths in Portland, the highest number since 1997. Warner displayed a slide at the council meeting showing the names of the 131 people who died from Portland traffic collisions in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

“PBOT is committed to Vision Zero,” Warner said. “Funding for Fixing Our Streets is essential in funding critical safety improvements. It is also known to save lives.”

PBOT staffers also detailed their plans for the next four years of Fixing Our Streets, should the gas tax be renewed. The funding will be split into three nearly-equal parts: One-part road paving and base repairs; one-part safety projects like sidewalks, new crosswalks, and lighting; and one-part “Community Transportation Services”—PBOT’s name for a never-ending list of small projects like pothole fills, speed bump additions, and improvements on existing crosswalks.

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Last time the gas tax went on the ballot, it faced opposition from the Oregon Fuels Association, and passed by only four percentage points. It's unclear what opposition the gas tax will face this election.

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There’s a good chance Portland voters will also be asked to approve a Metro homeless services funding measure on the May ballot—as well as a Metro transportation measure in November.

In addition to referring the gas tax to the ballot, the City Council is also expected to soon renew a heavy-vehicle-use tax for businesses, which should raise another $11 million for Fixing Our Streets over four years. That tax won’t need to be approved by voters, but several public commenters at Thursday’s meeting expressed frustration with it. A representative from the Oregon Trucking Association called it a “double tax” for the trucking industry, because truckers are already taxed under a statewide 2017 transportation funding package.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty refuted that argument, saying “We’re all in this together—people are paying it, so why wouldn’t the trucking industry be paying it?”

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