Metro Council will vote on whether to refer a $5 billion transportation funding measure to the November ballot on Thursday.
The measure is the result of more than a year of planning from Metro Council members and staffers, elected officials from every jurisdiction in the tri-county Metro area, and countless transportation policy wonks, business interests It will fund a wide range of projects and programs across the region, from powering TriMet’s electric bus fleet, to car safety improvements in high-collision areas, to creating a new MAX line running from Southwest Portland to Tualatin.
But the size and scope of this measure wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. The proposal began in 2017 as a potential $1.7 billion funding measure helmed by TriMet, meant to fund a new MAX line and a smattering of new freeway lanes throughout the region. But disagreement among the area’s mayors about which projects the measure should fund prompted TriMet to hand the measure off to Metro—and that planning process led to the current 2020 measure (called Get Moving 2020), which is promising a significantly stronger impact on the region.
For local transportation advocate Kari Schlosshauer, the reimagined funding measure was a rare chance to fund transportation projects that often fall through the cracks.
“I’ve worked in transportation for a long time, and there’s always more need than the ability to build things,” Schlosshauer said. “That’s especially true for [in the Portland area], where it seems like there’s been a lack of investment for a really long time... There’s a lot of focus at the state level on building up the interstate system and highway systems, but not actually providing enough funding for transit and safety and kids.”
Schlosshauer is a spokesperson for Getting There Together, a coalition of groups that has advocated for more transit- and safety-focused transportation funding in the measure. Getting There Together formed when Get Moving 2020 was just a kernel of an idea at TriMet, and Schlosshauer said that while there are a couple aspects of the measure that the group takes issue with, it’s largely happy with the final product.
The measure will fund transit, safety, and road improvement projects on a collection of major roadways across the Metro region, like East 82nd Avenue and the Tualatin Valley Highway. It also will fund 10 different programs meant to accomplish specific goals throughout the region. Those programs include free youth transit passes for all school-aged kids; initiatives to prevent residential displacement near new transportation projects and to diversify contractors working on the projects; and creating safe routes for kids walking to school.
The measure will create a new 0.75 percent payroll tax to fund its programs and projects. Employers with 25 or fewer employees will be exempt from the tax.
At a recent Metro Council meeting, Council President Lynne Peterson hailed the package as providing much-needed, comprehensive funding relief that’s been a long time coming for the area.
“For almost three decades, the region struggled to figure out what to do,” Peterson said. “We have waffled as a region on what kind of region we want to be, whether we are pro-growth or anti-growth… While we’ve hedged on that in the last three decades, we’ve built a few great projects, but not a whole system.”
Metro formed a task force to plan the measure, made up of elected officials, transit and biking advocates, and business and labor representatives. Because of that planning process, mainstream business groups like the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) supported the measure—but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted PBA and other chambers of commerce throughout the area to recently change their stance.
In a letter sent to the Metro Council last week, those business groups asked Metro to wait a year before putting the measure before voters, citing the uncertain economic atmosphere created by COVID-19.
“The current proposed revenue mechanism is the worst possible new tax to propose at this specific time,” the letter reads. “There is no question that this measure will make it more expensive to employ people at a moment when we need to be doing all that we can to keep people employed and businesses fully staffed. Simply put, imposing a new payroll tax now will lead to further job losses in the short term, and will slow economic recovery in the long term.”
Because of COVID-19’s impact on the economy, Metro Council will propose delaying the actual collection of the payroll tax to 2022, though work on the measure’s projects will begin in 2021 if the measure passes. But Peterson declined to delay the ballot measure itself, writing in a response to PBA that “many in this region feel a sense of urgency” for projects included in the measure, particularly those that would improve safety and reduce carbon emissions. Using data of recent traffic injuries and fatalities, Metro estimates that safety improvements outlined in the measure will save 100 lives over the next 20 years.
The measure will also fund 120 miles of new roadway, 30 new MAX line miles, 45 miles of new sidewalks, 4,000 new streetlights, and 280 new marked crosswalks, per Metro’s calculations. At Metro meetings, the measure is often framed as a way to “put people back to work” after the pandemic, both by creating new construction jobs and making it easier for people to commute.
Schlosshauer said that Getting There Together doesn’t want to see a coronavirus-induced delay in passing the measure.
“From the coalition’s perspective, a lot of these transportation improvements are things people have been waiting literally decades for,” she said. “So the thought of delaying them at all, any further, is really disheartening.”
However, it’s not guaranteed that Get Moving 2020 will pass; a May poll commissioned by Metro saw support for the measure dip slightly below the 50 percent threshold among likely voters.
If the measure fails to pass in November, the area’s already overburdened transportation system could be further punished by future growth. At a recent Metro meeting, Metro transportation policy manager Tyler Frisbee showed a slideshow documenting how much growth the area has seen in the last 20 years:
“That growth has happened along the roads and places that we invest in as part of our transportation system,” Frisbee said. “If you want to have places for people to live, for people to work, you also have to have ways to move them around.”