Advocates of a transportation funding measure on the ballot in November are linking the issue to climate change—and the recent wildfires.
Advocates of a transportation funding measure on the ballot in November are linking the issue to climate change—and the recent wildfires. DAVID MCNEW/ Getty images

An unexpectedly contentious political fight over a Metro transportation funding measure is shaping up to pit big business interests against environmental concerns—and Portland area voters will have the final say in November.

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In early 2020, Metro’s $5 billion transportation funding ballot measure was on track to sail through the November election with the support of a broad coalition and little organized opposition. The measure, which if passed by voters will fund a new TriMet MAX line along with a bevy of safety, transit, and infrastructure improvements across the Metro region, had the support of local elected leaders, transportation and environmental advocates, and business interests, all of whom worked together to craft the measure’s project package.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, plunging the United States into a deep recession, shuttering local small businesses, and putting thousands of Oregonians out of work. Citing that unpredicted change in the economic landscape, big business interests now oppose the measure. They say the funding mechanism of a 0.6 percent payroll tax on most employers who have 25 or more employees would take too high a toll on Metro area businesses—and, by extent, their employees—during a financially precarious time.

In a recent advertisement, the business-backed opposition group Stop the Metro Wage Tax called the measure “a permanent new wage tax on struggling employers and nonprofits,” and urged voters to “prioritize keeping business open—and families afloat.”

But for a coalition of environmental organizations supporting the ballot measure, the transportation improvements it would fund can’t wait for a more economically convenient time. These groups are framing the measure as Oregon voters’ key chance to address climate change—an issue on which the clock is ticking—during the November election.

“This is the only measure on the ballot this year that is moving forward on climate,” said Micah Bishop of Sunrise Movement PDX, a group of local youth climate activists, at a Monday press conference. “This is what climate action looks like...This is the kind of investment we can make in our community right now that will save us in six, seven, 30—however many years.”

The measure includes funding for projects that should make it easier for people in Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties to forgo private car use—like a new MAX line connecting downtown Portland to the southwest suburbs, redesigns of major streets to give buses priority in traffic, and funding for Safe Routes to Schools, a program that creates safe walking routes for kids going to school. It would also make public transportation a more sustainable option by providing funding for TriMet to gradually transition from diesel to electric buses.

One overarching goal of those projects is to reduce carbon emissions in the area. The transportation sector is the largest emitter of carbon in Oregon, and as Oregon Climate Solutions Director Meredith Connolly said at Monday’s press conference, “we have to tackle our transportation sector if we want to reach climate solutions.”

Connolly went on to reference the devastating wildfires Oregon has experienced this month as an example of what’s at stake if Oregonians don’t support legislation that will help curb climate change.

“We all got that wakeup call those past couple weeks,” Connolly said. “The droughts and rising temperatures [caused by climate change] have dried out our forests.”

The environmental advocates supporting the measure also take issue with their opponents’ charge that the payroll tax would hurt employers and endanger jobs. Ranfis Villatoro, the Oregon State Policy Coordinator for BlueGreen Alliance, compared the measure to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which spurred economic growth during the Great Depression by buying materials and creating jobs by constructing public roads and buildings.

“I understand many voters are feeling the crunch,” Villatoro said. “We are trying to take a tried-and true approach than can help jumpstart the economy and put folks back to work.”

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He added that while projects will start immediately if the measure passes, the tax would not start until 2022, giving some time for economic recovery. According to the campaign backing the measure, 91 percent of Metro area employers would not be subject to the tax, because they do not meet the 25 employee threshold.

Businesses supporting the opposition campaign include local major employers like Nike and Intel—businesses that, as Connolly pointed out, “all have climate goals internally.”

“I wonder if those goals are platitudes, or if they’re real,” she said. “Because this measure’s real.”