• Shawn Dicriscio

In this week's issue, we take a look at the latest proposal for shoring up Portland's transportation finances. For months, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick have been beating the drum for a "street maintenance fee"—a monthly amount households and businesses would pay into a special pot, that would then be used on road maintenance (most of the money) and safety projects (less of the money).

The notion of the street fee has people torn. Even those who really want to see the Portland Bureau of Transportation get more money are sort of disgusted by the fee mechanism. That's because it's regressive, assigning the same charge ($8 or $12) to households regardless of income (though there is a low-income discount). Even Novick says he's holding his nose over the fee idea.

So it's worth asking: Where did the fee idea come from?

The most immediate answer is: People like it best! That's been Novick's argument, and he's got some numbers to back it up. In late March, PBOT paid $28,000 for a poll of 800 Portland voters, gauging how likely they'd be to support a street fee. The pollsters described all the bells and whistles the fee would help pay for—sidewalks, paving, crosswalks—and offered up options for how it might be collected.

Then, at the VERY end, polling firm DHM Research tacked on mention of six other possible funding mechanisms: a sales tax or income tax increase, for instance. According to the survey: between 51 and 52 percent of respondents said they'd support a monthly fee of $8 or $12. Between 50 and 70 percent of respondents signaled they'd be less likely to support the tax options.

  • DHM Research

Surprise! People liked the street fee, which they'd just been questioned about at length, more than the tax options mentioned as an afterthought.

The Mercury wanted to figure out if that process was flawed. Wouldn't the survey ALWAYS favor a street fee, given that design? So we asked around.

First, we spoke with Andrew Thibault, a Seattle-based principal at EMC Research. Thibault respects DMH, the firm that carried out the street fee survey. After looking it over, he said the methodology appeared sound. Yes, the stress on the street fee likely muddied the waters for other mechanisms, Thibault says, but that's an unfortunate effect of any poll design.

"The challenge here is: When you're designing a survey, you have to choose something to ask about first. That necessarily biases everything else you're going to ask."

Regardless of the order, Thibault says people are most-likely to support "whatever fee or revenue source is closest to what you're trying to fund." So a dedicated fee for street maintenance would probably always trump shaving a percent off people's income tax.

"Even if you put a city transportation fee along with a sales tax at the top of the survey, the city transportation fee would have ranked much higher than the rest," Thibault says.

We also reached out to Beth Daponte, a Connecticut-based social scientist who boasts all matter of prestigious appointments on her CV. Daponte took a far dimmer view of the survey, criticizing its layout and language.

Specifically, she took issue with a question asking about "important safety improvements to prevent injury and death."

"That sort of incendiary language can bias responses toward desiring investments," Daponte wrote in an e-mail. "Overall, the survey should have been structured differently and with an eye for reducing potential bias."

John Horvick, vice president and director of research, concedes the structure of the survey probably had an effect. But Horvick says, given the low support for other taxing mechanisms, he doubts any other options would have seen more than 50 percent support regardless of the survey's sequencing.

"We could have done cleaner tests on different funding mechanisms," he says. "Given the [funding] limitations we had, we wanted to get a straight-up test on priority of the street fee."

Which gets to an important point: DHM polled on the street fee, because that's what DHM was asked to test on.

"Those sorts of policy decisions are really driven by the commissioner and his staff and the citizen advisory committee," Horvick says. "That’s not really DHM’s role."

As we point out in this week's issue, this isn't Portland's first brush with a street fee. Back in 2008, then-Commissioner (and mayoral contender) Sam Adams seemed very close to pushing his Safe, Sound and Green Streets initiative through city council. The deal fell apart, though, when the state's petroleum lobby said they'd force the matter onto the ballot.