THE PHONES started ringing in mid-June.

While the Oregon legislature bickered over a proposal for new road funding that would eventually implode, City Commissioner Steve Novick figured it was time to start flipping through his Rolodex.

The Portland Business Alliance got an early call. Then came a laundry list of progressive groups. The street fee debate, that bulky albatross of Novick's tenure in City Hall, was coming back to life.

"He's been following up with almost everyone," says Noel Mickelberry, executive director of Oregon Walks. "Just asking, 'What do you want to see happen?'"

What, indeed?

When Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales pulled the plug on tense discussions over new money for Portland's battered streets earlier this year, they explained that the state's leading Democrats were also trying to find road money, and didn't want to step on anyone's toes.

But it was hard not to read a relieved exhalation in the announcement, too. Hales and Novick had been scrambling to find some proposal—any proposal—that would satisfy various and rabid constituencies, and their plans seemed to change from day to day.

The city spent tens of thousands of dollars on polling—some of which it seemed to promptly ignore—and explored a litany of proposals that inevitably raised hackles.

"The problem hasn't gone away," says Novick, referring to the more than $900 million over 10 years it's estimated the city's roads need. "There are a lot of people who agree we need to do something, I just wanted to re-engage."

Here's what's potentially fascinating about that re-engagement: Right now, it's Novick's alone.

During last year's debate, the commissioner was joined at the hip with Mayor Charlie Hales, and it seemed that two sets of hands on the steering wheel had contributed to the street fee's rudderless course. How might it look if only Novick had charted the direction? Hales hasn't indicated any interest in re-igniting the street fee discussion, so we might soon find out.

Novick sort of dismisses his conversations as tentative. There are no hard proposals being mulled or X's being drawn on city hall calendars. But many of the groups Novick's reached out to have long made their ideas clear.

Last November, eight progressive groups—folks like Oregon Walks, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and OPAL Environmental Justice—pledged their full support if council would propose taxing well-off Portlanders for road money (an option that had proven obscenely popular in polling).

They never got their chance. Hales and Novick instead floated a more-tepid income tax, then promptly switched it out when the Portland Business Alliance threw a tantrum.

Now, Novick's reaching out to progressive groups again, and sources say the organizations are meeting in private to chart possible next steps.

Then again, Novick's also reaching out to the PBA, which is always doing conference room scheming of one sort or another.

So maybe we're about to see the same mess all over again. Or maybe Novick will follow his own lead this time around.

"I personally favor a progressive tax," he says. "I know there may be vigorous opposition to that."