Portland voters will have the opportunity to renew the Fixing Our Streets gas tax this spring. Portland City Council voted unanimously yesterday to refer the 10-cent per gallon gas tax, which funds much of the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s (PBOT) basic maintenance and safety services, to the May ballot. 

Portland transportation leaders and advocates spoke strongly in support of the Fixing Our Streets program prior to and during Wednesday’s City Council meeting, emphasizing the importance of the work the tax has funded since it was adopted in 2016. That doesn’t mean they don’t see its flaws, too. 

Before the City Council meeting, PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps and bureau Director Millicent Williams led a press conference where they discussed the acute need for the gas tax to be renewed for another four years. 

“Voters have approved this program twice in the past and I believe they’ll support the Fixing Our Streets program for a third time [this spring],” Mapps said at the press conference. 

Mapps said the recent severe winter weather, which effectively shut down many of Portland’s streets for about a week, demonstrates how vital it is to fund PBOT maintenance services. 

“I think we're all still recovering from what was truly a horrendous snow and ice storm. We saw downed trees, power outages, and we also saw PBOT crews out there in the snow and the winds trying to help Portlanders get to where they needed to go,” he said. “We need the Fixing Our Streets program to make that possible.”

Mapps issued a strong warning about PBOT’s financial prognosis, should the gas tax fail to be renewed.

“If the 10-cent gas tax is not renewed, our challenges will be greater than ever and Portlanders will see a significant decline in the services PBOT is able to offer,” he said. 

The Gas Tax Dilemma 

PBOT has struggled with its funding sources for a long time, particularly for basic maintenance and street safety work. But the problem is especially dire now, even with the income from the current 10-cent gas tax. Why, then, isn’t the bureau proposing an increase in fees for the 2024-2028 proposal?

Although PBOT would benefit from increasing the tax amount in its next cycle, especially considering the rate of inflation since it was first introduced, program leaders decided that would be too much of a risk. When bureau staff conducted public outreach to gauge voter interest in renewing the gas tax, they found a majority of likely voters would support a renewal of the 10-cent tax for four years. Voters were not keen, however, on increasing the tax to 15 cents or adjusting it for inflation. 

“We did bounce the idea [of increasing the gas tax] around…But we learned people were happy with us being able to continue with what we have…there was not the appetite for us to increase,” PBOT Director Millicent Williams said at the press conference. 

Williams said PBOT is “looking at how we can stretch the dollar as far as we can” by utilizing state, county, and city funds, as well as leveraging the Fixing Our Streets income to apply for federal grants. 

Beyond recognizing the effects of inflation on what a 10-cent per gallon tax can fund, PBOT is aware of other limitations of the gas tax. The program creates a catch-22 problem for the bureau and its efforts to reduce single-passenger, gas-powered vehicle use in Portland. The more Portlanders biking, walking, using public transportation, and driving electric cars, the fewer dollars come in through the tax. This is the same problem PBOT faces with many of its other revenue streams, such as parking meter fees and state-allocated revenue from DMV fees, and the bureau wants to shift toward a more sustainable long-term funding model. 

In the meantime, advocates say Portland’s transportation system needs a stopgap. 

The severe snow and ice storm showed how critical PBOT’s gas tax-funded maintenance operations are. The city is also in the midst of a crisis of traffic violence, and needs all the funding for safer transportation infrastructure it can get. The Portland Police Bureau reports 75 people died on Portland’s streets last year, making 2023 the deadliest year for traffic crashes in four decades. 

The Street Trust’s executive director Sarah Iannarone spoke at Wednesday’s City Council hearing about how urgent this moment is for— at the very least— maintaining PBOT’s current funding level. 

“Before last week’s storm event, our streets were already struggling. They’re in worse shape now,” Iannarone said. “This is no time to be slashing PBOT’s budgets or critical staff working to address emergency conditions and the public health epidemic of traffic violence.” 

Iannarone also recognized the need to transition away from a transportation model that relies on funding from fossil fuel consumption. 

“PBOT continues to operate in a state of revenue crisis…and if we meet our climate goals and transition to more sustainable transportation modes, this crisis will only worsen,” Iannarone said, mentioning that in the 2025 state legislative session, there will be a critical opportunity to “come up with a path forward for the future of transportation funding.” 

“But until then…Portland cannot wait,” Iannarone said.

A small minority gave testimony at City Council against the proposal. Terry Parker, a former City Council candidate, argued PBOT fails to “listen to motorists…and include those voices in the public engagement planning process.” He said people who drive cars don’t benefit from the 10-cent gas tax because PBOT uses the funding for bus and bike lanes. (Fixing Our Streets funding pays for road maintenance services, such as fixing cracks in the asphalt and pothole repair, which benefits all road users, including people driving cars.)

Ultimately, and with the understanding that the gas tax is not the end-all, be-all for the future of Portland’s transportation system, all members of City Council voted to allow Portland voters to decide if Fixing Our Streets will be renewed for another four years. The Heavy Vehicle Use Tax renewal, to be decided on by City Council (as opposed to the voters), was passed to a second reading. 

Before wrapping up Wednesday’s hearing, Mayor Ted Wheeler— who has previously been at odds with transportation leaders about paying for PBOT with taxes— commended Mapps and his team at PBOT for coming up with a “smart proposal.”

“I think it threads the needle really well in terms of what our immediate needs are…but it also acknowledges a lot of people in our community are not in the mood to support increased or new taxes,” Wheeler said. “That's the risk that we take right now. But I don't see any rational alternative to referring this to the ballot and asking the public to support what they've already supported, so we can continue the work…that PBOT does.”