There’s been some anxious energy surrounding Portland’s 10-cent gas tax, which is on the ballot for renewal in the upcoming primary election. The tax funds the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s (PBOT) Fixing Our Streets maintenance program, going toward street paving and safety projects like traffic signals, sidewalk installation and repair, and street lighting. And given PBOT’s precarious financial situation and major maintenance challenges, the bureau can’t afford to lose this income.

PBOT’s budget outlook isn’t as dire now as it was last fall, mostly thanks to a much-needed windfall from the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund (PCEF). The bureau is also banking on some extra funds coming in from increased parking enforcement and parking meter inflation. But PBOT is still heavily reliant on the gas tax, which bureau leaders expect will take in about $75 million over the next four years.

Considering 77 percent of Portland voters endorsed the gas tax in the 2020 election, it should be a shoo-in for renewal, right? Well, it’s probably going to pass, having netted endorsements from across the political spectrum, including the Oregonian’s editorial board, the Portland Business Alliance, Willamette Week, all five members of Portland City Council, and us at the Mercury. Better yet, a city poll last fall found most Portland voters would say “yes” to the 10-cent-per-gallon renewal. 

Regardless, there appear to be growing concerns about the tax, and about our transportation funding system in general. Many of these concerns make sense. For instance, one big concern with the tax is that PBOT’s reliance on it makes it hard for the city’s transportation leaders to fully commit to weaning off fossil fuels, considering the effect that would have on the bureau’s income. It also fails to reap any earnings from the increasing share of Portlanders who drive electric vehicles. 

But some perspectives on the gas tax would benefit from deeper investigation. 

Back in September, during a PBOT budget work session with Portland City Council, Commissioner Rene Gonzalez—who prides himself on commuting downtown by bike and (formerly) on the MAX—asked a question encapsulating one half-baked argument about the gas tax. (I should note that Gonzalez voted to put the gas tax on the ballot.) 

“Are drivers subsidizing me in our current revenue model? I pay for my bike in maintenance, but I don’t pay a fee to bike everyday,” Gonzalez asked PBOT Director Millicent Williams. “Am I being subsidized by drivers?” 

Williams replied in the affirmative: “Yes, you are.” 

This is simplistic. Sure, people who commute by bike or public transportation don’t technically pay a fee to use the roads. That’s because their mode of transportation doesn’t damage the city’s infrastructure or the environment. A gas tax serves a purpose—to mitigate the negative impacts of cars. And PBOT's 10-cent gas tax is pocket change.

It’s also shortsighted to believe that investing in public transportation and bike infrastructure only benefits those using it, as the Taxpayers Association of Oregon claims in its argument against the gas tax—the only argument in opposition included in the city voters' guide.

"Politicians wasted $134 million on the Tilikum Crossing bridge and $19 million on the Blumenauer bridge and neither bridge allows cars to use it to relieve traffic congestion," the memo states. "Portland uses transportation dollars to remove perfectly good, well-used and paid-for roads and converts them into seldom-used bus/bike-only lanes." 

Wouldn’t drivers also benefit if there were fewer cars on the road, reducing traffic? How about breathing in cleaner air or ensuring the planet is habitable for their grandchildren?

The reality is that driving a car results in a lot of negative, expensive side effects. One relevant example is the damage cars do to street pavement and other infrastructure, necessitating the existence of PBOT’s Fixing Our Streets maintenance program in the first place. On a more global scale, personal automobiles have contributed massively to the climate crisis, both through direct carbon emissions and the effects of decades of car-oriented land use. And then there are the traffic crashes, which kill tens of thousands of Americans annually and grievously injure many more. 

It can be painful for car drivers to be honest about these extra costs, because owning a car is already so expensive—a recent study shows the average American spends 20 percent of their monthly income on car expenses including loans, gas, maintenance, and insurance. Honestly, that sucks big time!! But very little of that spending actually pays for the aforementioned societal costs. And programs like PBOT’s gas tax don’t affect people who drive electric vehicles, which are much better for carbon emissions, but still damage roads and contribute to traffic fatalities. 

Some people will make the argument that no one should be punished for poor American transportation planning, which forces them to drive a car. That is undeniably the case in many places, but it would be easier to change that with some extra funding from increased driving fees. It's also important to make those charges as equitable as possible—for example, road use fees can be scaled by income, and higher vehicle registration charges can be a percentage of the price of the vehicle (so people buying expensive cars pay more). 

Other places around the world show us it can be done. In all countries with robust public transit and bike infrastructure, owning and driving a car is more expensive than it is in the United States. Paris recently approved increasing parking fees for SUVs to nearly $20 an hour. In the Netherlands—famed for its amazing bike lanes—gas is taxed at the equivalent of $3.60 per gallon. These fees serve the dual purpose of disincentivizing car use and raising funds to pay for other modes of transportation. 

So, vote “yes” on the gas tax. But more will need to be done to see real change on Portland’s streets.