ON JANUARY 6, Commissioner Steve Novick had just heard a glowing recommendation for one new source of money for Portland streets when he let fly with another idea.
The 10-cent gas tax Novick wants to put before voters in May, cheered on by the City Club of Portland at the meeting, would be a small step toward solving Portland's ever-growing road maintenance backlog—reportedly $64 million over four years, though estimates suggest the city should spend more than seven times that much.
So Novick unveiled another concept he's been shopping around recently: a new sales tax on the metal-studded tires some drivers slap on at the first sign of frost.
"Studded tires impose inordinate wear and tear on the roads," Novick said at the hearing, noting he'd spoken to the heads of Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties about the idea. "All of them expressed interest in that."
That's maybe an overstatement. Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, for instance, vaguely remembered Novick mentioning something about the tax, spokesperson Dave Austin told me, but "recalls no detailed discussion."
But Novick's convinced it can work. His idea, still short on specifics, hinges on all three counties in the Portland region passing the tax at once, since he says "people would cross county lines" to buy cheaper tires.
Whether or not it comes to pass, the idea makes sense. Damage from studded tires costs Oregonians roughly $8.5 million a year according to the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)—a figure that doesn't account for damage to city roads. People should be willing to pay for the privilege of issuing that punishment to our streets.
Interestingly, the fuel tax Novick hopes to put before voters in May will let another type of road destroyer slide. The tax won't apply to diesel vehicles over 26,000 pounds, even though those huge trucks grind streets to rubble.
"We don't want to let diesel off the hook," Novick told me last week. But he said officials at ODOT had impressed upon him that truckers would simply bypass Portland when needing to fuel, leaving local truck stops in the lurch.
It's not a scientific finding. ODOT spokesperson Kevin Beckstrom called it "an anecdotal thing that was passed on, and someone took it as gospel truth." Of 14 Oregon cities that impose fuel taxes, just one absolves diesel.
It's not hard, of course, to envision truckers venturing beyond city limits for cheaper fuel. But let's be clear about the damage they're causing city roads. According to a recent report from the City Club, "one heavy truck does roughly as much pavement damage as 10,000 cars." They should pay for roads, just like studded tire users.
Which is why you might be hearing about yet another proposal soon. The city's exploring taxing diesel fuel as it leaves enormous storage tanks on the Willamette River, a so-called "load fee" Novick thinks can apply even to trucks that barely drive in Portland.
He expects some outcry, but thinks the idea will fly. "We need to figure out a way that freight pays."