Portland street fee future not so simple

Road construction (file)
Road construction (file)

PORTLAND, Ore. (The Tribune) — Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick have rejected a simple street maintenance fee in favor of a yet-to-be-finalized funding source that appears to be growing more complicated every day.

The council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a plan to submit a measure to voters on the Nov. 4 general election ballot that would restrict the money it raises to transportation projects, including ones for maintenance and safety.

But the measure does not authorize the money to be raised or say where it will come from. Ideas under discussion include household fees, a gas tax, a motor vehicle registration fees, a sales tax, a tax on business profits or a combination of all of them. The council is scheduled to decide all of that a week after the election.

The simple fee is the one adopted by the Tigard City Council in 2003. Called the street maintenance fee, it charges each household $5.83 a month. Businesses are charged $1.31 for each of their parking spaces, up to a maximum of 250 spaces. Businesses without parking lots are charged for five spaces a month. Religious institutions are charged half the business fee, up to a maximum of 125 spaces.

The fee generates about $2 million a year from Tigard’s much smaller residential population, business community and religious institutions. The money raised by the fee can only be spent on street services and such right of way improvements as medians and planters.

Projects are prioritized by the Public Works Department and listed in advance. Residential fees pay for projects on residential streets. Fees on businesses and religious institutions pay for projects on commercial streets. The department submits regular reports on the projects and the condition of Tigard’s streets to the council. The fee is evaluated and recalibrated every five years.

Parking spaces

Tigard’s schedule was developed by city officials and the Northwest Grocery Association. Association President Joe Gilliam says his organization was concerned the original Tigard proposal would have charged grocery stores more than their fair share. The fees were based on estimates of motor vehicle trips generated by different types of businesses, based on a manual prepared by the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

Gilliam says the estimates for grocery stores were unrealistically high.

“We were able to compromise with Tigard and it approved the fee that is still in place today with no opposition,” he says.

Two business association leaders say their organizations are willing to work with Portland city officials on the transportation funding proposal. Both Sandra McDonough, president and chief operating officer of the Portland Business Alliance, and Brian Alfano, president of the Venture Portland board, say all ideas should be considered, including elements of Tigard’s program.

Gilliam has told Hales and Novick that grocers would support such a fee in Portland. Hales and Novick rejected it, however, saying it was not appropriate and would be controversial.

“Portland has a lot of businesses without parking spaces,” says Novick. “So you’d have to have a system where you’re looking at actual parking spaces for some businesses but ‘attributed’ parking spaces for other. I can’t imagine that you could convince people that was fair — either the ‘actual’ group or the ‘attributed’ group would be sure that they are being ripped off.”

Novick also questions whether such a fee would raise enough money to meet Portland’s needs. He and Hales want their funding mechanism to raise at least $50 million a year. They have not said how much of that money will be spent on maintenance projects, however. The proposed ballot measure only says that most of the funds will be spent on maintenance and safety projects.

Sorting through proposals

The original proposal developed by Hales and Novick is controversial, too. Called the transportation user fee, it was based in part on polling, feedback from a citizens advisory committee, and comments generated at  series of public forums and business meetings. Unlike Tigard’s fee, the Portland fee was designed to help fund a wide range of transportation projects, including street maintenance, safety improvements like new sidewalks and crossing signals, bike and pedestrian paths, and mass transit projects.

Despite serving a broad range of constituencies, the original proposal generated so much opposition at the first hearing that Hales and Novick pulled it back for further work. They also agreed to explore a wider range of potential funding sources. Low income and small business discounts are also being proposed. Two more advisory committees are being appointed to help sort them out. And Hales and Novick still have not said how the money will be collected.

The original proposal called for households to be charged a fee of $11.56 a month, with low income discounts for homeowners. That was reduced at the first hearing. Nevertheless, a number of residents and low income advocates complained the fee was still too high and the discounts did not apply to renters in multifamily buildings.

The business, government and nonprofit fee was originally proposed to be based on the Institute of Transportation Engineers trip-generation data. Novick says it is more accurate than parking spaces. But at the first hearing, several small business owners said the estimates were unrealistically high for their businesses. And a representative of the grocers association says the estimates overstate the number of trips generated by grocery stores.

The council has set Nov. 12 as the deadline for considering the revised proposals.

In the meantime, the Tigard fee keeps collecting money every month for street maintenance projects.

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