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Thursday, May 22, 2014

It's Not A "Street Fee." It's a "Transportation Utility Fee." Here's What it Looks Like.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, May 22, 2014 at 11:40 AM

Mayor Charlie Hales makes his pitch. Others squint into the accursed sun.
  • Mayor Charlie Hales makes his pitch. Others squint into the accursed sun.

If you read the Mercury's post from earlier this morning, you already know a lot about the fee Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick will propose to city council next week.

As described this morning— on a sun-kissed knoll in SE Portland and with a backdrop of police officials, business owners, active transportation types and various dignitaries— it's now officially being called a "transportation user fee," or TUF. And Hales and Novick say they've got the votes to put it into place in July 2015. (Denis wrote this week that Amanda Fritz is looking like the crucial third vote.)

As the Mercury was first to report yesterday, the proposal involves an $11.56 monthly fee on single-occupancy households, with a $8.09 monthly charge to low-income households. There's also a fee of $6.79 per month for households in apartment and condo complexes (with a corresponding $4.75 charge for low-income households). And businesses, other governments, nonprofit associations and, as the Oregonian first pointed out, even other city bureaus would be assessed a fee based on the trips they generate. Here's a calculator the city is urging people to use.

Singled out for not having to pay the fee? Parking lots, which the ordinance says "are not associated with services other than parking" and "do not generate traffic themselves."


PBOT's official handout on the fee says it will average about $40 million a year over the first five years, but Novick says that's a very conservative estimate, relying on a sort-of abysmal collection rate. He hopes the real number will be closer to $50 million a year.

That $10 million gap in certainty comes from the fact the proposal doesn't have any collection mechanism attached to it. Novick says everyone's "agnostic" at this point. But he and Hales both noted in the press conference how efficiently the city collects money via utility bills—which are roughly 98 percent effective, they said, compared to the much less successful arts tax collection. And the ordinance they've written is explicit that the proposal is a "utility fee," with "utility customers" on the hook to pay. So even though Novick's been up-front in recent months that attaching the fee to water/sewer bills was anathema to many Portlanders, it's clearly still a possibility.

"That will be part of a conversation that will extend beyond the next couple of weeks," he said.

In the mean time, Hales and Novick will put their proposal (which, remember, has the votes to pass) before the city council in a week. The following week, council could pass the measure. Again, it wouldn't kick in until July 2015.

You might not have a chance to vote on the TUF, but Hales and Novick are offering voters an olive branch of sorts. They say they'll put a charter amendment on the November ballot, allowing Portlanders to stipulate money raised by the fee "will be used for transportation purposes."

"There's a history of funds moving from one purpose to another," said Hales. "We think we're making progress in rebuilding [public] trust."

A reporter from the Oregonian asked Novick after the press conference if the November vote wouldn't largely be symbolic, since the city would likely use the money for transportation regardless of the outcome.

"It might sound symbolic to you," he said, "but to the general public I think it's critical."

There is, of course, always the possibility Portlanders will vote on the fee. As we wrote about yesterday, a very similar street fee proposed by then-Commissioner Sam Adams in 2008 died after business interests threatened to refer it to voters. That proposal polled better than the new TUF, but Adams decided he couldn't win in a vote.

City hall staffers have reached out to the folks who killed Adams' plan, including oil industry lobbyist Paul Romain. Those conversation are "ongoing" sources tell the Mercury, but Romain says his clients are still deciding whether to fight the new fee.

"Some of those businesses that were frustrated before are still frustrated because they don't want to pay a new fee," Hales said. But both he and Novick were on message, as they have been since last year, about what they say is the sorry condition of Portland's roads.

'We have a representative form of government in this country and city," Hales said. "This is one of the times when we need to step up and do a difficult thing."

If voters don't like it, Novick said, both he and Hales are up for re-election in 2016. "They can throw us out."

That $11.56 base fee, by the way, isn't arbitrary. It's the same transportation fee Oregon City charges each month, and would tie us with the OC as having the largest-such fee in the state.

Novick said after this morning's press conference the amount was picked not only because it fell into the target range. He and Hales were also keen on avoiding criticisms along the lines of: "This is one of those 'only in Portland' things." And he cribbed a line from the mayor about how "11:56 is four minutes to midnight. Our transportation system is also about four minutes to midnight."

Twenty-eight other Oregon cities levy similar fees, and Hales, asked why he wouldn't put the TUF before voter, suggested each of those cities had instituted a fee through a governing body, not by a vote. The mayor of Oregon City, Doug Neely, was even on hand to attest that, yes, the transportation fee was a great thing.

"We had a lot of push back, incidentally, when we did this," said Neely, the only official present wearing a Hawaiian shirt. People warmed up to the fee, he said, when they saw their streets improving. "It's been very successful for us."

PBOT's got a tentative plan to spend 53 percent of the fee money on street maintenance, 44 percent on safety improvements, and three percent on stuff like retrofitting bridges for earthquakes and subsidizing TriMet. But that's just a guideline, Novick said. It could change. Here's the breakdown:

Screen_shot_2014-05-22_at_11.26.56_AM.png

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