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Monday, January 5, 2015

Once Seen as Likely Third Vote for Street Fee, Fritz Now Says She Won't Support Current Plan

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Jan 5, 2015 at 3:54 PM

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  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCOIS VIGNEAULT

This post has since been updated with fresh comments from Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Steve Novick, as well as Mayor Charlie Hales' office.

The street fee political math in city hall—never a simple matter in all the months of wrangling starting last spring—may have just become fatally complicated.

The plan's one-time likely third vote, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, has announced this afternoon she won't support Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales' latest proposal for raising millions in new transportation revenue, a new, income-moderated fee based on residents' gas consumption. Novick and Hales announced that fee last week, after scrapping an income tax, in a bid to buy silence from key opponents like the Portland Business Alliance.

Fritz, however, says the new proposal, which would raise more than half of the nearly $42 million sought by Hales and Novick, isn't progressive enough. She wants an income tax. She also wants that tax to go before voters in 2016, something Novick has repeatedly mused about doing. She's taken the rare step of announcing her opinion ahead of a public hearing planned, at her behest, this Thursday night.

“I have many friends and constituents for whom even $3 per month would mean skipping a meal, or being unable to buy a bus ticket to get to work,” she said in a prepared statement. “Three dollars per month is $36 per year, more than the Arts Tax which is also regressive. We should learn from past experience, and we should not solve one problem by making another struggle worse.”

Her lack of support means Hales and Novick will have to scramble just to get their street fund proposal out of the building—well before considering whether business groups or upset citizens might try to refer it to the ballot. Without changes to win Fritz over, Hales and Novick now have to win over either Commissioner Dan Saltzman or Nick Fish, both of whom have said they think the proposal should go before voters without a referral.

That doesn't appear to have changed for Fish. A call to Saltzman's office has not been returned. It could be that a sweetener calling for a referral of the street fund in 2020 may give Saltzman the room he needs to change course.

Update 4:20 PM: Hales' spokesman, asked about the mayor's reaction, has written back explaining that Hales doesn't have one.

Yes, I just heard. No, I don’t think we have any reaction to her announcement.

UPDATE 4:32 PM: Fritz, in an interview, says she broke from her tradition of waiting for a hearing to give her thoughts in part so the people who show up Thursday night can be more pointed and strategic in how they craft their comments. She pointed to plans, in the latest version of the street fee, to refer the whole thing to voters in 2020 and called out Saltzman and Fish as potentially being willing to change their minds on saying no.

"This one has a referral," Fritz said, "that's maybe where folks need to focus their energy."

Saltzman's office has yet to return another message seeking comment. Fish has also immediately declined to comment.

Novick, in comments shared with me and Andrew Theen of the Oregonian, was keeping a stiff upper lip about it all. He said the announcement "doesn't change our plans." The chance of defeat had always loomed, he says.

"I said last week that I don't know if the latest fee proposal will get out of council," he wrote. "I thought and think I had/have a responsibility to put something forward that might be enacted before 2016. So we'll bring it forward, and if it loses, we'll start working on Plan B."

Novick's always been sanguine that making a move to appease the Portland Business Alliance, by ditching an income tax he and Hales had come up with in the fall, risked losing the support of progressive allies who already didn't think the more progressive option Novick and Hales scrapped was progressive enough.

Fritz says her issues "were pretty clear along along." She thought about the fee proposal when it was first put forward, and told them she didn't think she could support it—even while promising she'd look at it more deeply.

And when she told Novick and Hales what she'd decided, before announcing it?

"Both of them," she said, "said 'I'm not surprised.'"

Read Fritz's full statement below.

Continue reading »

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Latest "Street Fee" Proposal Scraps an Income Tax. Sort Of. Unless There's Opposition

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Mon, Dec 29, 2014 at 12:03 PM

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  • Illustration by François Vigneault

Bowing to pressure from Portland's business community, City Commissioner Steve Novick just announced a residential income tax is out—for the time being—as Portland struggles to find millions in new money to fix the city's roads.

Instead, Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales will revert to a "user fee" on Portlanders—one that's still tied to income. But Novick is explicit, in his announcement, that that's because income can be shown to have real ties to gasoline consumption.

“Gasoline use is one proxy for ‘road use,’' Novick says in the announcement, "and gasoline use varies somewhat by income level.”

As such, the user fee model tosses out exemptions for Portlander's at the low end of the income scale. People making $13,000 or less would have to pay $36 a year, with the fee topping out at $144 a year for people earning $82,000 or more. Here's the whole thing:

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Novick says the model is good for $23 million a year. An existing fee structure for businesses is still on the table, and would rake in about the same.

The move away from an income tax has been rumored for weeks, and it's the latest sign Hales and Novick are striving to push through a proposal that won't be referred to voters. The Portland Business Alliance had railed against an earlier income tax proposal—one that was cheered by progressive groups throughout the city—and promised to put the tax to a vote.

The new "user fee" proposal will get a hearing before the city council on January 8. A vote is likely January 14.

But Novick's also making clear in today's announcement an income tax isn't completely off the table. In fact, if the new proposal is stymied—either by failing to pass a city council that's fairly divided on this matter or being referred to voters by some opposition or another—Novick says he'll put all his weight behind a progressive income tax. Under that proposal, couples making less than $35,000 would be exempt from paying, and wealthy Portlanders would assume a bigger share of the burden.

Here's what it would look like:

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And here's Novick's take:

“My personal preference is for a progressive income tax, which is also the most popular option among Portlanders generally. But pursuing that option would involve a campaign that would not end until at least May, and possibly November of 2016 – which means postponing actual work to repair streets and make them safer."

It shouldn't be long now until we hear street fee opponents highlighting exactly what is terrible about this latest proposal.

For now, I've appended Novick's full announcement after the jump.

(Side note: I'm writing this from Michigan. You have no idea about bad roads until you've been to Michigan. I'm being completely serious.)

Continue reading »

Friday, December 19, 2014

Hales' Aide: Street Fund Income Tax Will Be Replaced by a User Fee

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Fri, Dec 19, 2014 at 12:12 PM

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  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCOIS VIGNEAULT
Commissioner Steve Novick's promised "gut check" when it comes to the final form of his and Mayor Charlie Hales' controversial $43.8 million street fund—will a scrapped "compromise" residential income tax either become more progressive or revert back to a user fee?—has apparently already arrived.

Josh Alpert, Hales' director of strategic initiatives, says that question has essentially been decided.

"We're going to go back to more of a user fee," Alpert told me this morning. "It's probably the fastest way of actually getting projects going."

That would be a key concession that mollifies one of the most important opponents of that previous plan for a modified, capped income tax: the Portland Business Alliance.

The PBA had put the income tax high on its list of grievances—with its members and leadership complaining that any new tax ought to be put up for a public vote and not merely enacted by city council. If the income tax had remained in the package, the PBA told me as recently as yesterday that it would have teamed up with others looking to refer to the street fund to voters and fight what might have been a bitter campaign. (Not that others, like oil lobbyist Paul Romain or citizens involved with the No Street Fee grass-roots effort wouldn't be free to launch their own efforts—even if those efforts, like a push earlier this year to create a new water district—might suffer from a lack of access to PBA members' wallets.)

Update 2:30 PM: Novick, returning a message seeking comment, stopped well short of sharing Alpert's seeming bullishness over a return to a user fee. He says he's still working to see whether progressive groups might go to the mattresses to help pass the income tax he prefers. That support for a ballot fight, if it's strong enough, could change city hall's cautious calculation that avoiding a fight via a less-desirable revenue package is better than waging a big fight over something better—and losing.

"I told progressive allies that I need to hear from them on what resources they think they can bring to a campaign for a progressive income tax," says Novick. "So I'm waiting to hear from them." ///end update

In the Oregonian, this morning PBA boss Sandra McDonough mulled over the strong possibility a fee might re-emerge and said she thought "it would be nice to get to a solution" and hinted that the PBA might live without an immediate public vote. Instead, she mentioned plans to build a six-year sunset into the street fund plan—and suggested that would be an appropriate time for the public to weigh in.

Alpert says the shape of a sunset provision is "still being discussed" but confirmed that an automatic referral was still on the table. When the council first amended the street fee proposal to include a sunset, the idea was to have the next council choose whether to continue the revenue measures, cancel them, or send them to voters.

But he confirmed the PBA has decided to compromise on something else important to city hall. Despite the PBA's demands that a larger share of the money raised for street repairs and safety projects be spent on paving maintenance, Alpert says the current proposed breakdown, which would still see 56 percent of available revenue spent on maintenance, won't change.

"The mayor's made it clear he's not interested in changing that allocation percentage," Alpert says. "That stuff is largely done."

He expects the council will take up the revised proposal on January 8—followed by a final vote on January 14. There may be some attempt to add a fourth or fifth vote to the package—Commissioner Amanda Fritz has long loomed as Novick and Hales' third vote—but Alpert also says that's not where Hales' office's energy will be focused. Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman have both been publicly opposed to pushing the revenue measures through solely with council support—and it's not clear whether the prospect of an automatic referral after the 2020 tax year will soften their stance.

"It's time to figure out where the building is," Alpert says of Portland City Hall. "We have been spending the entire year focused on making sure we have enough public support to do this.But we don't get to do that if we can't get something out of our building. It would be fantastic to have a unanimous vote. But we are focused on making sure we can vote something out of the building."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Radio Cab Makes a Calendar to Raise Money for Charity. (Uber... Does Not)

Posted by Marjorie Skinner on Thu, Dec 18, 2014 at 3:44 PM

+1 for Radio Cab if you're playing along with the rest of the city's game of pros and cons in the wake of Uber's invasion. The argument has been made that one should continue to use local taxi companies like Radio's services in order to keep money in the local economy, and then there's the matter of the Radio Cab Foundation, which is "supported, in part, by the drivers and staff of the Radio Cab Company in Portland, Oregon," and does such things as provide Portland families in need, including the elderly and infirm, with Christmas turkey dinners.

They've also release a 2015 calendar to help fund the project. The 20 bucks you spend on it will equal out to one such meal—900 of which were delivered (by cab, natch) last year. You can buy one here.

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  • Radio Cab Foundation

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Novick, Hales Scrapping "Compromise" Version of Street Fund Income Tax

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Dec 17, 2014 at 2:41 PM

Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales just announced they're scrapping half of their $43.8 million Portland Street Fund—a "compromise" residential income tax that was tweaked and tortured to win support from skeptics including the Portland Business Alliance but only earned, instead, deep opprobrium.

Instead of the tax they unveiled November 10, which had a cap of just $900 a year no matter how much someone earned and relied on awkward brackets instead of percentages, Novick and Hales now say they're looking to choose between a return to a user fee first proposed in the spring and a truly progressive income tax like the kind sought by street fund allies among transportation and poverty justice advocacy groups.

The income tax, as well as a refusal to send the package out for a public vote, earned the ire of the PBA and has petroleum lobbyist Paul Romain promising to refer the package to voters.

"The Portland Business Alliance and its allies would rather burn the city to the ground rather than adopt anything remotely resembling an income tax," a slightly bitter Novick said during a brief hearing in city hall this afternoon.

The hope is to air a new proposal by the end of the year, with a rare night hearing planned for either January 7 or 8. The $20.8 million business fee would join the revised income tax at that point. A final vote on both elements would follow January 14.

"We have not at this point resolved which of those directions we're going to go," Novick said.

A vote had already been tentatively pushed to January 7 earlier this month. The council last week added amendments exempting micro- and home-based businesses and formally added those amendments to the package right before Novick and Hales signaled they'd be changing course.

The timing of next month's hearing could be in flux up until tomorrow, however. The council's also considering a nighttime hearing on its involvement in the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, something that could be pushed into February. Several major initiatives, like Airbnb restrictions, urban renewal changes, and police body cameras, have also been delayed from this month into January.

The call for a night meeting came from Commissioner Amanda Fritz and was enthusiastically seconded by Commissioner Nick Fish and then Novick.

Before closing his remarks, Novick one-upped a past reference to Casablanca—part of a spat he'd had with Fish over the street fund months before. This time, it was a nod to The Maltese Falcon and Sidney Greenstreet's portrayal of Kasper Gutman.

If he has to go to Istanbul for an income tax a rare statue, then so be it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

New Portland Streetcar Audit Questions Punctuality, Frequency, Ridership

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Dec 11, 2014 at 12:01 AM

The city auditor's office popped the Portland Bureau of Transportation with a stinging right-hand jab back in April, releasing a report that questioned PBOT's management of, and spending on, the Portland Streetcar. This morning, the auditor's office finally followed that bracing right with a solid left hook.

In its long-promised followup to its first streetcar audit, the auditor's office's found PBOT has been overstating or falling short on some of the bedrock performance measures of the city's expanding streetcar system—namely that streetcars arrive late more often than the city says, that streetcars in some cases run almost half as frequently as the city demands, and that ridership is slightly lower than what the city says.

The audit says PBOT was "unaware" of its responsibility to report ridership updates to the city council starting after 2004—part of a promise that officials would increase streetcar ridership in exchange for $300,000 in parking revenues that could fund other transportation needs. (Overall, the streetcar costs PBOT $4 million a year, about 5 percent of its budget.)

The audit also takes aim at the streetcar as an engine for economic development, arguing hardly any "causal" data has been produced linking the streetcar with growth that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

Taken together, the audit's findings make for an ill-timed deluge of bad headlines about PBOT right when it's trying to win council approval for a $43.8 million "Portland Street Fund" that would raise new revenue for maintenance and safety improvements. The auditor's office hit PBOT with a similarly scathing two-parter nearly two years ago, releasing one audit on PBOT's budget (which is set by city council, let's not forget) and another on its proportionally reduced spending on paving—which has become a talking point in the street fee fight.

"We found PBOT did not systematically report on and manage to the city’s three stated goals for safe, reliable and cost-effective transit services," the new streetcar audit says.

Here's one of the three most interesting charts, showing the difference in reported ridership vs. real ridership. The audit questions the effectiveness of having people do fare surveys that lack teeth vs. real enforcement.

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The next chart points out that the city's reported stats on the streetcar's on-time performance dramatically exaggerate real performance, as measured with trip tracker data. The audit also points out that current policy on punctuality means a streetcar can show up five minutes late and still be considered "on time."

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Finally, the audit notes that the system's goal of 10-minute frequencies, important for a slow system like a streetcar, was never ever met according to data current as of the middle of this year.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Coming in March: Longer TriMet Transfers!

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 1:23 PM

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  • Wikimedia

Excellent news on the transit front: Beginning in March all that change you dump into your friendly TriMet bus goes a half-hour—and untold miles—farther.

TriMet's board of directors today approved a transfer increase from 2 hours to 2.5 hours system-wide. That means a 2.5-hour window from the time you buy your ticket to the time you board the last valid bus or train.

The change is a response to a years-long fight by local advocacy group OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. The group has argued it's a necessary step, in light of TriMet increasing fares, cutting routes and, in some cases, decreasing transfer times for riders.

"When first proposed," TriMet said in a statement this morning, "it was during the great recession and at a time when the agency was cutting service and raising fares to fill budget gaps, and it was unable to pursue it."

But OPAL kept on, arguing the change was vital.

"After raising fares and eliminating the zone-system in September 2012, TriMet now has an exclusively time-based fare structure that is inherently inequitable," the organization wrote in a report last year. "A person who travels only two miles on transit must pay the same as a person who travels twenty. People living in or traveling to areas where service frequency and density are poor also get less value from a flat fare"

OPAL Executive Director Jonathan Ostar uses the example of a low-income Portlander—those same folks increasingly being pushed out to the city's farthest reaches. Bus lines in said reaches often don't come with the frequencies of more central routes, meaning that low-income Portlander, who is possibly most reliant on transit, potentially gets less service for their fare than someone living closer in.

"The longer transfer time really does help people who are transferring from a low-frequency line to a high frequency line," Ostar says. "The board recognized that we have to do something extra on the time side."

In fact, this change was expected nearly a year ago. The TriMet board took up a transfer-extension proposal last December, and passage was expected in January of this year. But the proposal diedwhen OPAL filed a civil rights complaint against TriMet with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), alleging the agency had essentially raised fares on vulnerable Portlanders by cutting some transfer times for weekend routes.

The FTA largely agreed with OPAL in June, and since then the organization has worked with TriMet to bring the transfer extensions back to the table. They'll take effect March 1.

TriMet says the change may slash revenues by $1.2 million. But the agency also acknowledges longer transfers could bring new riders to the system.

"We think that in a matter of a few years it will pay for itself," Ostar says. "For once we actually saw the board take a risk to the benefit of riders."

Democracy in Action! Further Amendments Push Street Fund Vote into January

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 11:49 AM

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  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCOIS VIGNEAULT
Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick are damned if they do—and maybe just as damned if they don't.

After taking up an amendment this morning to their $40 million-plus "Portland Street Fund" proposal—along with more promised amendments next week—Hales says a vote on the package, meant to fund paving and transportation work, a final vote will now slip into January.

That kind of deliberate refinement, playing out in a series of public hearings, is a bit unusual and refreshing for the city council—where offline meetings often serve well for hashing out the fate of amendments and revisions. And already the city council has been accused of rushing into a proposal advocates and critics don't see as fully cooked—all without seeking approval of voters.

But for others, the continuing delays to make tweaks demanded by community members—a vote had been set, at various times for December 10 and December 17—are somehow yet more evidence the council is blundering around instead of trying to listen.

Today's amendment does two things: It will exempt home-based businesses that gross less than $50,000 annually and it will charge a $3 monthly base fee for all other small businesses who gross below that threshold. But it also comes with cost that changes one of the top lines of the proposal. The exemptions will cost $2.2 million in anticipated revenue, knocking the $46 million goal down to $43.8 million.

And that means the "street fund," split between an income tax and business fees, will no longer be evenly split between the two.

"It's a clumsy step, but it's a step in the right direction," economic consultant Eric Fruits—a leading foe of the street fee—allowed during his testimony in council today. Fruits also suggested that gross revenues don't take into account that some businesses, like convenience stores, might gross $1 million but still be seen as failing.

Continue reading »

Monday, December 8, 2014

The City of Portland Has Already Sued Uber

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Mon, Dec 8, 2014 at 4:36 PM

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If you're one of those cheering because Uber breached Portland, maybe get that ride while you can. The City of Portland this afternoon asked a Multnomah County judge to put the brakes on the ride-share company's nascent operations here, arguing the popular service is contravening more than 20 rules and regulations, and may be putting its passengers at risk as a result.

In a 20-page filing [pdf] in Multnomah County Circuit Court, the City Attorney's office also argues California-based Uber is flouting state law by not having a valid Oregon business license.

“Our main concern is public health and safety, because the state invested in the cities the responsibility to do that,” Mayor Charlie Hales said in a statement. “Beyond that, though, is the issue of fairness. Taxi cab companies follow rules on public health and safety. So do hotels and restaurants and construction companies and scores of other service providers. Because everyone agrees: good regulations make for a safer community. Uber disagrees, so we’re seeking a court injunction.”

And for all Uber's crowing about giving the people what they want, the city says Uber provides its service inequitably because customers need a smart phone or computer to benefit.

The suit came hours after Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Leah Treat sent a cease and desist order [pdf] to Brooke Steger, a Seattle-based manager for Uber, ordering the company to halt services "until such time as appropriate permits are obtained and Uber is in full compliance..."

It's unclear if Uber drivers are operating in the city this afternoon. The Uber app, on a recent check, showed only one driver, on Interstate 84, but said pickup was available within 5 minutes at a downtown location. The company hasn't answered our inquiry.

Update, 5:43 pm:
An Uber spokesperson got back to us with a "statement." It doesn't directly address whether drivers are still operating within the city, or really anything we asked. It's actually very, very unhelpful, other than to point people to an online petition the company started. Thanks, Uber.

Here's the statement: "Uber has received a tremendously warm welcome from riders and drivers in and around Portland. We appreciate the way residents have welcomed Uber into the Rose City, their support illustrates why it’s time to modernize Portland transportation regulation. In less than 4 hours, nearly 7,000 Portland residents have signed the petition in support of Uber and we remain hopeful that the city will listen to Portlanders who want safe, reliable, hassle free ride options now."

Original post:

By forcing itself on a city with stringent taxicab oversight, the lawsuit argues Uber has violated a host of laws, and is liable for hefty civil and criminal penalties. According to the Oregonian, the city has yet to actually issue a ticket for those violations, but is monitoring Uber's activity for potential citations. Some examples of the lawsuit's claims:

In Portland, all taxicab and for-hire vehicles must pass regular inspections showing that they are safe, clean and comfortable, tasks which the drivers themselves typically must complete although they do not earn fare revenue. Similarly, drivers are prohibited from providing taxi or for-hire service unless their vehicles are equipped with a digital security camera, and fare meter. The company is required to carry commercial liability insurance and vehicle insurance. Upon information and belief, the vehicles dispatched by Uber do not comply with these requirements, avoiding the costs imposed on drivers and other companies.

And:

Uber drivers are drawn from the general public and use personal vehicles which are personally insured. Uber does not require Uber drivers to purchase commercial auto insurance or have local business licenses or permits.

And:

Uber exempts itself from any duty to provide fair and equal service. Uber only dispatches drivers to customers who can pay by credit card and have used its internet application or website to request a vehicle. A phone call request from a customer is not accepted, nor is cash. Uber admits it seeks to serve wealthy, technology-connected passengers, leaving those with less means in technology to be served by the regulated taxicab and LPT drivers.


And:

Uber’s operations pose an immediate, real and substantial threat to the public; including but not limited to, the fact that each passenger Uber diverts is being exposed to a risk of harm from drivers who do not have lawful commercial licenses or commercial insurance, and are screened only by Uber and not by local authorities.

In its statement, the city is also asking YOU, the conscientious and law-abiding citizen, to report ride-share activities you come across. Hit the jump for the full thing.

Continue reading »

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Uber Brings Ride-Sharing to Portland Without Permission; Novick Threatens Hefty Fines

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Fri, Dec 5, 2014 at 5:18 PM

Uber's hardly been quiet about its lust for Portland—ardor that was reciprocated this week when several business leaders sent a letter to city council demanding a refreshing of the city's taxi rules so the ride-sharing business could swoop in without risking fines and punishment.

The city's transportation bureau, meanwhile, hasn't been so hot to trot. Same for the city's transportation commissioner Steve Novick.

Reports are coming in, citing Uber officials, that the company is forcing the issue—launching its service in Portland over the objections of city officials. In a statement issued a few minutes ago, the Portland Bureau of Transportation reacted to those reports, by accusing Uber of preparing to "start offering taxi service in Portland illegally on Friday night." And Novick, in that statement, has promised to level "civil and criminal penalties against Uber and its drivers for operating without required permits and inspections." (The Oregonian's Joseph Rose has taken credit for breaking the news about Uber's insurgency to city hall.)

He also cast some aspersions at Uber's business model, which it's already taken to the city's suburbs in a bid to make its arrival here seem inevitable. Uber, based in San Francisco, offers an app that allows people looking for rides to connect with private drivers looking to provide rides.

It promises efficiency—and it's become a popular part of the growing (and wealthy-favoring) "sharing economy," alongside outfits like Airbnb. But it's also intensely controversial.

Uber's prices "surge" during peak hours, which can sometimes surprise riders (like a woman who paid almost $400 for a ride on Halloween). Their drivers also are largely unregulated, at least compared to taxis and licensed towncar operators. The company's also battling labor and PR issues.

“There’s nothing sharing about this so-called ‘sharing economy’ company: They want to profit in Portland without playing by the same rules as existing cab companies,” Novick said. “People who pick up passengers for Uber in Portland should know that they are operating illegally and could be subject to penalties. Public safety, fairness among competitors and customer service are our top priorities. Unlike permitted drivers, Uber drivers do not carry commercial insurance, putting Portland customers at great risk.”

PBOT's statement goes on to highlight the fines any Uber drivers operating illegally in Portland might face.

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The bureau's in the midst of studying the city's taxi regulations, in part because of the clamor for services like Uber. A recent study detailed by the Oregonian showed Portland's demand for taxis spiking on weekends and going unfulfilled. The city's typically been reticent to flood the market with permits. It took a battle and a lengthy study, back in 2012, for newcomer cab outfit Union Cab to win permission to operate in Portland.

Commissioner Novick is convening a task force to reexamine existing taxi regulations and see if those regulations should be restructured while protecting consumers and drivers.

“We have told Uber and Lyft that they are welcome to offer ideas for regulatory changes,” Novick said. “Uber has chosen instead to break the law.”

KGW is reporting that the app went live at 5 pm, citing regional manager Brooke Steger.

Uber's regional manager Brooke Steger said the app began working at 5 p.m. and drivers were able to immediately begin offering rides.

The City of Portland, which previously said it wouldn't change its regulations to allow Uber to operate like cabs, has not yet altered the rules. Uber launched anyhow.

"I don't think we're going against the city's wishes," Steger said. "We hope the city embraces this and listens to their constituents, the people of Portland and drivers partnering with us."

The O's report says Mayor Charlie Hales almost immediately called Uber after Rose called for comment the ride-sharing company's plans.

Within minutes, Mayor Charlie Hales had David Plouffe, one of President Barack Obama's most high-profile campaign operatives and now an Uber vice president in charge of strategy, on a speaker phone, Novick said. "I told him that if they're just going to come in and flagrantly violate the law, we'll throw the book at them."

Brooke Steger, Uber Northwest general manager, said the city's threats shouldn't dissuade its hundreds of local drivers from trying to make a living. "We are 100 percent behind the drivers and we support them every step of the way," Steger said. "We hope the city doesn't take that kind of action.

Read PBOT's full statement after the jump.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Novick: If Street Fund Doesn't Pass Now, Progressive Tax in 2016 Has to Be "Viable Option"

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Dec 3, 2014 at 4:05 PM

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  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCOIS VIGNEAULT

A final vote on Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales' $46 million "Portland Street Fund" plan has been moved back to December 17, in light of a handful of amendments put forward this morning with several more potentially due before next week.

The new date was announced before the Portland City Council unanimously agreed to make two substantial changes to the plan—an income tax and business fee meant to fund paving, maintenance, and safety fixes. The council agreed to consider a "sunset" clause long-sought by some opponents and potential supporter Commissioner Amanda Fritz. It also agreed to weigh firm assurances that the city won't use the new money as an excuse to cut its current paving spending.

And a few more changes could be in the offing, due for a hearing next Wednesday, December 10:

• Novick is working with Commissioner Nick Fish on an amendment giving relief to "micro-businesses."

• Novick's working with Fritz to tweak the income tax—it's based on brackets that levy a flat amount for everyone in a given income range, and Fritz has suggested shifting to percentages for each range. That would alleviate a criticism that people at the top of a range, paying a flat amount, would pay a smaller percentage of their incomes than people at the bottom of a range. That also could lead to fewer brackets overall.

• Novick also says there's some discussion about making sure it's clear and written in stone that both sides of the street fund must not only survive a council vote this month, but also a likely ballot challenge by oil lobbyist Paul Romain and the Portland Business Alliance.

That's not a light threat, in light of polling (which you could quibble with) showing voters strongly supportive of a vote, but also with deep reservations about the substance of the plan. And Novick tells the Mercury he's got some other thoughts about how to proceed if that ballot challenge should come to pass and then prove successful.

Given that groups advocating on transportation and poverty issues have already called for a more progressive option—along the lines of a tax on wealthy Portlanders that received 60 percent support in a city-funded poll earlier this year—Novick says he'd have to take that "logical" option "extremely seriously."

And if he did, he said, it would land on the November 2016 ballot, in the heat of a presidential campaign that would draw the most progressive electorate possible.

"We will keep hammering and hammering at this," Novick said of himself and Hales, calling them both "committed" to solving Portland's transportation funding shortfall. (The city would need to spend $91 million a year on paving every year for a decade to catch up on its maintenance backlog—not including making other improvements.)

"If we're not going to get there in any other way," Novick says of raising street money, cautioning that he was now just speaking for himself, not Hales, "then going with a progressive option that polled at 60 percent support has to be a viable option."

"I've told the PBA I don't want to re-fight Measure 66[, a 2010 measure that raised state income taxes on the wealthy]," Novick says. "But if we have to, we have to."

Monday, December 1, 2014

Morrison Bridge Suppliers Tell County: Sorry, You Accepted Our Flawed Product

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Mon, Dec 1, 2014 at 12:29 PM

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If you've somehow missed it, the Morrison Bridge is falling apart after a recent rehab. The Multnomah County-owned span is now closed about one day a month, so workers can identify which of the new polymer panels are coming undone, cracking, or shifting about. (Having recently walked over the bridge while covering a Ferguson protest, I've got to say it doesn't look so hot.)

It's the sort of situation that lends itself to a lawsuit, and the county's currently sparring with a bevy of contractors, engineering firms, and suppliers in court, trying to get some money back for the $5 million project. County officials say the contractor that did the job was incompetent, and that the materials supplied for the bridge rehab were flawed.

Now, the suppliers of those materials are admitting those flaws in court documents, and saying the county's powerless to do anything about it. In a motion filed last week, Virginia-based Strongwell Corporation, which manufactured the problematic stuff, says the county knew it had cracks, patches of missing material, and irregular dimensions—and accepted it anyway.

"Strongwell will agree that all three of these issues, arguably, could be due to problems in manufacture of the FRP [Fiber-Reinforced Polymer] in Strongwell's plant in Virginia," reads the filing. "This motion is based on the fact that the County initially 'called out' all three of these items and initially rejected these materials because of these issues. But after some testing and other investigation, the County agreed the issues with these materials were of little or no significance."

Such acceptance, Strongwell argues, frees it from any liability in the bridge troubles. Another company, North Carolina-based ZellComp, which designed the deck system, signed on to the same reasoning. Both companies are asking a judge to toss the county's claims.

We've known for months that the county decided to use the flawed decking, despite noting the cracks and other problems posed risks (officials demanded a $50,000 discount instead of better deck panels). This is the first time, though, that that acceptance has been used as a potential barrier to the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial early next year.

As we reported earlier this month, the county's trying to decide how to best fix the bridge, which engineers believe could begin deteriorating at an even faster pace at some point. Officials initially wanted to try an innovative aluminum surface, or a brand new steel grate (the same type of deck that was replaced with polymer in 2011). But state and federal officials have opposed both those ideas.

So the county's considering trying the polymer again.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Here's Why PBOT's Thinking of Doubling the City's No-Sit Sidewalks

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Fri, Nov 28, 2014 at 4:01 PM

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As we reported in this week's issue, the city's quietly considering a big increase in the amount of downtown sidewalks that largely ban sitting or lying down. In the map above, the red block faces are already designated pedestrian-only zones, where the homeless are banned from sitting or lying from 7 am to 9 pm daily (most downtown sidewalks have a designated portion on the margin where sitting is permitted). The yellow block faces are those the Portland Bureau of Transportation is considering adding to the list at the request of the Portland Business Alliance.

Those changes would ban sitting in some popular spots. Powell's would be ringed by no-sit sidewalks, as would Pioneer Courthouse Square and much of the area around Pioneer Place. The Safeway at SW 10th and Jefferson would see no-sit designations on one side. And the enormous food cart pod near SW 10th and Washington would be thrown in, too.

Advocates for the homeless say they're deeply concerned about the potential expansion (in some ways it's a retread of the fight over Portland's vanquished sit-lie law). But it could have been much bigger. PBOT's currently considering an expansion of a little more than 30 block faces, which would about double the amount of no-sit sidewalks downtown. The PBA was pushing for 90 more block faces, effectively barring city from the entirety of central downtown. Here's what that would've looked like.

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The problem with most of those requests, PBOT found, is that they didn't have basis in the safety concerns the city's supposed to go by when designating no-sit sidewalks— factors like proximity to light rail or busy streets, narrow sidewalks, and heavy foot traffic. Here's the bureau's lengthy analysis of all the PBA's asks [pdf].

What's unclear at this point is how PBOT will move forward. Director Leah Treat has the power to make the sidewalk designations without any public input, and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick told the Mercury he's not sure if there will be additional public process before the call is made.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

So Much for a "Portland Street Fund" Détente

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Tue, Nov 25, 2014 at 2:49 PM

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  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCOIS VIGNEAULT

Last week, during a heated public meeting over a new tax to fund Portland's roads, Mayor Charlie Hales invited one of the plans' most strident critics to talk privately about alternatives.

In a brief back-and-forth, Hales' and petroleum industry lobbyist Paul Romain toyed with the idea of meeting to discuss a funding mechanism that might not cause oil interests to try to kill the tax (by putting it up to a public vote). It was hopeful, sort of—a potential end to the acrimony that's stymied a street fee twice already this century. But it wasn't to be, apparently.

Check out the acrimony laid bare in an e-mail exchange between Romain and Commissioner Steve Novick. Novick sent it to reporters this afternoon, letting us all know: "I really don’t understand what his deal is."

From: Novick, Steve
Sent: Tuesday, November 25, 2014 11:53 AM
To: 'Paul Romain'; Dietz, Susan
Cc: Alpert, Josh; Pierce, Tera; Haynes, Marion; Romain, Danelle
Subject: RE: Scheduling with Mayor Hales

Dear Paul -

You say you are interested in funding transportation by cutting other programs funded by the City. Last week I sent you a link to the City's budget documents and a list of Budget Office staff, and invited you to contact them with any questions. In your absence, Danelle is very welcome to take me up on that offer. Meanwhile, I hope you will both review the Mercury's excellent summary of the City budget; here's a link to that. You will see that I was not lying when I told you that most of our General Fund money goes to police, fire and parks.http://m.portlandmercury.com/portland/where-the-money-goes/Content?oid=12946748

I am surprised by your sudden interest in broader City budget issues, because as far as I can tell, you have not shown such an interest before. If you thought the City had plenty of money, I would have expected you to oppose both the Children's Levy and the Arts Tax, on the grounds that the money for those programs could be provided through pre-existing revenue sources. But I do not recall your opposing either tax; you certainly did not file Voters' Guide statements against either. When the City was making budget cuts in 2013, hundreds of Portlanders turned out to argue for their favorite programs; I don't recall you showing up to advocate for cuts. When I quite publicly argued, in the last City budget cycle, that we should cut certain programs, like the mounted patrol, and allocate some General Fund money to transportation, I don't recall you joining that discussion either.

But if you do have specific suggestions about cuts that we could make, I am certainly ready to listen. You had an interesting suggestion last week, about applying the local income tax to nonresidents who earn income in Portland. I have asked the Revenue Bureau to explore the legal and practical feasibility of that idea. Since our proposal will only address a portion our transportation maintenance and safety needs, additional revenue from your idea would be quite welcome.

Danelle, I am cc'ing you so you can follow up in Paul's absence.

Happy Thanksgiving!



From: Paul Romain
Sent: Monday, November 24, 2014 4:47 PM
To: Dietz, Susan; Novick, Steve
Cc: Alpert, Josh; Pierce, Tera; Haynes, Marion; Romain, Danelle
Subject: RE: Scheduling with Mayor Hales

I am leaving on vacation, so I cannot schedule any kind of meeting prior to January. The meeting will be relevant only if the City Council does not adopt either of the two tax measures. The meeting should include a number of people who are interested in road maintenance and should involve a detailed review of all of the city spending. It is not a meeting to try to convince a few of our clients to support two fatally-flawed tax measures.

We thought that the initial task-force meetings this Summer were going to include this kind of review. We were prevented at the initial meeting from looking into any other portion of the budget other than the Transportation Bureau.

We do not support either of the two taxes proposed and will work with many others in the community to refer both measures if they are not referred by the Council.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Street Fee Live Blog! The Street Fee Live Blog! EEEeeeeeeEEEEEE!

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Nov 20, 2014 at 2:11 PM

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  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCOIS VIGNEAULT
It's been a brisk 175 days—just under half a year—since Portland City Council last gathered for a public hearing on Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales' intensely controversial push to raise millions in new revenue for street maintenance and safety projects.

It was a five-hour-plus ordeal. It started out with a now-familiar recitation of the city's transportation-funding woes (namely, that no matter why and how we've wound up here, we need at least $91 million a year to erase a billion-dollar maintenance backlog—never mind what else we need to grow a transportation system that works even better). It was then filled with confusion, outrage, and, notably, tepid support from advocates who should have been allies. At the end of it all, bitterness and questions from city commissioners who wanted a public vote, not something passed by the council, hovered like a dismal coda.

The next weekend, Hales and Novick decided to pull the plug and pull the thing back for more work. Much has changed in the months that have elapsed—changes finally unveiled anew on November 10.

What was called the "Transportation User Fee" is now called the "Portland Street Fund." It will raise just $46 million, not $50 million. It will tilt more toward paving than toward projects in places like East Portland. And instead of flat fees for residents and large fees for businesses, Hales and Novick now want an income tax and a modest business fee.

The threat of a ballot referral still looms. Many in the business community still can't support the new idea, even after working to shape it. And advocates have lined up, given that entrenched opposition, to urge city hall to make whatever emerges even more progressive. Essentially: Why play ball if the naysayers won't play fair?

Hales started today's hearing, a little after 2, by talking about his original attempt to raise this cash, back in 2001, a familiar dirge. Then he mentioned Sam Adams' attempt in 2008. And business opposition—and continued struggles in Washington DC and Salem to do their part to raise cash.

"Here we area gain," Hales said, not mentioning his formerly brown hair like he sometimes does when launching into those remarks. "The same three options are before us today. Those are: to do this, to do nothing, or to do something else."

Leah Treat, the city's transportation director is starting to speak. Hit the jump for updates!

Continue reading »

The PBA's Dislike of a Progressive Street Fee Might Result in a More Progressive Street Fee

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, Nov 20, 2014 at 12:14 PM

Obstinacy is a treacherous tactic. The Portland Business Alliance might soon find that out.

Since Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick unveiled a new proposal to raise millions for the city's roads, the PBA has been unwavering in its opposition. Sure, the organization was at the table as the plan was hashed out—and even played a central role in softening it a bit, so that wealthier Portlanders aren't shouldering as much of a burden as they might—but Portland's business community now has put its foot down. It's vowing to put the proposal before voters, should Portland City Council pass it next month.

Now, a mounting throng of transportation and environmental organizations are pushing back.

As we reported yesterday, the group OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon penned a letter suggesting that, if the so-called Portland Street Fund is going to voters, it should go in a different form—one that's going to be far-less palatable for the PBA.

OPAL's not making that suggestion alone. Today, seven more organizations have signed on, pledging their support for a more progressive version of the tax in the long slog of a campaign, if needed. Those groups: 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Coalition for a Livable Future, Oregon Walks, Oregon Environmental Council, Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, and Upstream Public Health.

The letter, as Denis pointed out, doesn't list a specific alternative to the current proposal. But it's certainly possible these folks are thinking of a popular plan to tax Portlanders making more than $125,000.

Once again, the salient parts of the letter:

Should a proposal eventually be referred to voters, our willingness to join the “Yes” campaign and invest resources in upholding this proposal will likely depend on whether the City Council passes a truly progressive package, one that is fairer for the middle class and places a stronger emphasis on safety.

Given our support, and given that the concessions afforded to the business community have not secured the level of support intended, we recommend that City Council amend the proposal to ensure that working families and middle-class households are not burdened at the expense of the wealthiest among us, who can clearly afford to pay more.

By the way, public comment on the proposal is scheduled for 2 pm at Portland City Hall. Denis is going to slog through it so you don't have to, so check back for our liveblog.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Advocacy Group Lays It Out for Novick, Hales: Make Street Fund Tax More Progressive, or We Might Not Back You in Ballot Fight

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 5:01 PM

One of the advocacy groups prominently backing Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales' controversial bid for millions in new transportation revenue has just issued a soft ultimatum concerning that support—given the likelihood that certain business interests have promised to put the plan before voters next spring.

Ditch the more spread out income tax that's been cooked into the "Portland Street Fund" proposal as drafted—a concession that failed to win support from the Portland Business Alliance despite months of talks and negotiations—and replace it with a tax that's far more progressive.

That demand comes from OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, in the form of a letter (pdf) from its executive director, Jonathan Ostar. He's almost certainly referring to a proposal, floated in a poll this summer, that would have raised up to $55 million just by taxing Portlanders making $125,000 a year or more. A very eye-opening 60 percent of respondents said they liked that idea.

OPAL's letter also seems to be asking Hales and Novick to undo another concession handed the PBA: tilting the balance of spending from the "Street Fund" back toward safety and away from maintenance.

Should a proposal eventually be referred to voters, OPAL's willingness to join the "Yes" campaign and invest resources in upholding this proposal will likely depend on whether the City Council passes a truly progressive package, one that is fairer for the middle class and places a stronger emphasis on safety. Given our unwavering support, and given that the concessions afforded to the business community have not secured the level of support intended, we recommend that City Council amend the proposal to ensure that working families and middle-class households are not burdened at the expense of the wealthiest among us, who can clearly afford to pay more.

Ostar has already told me he sees the PBA's opposition as "a stab in the back." I quoted him saying so in Hall Monitor, out today, which also suggested that Hales and Novick revert to the more progressive, and apparently more popular, tax plan floated this summer.

A ballot fight—if it's framed around rich Portlanders' distaste for an income tax that helps poor people—might actually turn out okay for Hales and Novick.

Unlike in 2008, Portland's not in a recession. We approved another local income tax, the $35 arts tax, in 2012. The city also went big for 2010's Measures 66 and 67, which raised income taxes statewide in defiance of the business community's sorrowful wails.

"City hall starts with an advantage," says Tim Hibbitts, a partner at respected local polling firm DHM Research—that is, assuming opponents don't successfully frame a campaign around waste and mismanagement instead.

"It's a liberal city," Hibbitts says. "It's not averse to taxes."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Portland Business Alliance "Cannot Support" Revised Street Fee Unless Income Tax Dies

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Nov 10, 2014 at 2:11 PM

The Portland Business Alliance says it "cannot support" the revised $46 million Portland Street Fund unveiled today by Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick—mostly over Hales and Novick's bid to raise half that cash through an income tax without asking voters' permission first.

"Unfortunately, the plan issued by city leaders on Monday falls short of the Alliance’s goals for this program, particularly in terms of the city’s long-term accountability for the program and acknowledgement that all Portlanders benefit from a well-maintained transportation system," PBA president Sandra McDonough has written in a draft blog post obtained by the Mercury.

Update 3:43 PM: Despite the PBA's lack of support for the revised plan, the PBA's spokeswoman, Val Cunningham, just told Dirk VanderHart the PBA doesn't have a position on whether the proposal ought to be referred to voters, something petroleum lobbyist Paul Romain has threatened.///

McDonough goes on to list four main issues, starting with the income tax and winding up with concerns over how the revenue will be spent, on maintenance vs. safety. The PBA, in a letter in October, had demanded 75 percent whatever's raised be spent on paving maintenance. This morning, Novick and Hales said 56 percent would be spent on maintenance, with about $15 million a year devoted to paving over the next three years.

• The proposal calls for a new city income tax, the first in Portland’s history without voter approval. The Alliance opposes a city income tax and has urged the city to reconsider a user-fee structure.

• Under this new plan, almost half of Portland taxpayers will be exempt from paying even a modest amount, contrary to the long-standing tradition of a user-pay system for street maintenance. This is a result of the structure of the proposed new income tax and the city’s inability to tax public retirement incomes (although private retirement income would be taxable).

She's also not happy there's not going to be a sunset built into the plan or any timetable for a referral in several years. Hales specifically said he didn't support things, in part because he doesn't think it's right to tie the hands of a future council—but also because he doesn't envision a world where the city won't need this money to keep fixing its transportation system.

The city needs $91 million a year to catch up just on paving needs—this would only provide some of that money. Hales is hoping to pressure the Legislature this year into raising the state's gas tax, which would give ODOT more money for projects in Portland and increase the city's cut of the gas tax.

The proposal includes no sunset date, which means the taxes and fees could continue beyond the point at which the backlog is fully addressed without reconsideration of the need.

Finally, it is not clear that a preponderance of the newly raised revenue would go toward paving maintenance, which was the initial impetus for creating this new program.

McDonough nods to changes this summer meant to try to ease the PBA's (and others') indigestion. But she closes her piece by tying the PBA's support to the demise of the income tax—urging instead a flat fee paid by additional low-income Portlanders. Almost half of the city's income earners would be exempt in the current proposal.

That's a tough offer. Without the tax, Novick and Hales might wind up losing any hope of getting a third vote Commissioner Amanda Fritz. And Hales and Novick are loath to consider a public vote, something else the PBA wants—even if that might buy support from Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman.

The Alliance has always supported the notion that residents and businesses should share equally the cost of maintaining the city’s transportation system, and we have steadfastly argued that the package as a whole should move forward in one piece. Therefore, we cannot support the package until the city addresses the issues in the residential component of the overall revenue plan, as well as the other problems we have identified.

Read the full piece after the jump.

Continue reading »

New, "Bearable" $46 Million "Street Fund" Emerges—But Will Hales and Novick Have the Votes to Pass It?

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Nov 10, 2014 at 12:43 PM

Transportation director Leah Treat, left, and Mayor Charlie Hales listen to Commissioner Steve Novick listing safety projects that would be funded with the new revenue.
  • Transportation director Leah Treat, left, and Mayor Charlie Hales listen to Commissioner Steve Novick listing safety projects that would be funded with the new revenue.
Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick appear to have ironed out their lingering differences over revisions to the city's controversial "street fee"—holding a chart-filled press scrum this morning where they unveiled a $46 million blend of income taxes and business fees newly christened as the "Portland Street Fund."

The proposal looks a lot like the rough draft floated during a public session last month, with changes largely based on the months citizen and business groups spent this year dismantling and reassembling Hales and Novick's original plan—which was tabled in the spring amid outcry. (The new plan is detailed at OurStreetsPDX.com.)

Businesses, facing hundreds and thousands in monthly fees under a plan built around how many trips they generated, would now pay dramatically less, from $3 to $144 a month. Those fees, once paid through utility bills, now would be tacked onto business license tax accounts. And residents, initially facing flat fees capped just below $12 a month, now will pay a graduated deductible income tax (with credits for children) meant to spread the burden to Portlanders who earn more money.

Revenue would be split evenly between the two collection methods. About $15 million would be spent annually for the next three years on paving, with millions set aside for safety projects including new sidewalks and crossing improvements. Overall, 56 percent of the cash raised would go toward paving and maintenance, officials said. And there are no plans for a sunset or public vote.

But what's emerged, officials made clear, is hardly the stuff of angels' horns. It's an amalgamation of compromises meant to muster just enough love from supporters—and sap just enough discontent from critics—in hopes of dissuading anyone from mounting a campaign to kill the proposed revenue plan at the ballot box next spring.

Novick budged on a $200 monthly cap for wealthy Portlanders, settling on $75—which is much closer to the $50 Hales wanted. Both agreed to spend a little more than half of the new money on maintenance, bowing to the concerns, as we reported this morning, of the Portland Business Alliance. The PBA had wanted three quarters of the money spent on paving.

"This is something they can accept," Hales said of Portlanders, "even if it's not something they love. This is a much more bearable proposal."

That acceptance, however, is anything but certain—and with not much time before a public hearing November 20 and a vote in early December. Hales says he hopes he wins five votes. But Hales and Novick don't yet have a third vote and may have to make some further changes to their plan if they want that to change.

And there's the threat of a legal challenge, if not the threat of a fluoride-style ballot referral. The city has insisted it can pass an income tax without going to voters first. Not everyone agrees, as the Mercury was first to report this morning.

“We are looking into legal issues with these taxes. The Portland City Charter requires a vote of the people to implement any new tax. See Section 7-110," Paul Romain, lobbyist for the petroleum industry, told the Mercury in an email. Romain helped kill a 2008 effort to raise transportation money led by then-Commissioner Sam Adams. "Both of these assessments are taxes, and a vote is required.“

Update 3:30 PM: Romain is now telling reporters the city is correct. About its ability to pass the income tax absent a referendum. More importantly? He's also promising we'll have a referendum on the transportation revenue proposal whether Hales and Novick want one or not.

Also as we reported this afternoon, the Portland Business Alliance has said it "cannot support" the fee as currently constructed. But that's a step or two from saying it will actively work to oppose the fee or push for a referendum.///

Update 3:50 PM: Dana Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales, noted that Romain's threats of referral, as reported by Willamette Week, mentioned unnamed clients.

"For whom was he speaking? Who were those clients?" Haynes said.

Whoever they are, he went on, Hales would "love to meet them" and talk turkey. He said Hales poked his head into his office "not five minutes before" to make that clear.

"We're not in the business of not telling people about this plan," Haynes says. "We're excited about this plan."///

Continue reading »

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What the Portland Business Alliance Wants from the City's Street Tax/Fee/Fund

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Mon, Nov 10, 2014 at 10:06 AM

In less than half an hour, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick will unveil their revised plan for the Portland Street Fund (née "transportation user fund" (née street fee)). It's a big moment, because we'll see, for the first time, how Hales and Novick plan to balance their own differences as well as stake out a sweet spot between competing interest groups.

Those differences clouded a public council work session on the fund/fee/tax last month, the first general airing of efforts to levy a new income tax on residents alongside a dramatically reduced and graded fee for businesses.

How much would rich Portlanders have to pay? Novick was siding with advocacy groups and calling for a $200 cap, in part to spare poorer and middle-income Portlanders. Hales floated a $50 cap, heeding concerns from business groups and others who didn't want a tax at all, just a graduated fee. And how much should be spent on paving vs. safety projects? The idea, initially, was to spend roughly the same on both, with some new money carved out for unpaved roads.

It's been a month since that session, and there's been a lot of back-and-forth behind closed doors to try to figure some of those things out, and win at least three council supporters—ahead of what's now been advertised as a December 3 vote.

Those details could be the difference between a referral to next spring's ballot or quiet, grudging acceptance by critics. That's all provided Hales and Novick manage to thread the needle. To divine a sense of how difficult that might be, the Mercury reviewed a letter from the Portland Business Alliance from last month outlining where that lobbying group stood heading into the homestretch.

The good news for Hales and Novick? The group has declared itself okay, for the most part, with the revised non-residential fee.

We believe the non-residential mechanism is vastly improved and has reached an acceptable structure. While there may be technical issues that still need to be ironed out related to LLCs, we believe mechanisms are available to do so. We very much appreciate the sincere effort to accommodate the impact of the transportation user fee on businesses large and small.

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But it also made clear it doesn't support an income tax, let alone one that charges super-wealthy Portlanders $2,400 a year (less after tax deductions!). It especially doesn't like that the city has to exempt government pensioners.

On the residential side, our strong preference is for a fee that is tied to utilization of the system, as was originally proposed. We support an exemption for low income residents with the least ability to pay. The transportation system has always been funded based on use of the system, or a proxy for use of the system through gas taxes and registration fees. We are concerned with efforts to move toward an income tax based approach with all the inequities that brings, such as the issue with those with PERS income.

Moreover it wants far more money spent on paving, from the tax but also from existing revenues, despite polls that indicated safety projects as key to citizen buy-in.

Today's news, announced starting at 10:30, ought to reveal some compromises on both fronts. Check back for updates. Hit the full PBA letter after the jump!

Continue reading »

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Novick Wants an Extra $4.5 Million (at Least) for Street Fixes

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Oct 1, 2014 at 4:52 PM

No one figured Portland's expected budget surplus this fall—a mere $8.9 million—would go very far once the city's myriad bureaus and offices submitted their blitz of funding requests ahead of this fall's annual city budget adjustment. But city hall's already-meager expectations might need to shrink just a little bit more.

At least half of the surplus, some $4.5 million, could be sent over to the Portland Bureau of Transportation for "back-to-basics maintenance and safety activities," according to budget documents posted today—helping Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales realize a promise to invest more city money in paving and safety work before pushing through a controversial new street fee.

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And that may not be all that's in store for PBOT, which Novick oversees. That $4.5 million would come on top of any money allocated for paving under a city policy that requires at least 25 percent of leftover city cash be spent on major maintenance projects. PBOT has submitted a separate list of projects, including paving work, that will be added to a ranking of needed work citywide.

"That's a number that's been talked about for a while," Chris Warner, Novick's chief of staff, said of the $4.5 million. Which is true. City sources have said for a couple of weeks they'd expect to see that level of a request and that it would likely attract council support. Hales' office has yet to respond to a question asking if it helped craft that number, although it seems safe to guess the mayor supports it, meaning Hales and Novick would need just one more vote on the five-person council to get their wish.

Novick, seemingly under duress from persistent Oregonian questioning, had floated $7 million as the city's "skin in the game" for the street fee fight—but he made clear not all of that money, if that's where he actually ends up, would come now. Some might come during the proper budget process for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The documents show Novick's hardly alone in putting forward major requests for general fund cash. The police, parks, and fire bureaus, overseen by Hales, Amanda Fritz, and Dan Saltzman, respectively, have submitted requests listing millions in maintenance and personnel wish lists—millions more than the city has available. Even one of Novick's other bureaus, the Bureau of Emergency Management, is making a pitch for another big-ticket item: nearly $2 million to build out a fueling station at the city's westside disaster response center.

Continue reading »

Friday, September 19, 2014

What Does A More Walkable, Bikeable Old Town Look Like? Find Out Next Month.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Fri, Sep 19, 2014 at 10:44 AM

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  • Better Block PDX

As we report in this week's Mercury, bar-heavy Old Town has had it with the weekend street closures the city's thrust upon it since late 2012. Three separate groups—a bar coalition, the neighborhood association, and a task force convened by the mayor—have now recommended the closures end.

But then what?

It's too early to say how the recommendations will be received by Mayor Charlie Hales and the rest of city council, but pretty much everyone agrees there's no going back to uninhibited auto access to the so-called "Entertainment District" (NW 3rd from Everett to Burnside, and NW Davis and Couch from 2nd to 4th). Because even though the barricades bring issues (reduced business, high numbers of tows, and an eerie ambiance to name a few) cops also say they've helped cut crime by something like 30 percent [pdf].

As a middle ground, the groups looking at the problem have suggested, among other things, leaving a single lane of NW Third open during peak bar periods, and providing more food and seating options in the lanes that remain closed. Those proposals bear a likeness to a "street festival" atmosphere talked up by Mayor Charlie Hales last year—one that's so far failed to materialize.

If all goes well during a trial period, Old Town stakeholders say they'll push for permanent fixes to the district: narrowed streets, more crosswalks, better bike lanes—much of which they hope will be paid for by the city. A more pleasant, more walkable Old Town/Chinatown, they say, can spur some of the positive change the neighborhood has long been seeking.

As to what that looks like in practice: We're about to get a taste. The Old Town Hospitality Group (that bar-owner coalition I've been talking about) is teaming up with local transportation activists Better Block PDX early next month to give Old Town a sense of what more-livable streets might look like.

From the morning of Friday, October 3 to the night of Sunday, October 5, Better Block plans to cut NW Third down to one lane between NW Everett Davis and SW Ash (it's currently three lanes). The group will create a bike lane protected by planters in the space, bring out seating for public use, and install at least one temporary crosswalk. All with the city's blessing, of course.

"It’s really an opportunity to reimagine what that district can look like," says Boris Kaganovich, a TriMet engineer and Better Block member who's running point on the project. More importantly it's a way to show Portlanders how better planning can improve the urban landscape in a way that's temporary enough to not draw the usual bluster about lost parking spaces and special treatment for cyclists. And, Kaganovich says, the group will be recording key intersections throughout the area all weekend, amassing evidence for how a redesign would affect traffic patterns.

If all goes well, Better Block will have ammunition to lobby for permanent changes in Old Town as the city prepares to pour redevelopment money into the area. And it will have a new model for spurring positive change in Portland as a whole.

"This isn't just Old Town," Kaganovich says. "Part of what we’re trying to come up with is a new way to do street redesign."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Meet the New Street Fee! It's Different! That Might Not Matter.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, Sep 11, 2014 at 12:33 PM

The controversial "street fee" proposal certainly has, uh, blossomed since being unveiled four months ago.

The latest proposals for finding millions in new yearly revenue to patch Portlands roads are almost totally unrecognizable from that toddling regressive flat fee for residents, combined with a sliding fee for businesses (based partly on the number of car trips they attract)—etched and whittled by new poll numbers and a lot of loud outrage.

Portland Bureau of Transportation staffers and Revenue Bureau types just spent the morning laying out the most-recent mechanisms on the table, in a meeting of three work groups trying to find recommendations. The proposals are presumably similar to whatever's going to come up before city council in November, and so will probably affect your purse and/or wallet. Here's what we're looking at:

• For starters, there are some pretty drastically reduced ambitions—at least according to the numbers floated today. Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales have consistently said PBOT needs about $91 million each year to catch up maintenance that would make our roads acceptable. In their initial proposal, they shot for a little over $50 million a year (which would also be spent on safety improvement projects), indicating it still wasn't enough, but a start. Now, the plan involves drawing $20 million a year from Portland residents, and $20 million a year from Portland businesses. But once administration costs and tax flouters are taken into account, PBOT says it'll be making about $30 million a year.

This wasn't lost on group members this morning, some of whom questioned why the bureau is letting up on the gas. The most stinging criticism came from Vic Rhodes, a committee member who served as director of the then-Office of Transportation back when Hales was transportation commissioner.

"It seems to me that even if you enact this, the whole thing continues to slide backward," said Rhodes, referring to the city's street maintenance backlog. "I’m lost in how this fits contextually."

PBOT staffers say they'll reexamine their revenue goals in coming meetings.

• So where will that $30 million (really a $40 million target) come from? Well, on the residential side, it'll almost certainly be based on how much you make—a stark change from Novick and Hales' initial proposal of making everyone pay a flat fee (with a discounted rate for low-income residents). That was too regressive for many Portlanders, and even Novick frequently groused about it. Then we paid $16,500 to conduct a new poll, and found out that Portlanders might be willing to live with an income tax (something officials had previously said was out of the question). An income-based tax has dominated conversations since.

The revenue bureau has concocted two scenarios. The first is a straight income tax, complying with all the vagaries and complicated nuances of the tax code. Under numbers floated today, households that make $30,000 or less (nearly a third of the city, according to this morning's presenters) would be exempt. It would be capped at $2,400 a year (for incomes nearing $1 million, according to PBOT figures). Here's an example (though you should disregard that $210 figure, which would be capped at $200).

Screen_Shot_2014-09-11_at_11.41.28_AM.png

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Another Plane Forced to Land After a Fight Breaks Out Over Reclining Seats

Posted by Dan Savage on Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 1:29 PM

Three in a week:

A flight from LaGuardia to Palm Beach International Airport was forced to make an unexpected landing after a heated argument over legroom. Delta Airlines Flight 2370 was officially diverted to Jacksonville "due to safety reasons in regard to a passenger issue" on Monday. But onboard witness Aaron Klipin provided a bit more context. The squabble, he said, stems from the moment the woman seated next to him tried to recline her seat ... "The flight attendant came over and that just exacerbated what was going on, and then she demanded that the flight land," Klipin said. The aggravated woman was cursing at the cabin crew and said something along with lines of "I don't care about the consequences, put this plane down now." Police escorted the angered passenger off the plane after it landed in Jacksonville.

Diverting planes is hugely expensive: it burns expensive jet fuel, it causes delays that cost airlines money, it can mean overtime for crew. So, hey, if the airlines keep having to divert planes because angry passengers are fighting about leg room... maybe the airlines will conclude that it's cheaper to give passengers a little more leg room? So keep fighting, airline passengers!

Friday, August 1, 2014

ODOT Settles With Angry Campers, Once Again. That'll Be $60K.

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Fri, Aug 1, 2014 at 6:04 PM

Portland police help with a campsite cleanup, on city property near the Springwater Corridor.
  • Dirk VanderHart
  • Portland police help with a campsite cleanup, on city property near the Springwater Corridor.

For the second time since 2011, the Oregon Department of Transportation has settled a lawsuit with homeless campers who claimed the department unlawfully confiscated their personal items.

Under the agreement, ODOT will pay out $60,000 and faces additional rules for how it can expel campers from its property. Those rules will have ramifications for Portland's homeless, since ODOT owns land around bridges and along the Springwater Corridor, both areas ripe for enforcement.

Despite the $60,000 in damages, the settlement (like most settlements) finds no fault. Both sides say they're pleased.

"Our reading of this is it’s a win-win," says ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson. "It carefully sets out what people's rights are."

Those rights were supposed to be hammered out already.

Back in 2011, under pressure from a suit filed by the Oregon Law Center, ODOT crafted agency rules that dictated how much notice it would give before dismantling campsites on its property. Campers were to have between 10 and 19 days' notice before a site was cleaned up, according to that settlement. And ODOT said it would store confiscated valuables for a month.

But just two years later, the Oregon Law Center sued again on behalf of five homeless Portlanders. ODOT had disregarded its own rules, the plaintiffs said in a class-action suit, giving campers in a plot of land near the I-205 bike path a mere three days before cleaning up their belongings in early October 2013. That action was contrary to what campers were told they could expect, the suit said, and resulted in some people losing much or all of their belongings when ODOT didn't properly document and store valuables. One man even died shortly after the cleanup, the suit said, suggesting his already frail health was made worse by the shock of losing his possessions.

ODOT claimed it had the authority to subvert the rules because the campsites, along Johnson Creek, were an "environmental emergency," and because police were on hand to explain the campers were violating trespassing laws. Neither of those provisions was in the first settlement agreement, however.

So now we have a second settlement [pdf], signed on Tuesday. Under the agreement, ODOT will pay $60,000 to the Oregon Law Center, money that will be used to help compensate the plaintiffs. And the agency once again has a complicated set of new rules it must follow when cleaning campsites off its many properties.

A rundown, after the jump.

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