A gas tax will be back on Portland’s ballot this spring.
City leaders agreed Thursday to refer another temporary 10-cents-per-gallon tax to voters for the May 2020 election. The ballot measure should look very similar to the one Portlanders narrowly approved four years ago.
The money from the 2016 tax was earmarked to repair pothole-strewn streets and make them safer. That tax expires at the end of this year.
But officials for the city’s transportation bureau say they still need the money flowing in to take care of a long shopping list of street repairs and improvements.
The city may also renew a tax on heavy vehicles, which when first passed, was seen as a companion to the 2016 gas tax. Portland city councilors are expected to vote on that measure next week.
“We constantly struggle to find adequate funding for basic maintenance and safety,” said Chris Warner, the director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “The local gas tax and heavy vehicle use tax has been essential to funding some of the core maintenance and safety needs we have.”
And so the Bureau's asking for four more years. This time, the pot of money – which the Bureau estimates will ultimately total about $74 million – will go to a new slate of improvement projects. Like last time, these would include new street paving, sidewalks and signals.
There has been some concern about how the Bureau handled the tax. A city audit of the tax, published last May, found the majority of the projects promised to begin in 2019 had yet to break ground.
The Bureau says things have sped up since.
“You can see the finish line,” said Bureau of Transportation spokeswoman Hannah Schafer, noting construction crews will have broken ground on all projects by the year’s end.
Some of the more notable city projects fueled by gas tax money include makeovers of SE Foster Road, NE Halsey and NE Weidler streets and long-awaited improvements to a section of SW Capitol Highway. But it's also been used for smaller improvements: smoothing roads, installing bike lanes and adding crosswalks. If you live in Portland, Schafer said, you've probably encountered a project funded by the tax.
It’s not a surprise that the bureau feels it needs more money for improvements. The City Club of Portland estimated back in 2015 that the city would need a minimum of $205 million per year for the next decade to catch up on necessary street maintenance.
Still, some predict the gas tax could become an election issue for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the transportation bureau and is running for re-election.
“She's going to be asked to answer whether or not transportation [in] the city has improved the last few years and whether or not voters should continue to pay that tax,” said pollster John Horvick recently during an interview on Eudaly’s re-election bid. “And that's something that I think is reasonable for voters to make a judgment on.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said the council had gotten a notable amount of letters from Portlanders wanting to know why the council appeared to be making a temporary tax permanent.
Warner responded that, while this tax, if voters approved it, was not permanent and would only last four years, it was possible that they would need to ask for more funds in the future.
Whether they got those funds, though, he noted, would depend on voters.
“I can tell you this 10-cents will not solve our maintenance backlog needs. It's not going to solve our safety needs,” said Warner. “Maybe we’ll get a whole lot of new money from the federal government. Until then we have to work with the tools we have.”