By May 19, Portland voters will be asked to pick four candidates out of the more than 50 people vying to be on the City Council. They’ll need to decide whether to support a massive measure that seeks to raise $250 million for homeless services. And they’ll be asked if they want to renew a temporary gas tax of 10 cents per gallon.
Four years ago, that last item was one of the most contentious on the ballot. After proposing a series of complex and ultimately doomed street fees, former Portland Commissioner Steve Novick championed the tax as a simple mechanism to fix the city's neglected roads. It drew the wrath of the Oregon Fuel Association, which reportedly poured over $130,000 into fighting it. Out of state interests got involved. Opponents warned Portland's gas stations could shutter with drivers drawn to cheaper gas just outside city limits.
The measure narrowly passed: 52% voted in favor.
Four years later, the tax is up for renewal. The city's making the same ask as last time: four years of a 10-cents-per-gallon fuel tax with the money going to the city's transportation bureau to fund a new slate of street repair and safety improvement projects. But this time, people don't seem to care as much.
“There’s just not a lot to see here in terms of opposition,” said Steph Routh, the manager for Fix Our Streets, the campaign supporting the measure. “Obviously, we’ve looked too. It’s like, ‘Is there any?’ On some level, just as a person, as a voter, you kind of like to see something vetted by an honorable opposition.”
The Oregon Fuel Association has remained quiet. The lobbyist who was most outspoken about the potential for gas stations to shutter has since retired. The only opposition submitted to the voter pamphlet came from the Taxpayers Association of Oregon, which describes itself as a watchdog for Oregon taxpayers and has written in opposition to many tax measures proposed in Portland over the years.
Routh reckons the measure's most significant source of opposition might be the audit on the program conducted last May. City auditors found the transportation bureau was providing its oversight committee with outdated information. As part of the measure, the city had promised to ensure big trucks, which get their gas outside the city, would pay their fair share. But the tax on heavy vehicles that the council came up with was bringing in less than expected. Most critically, the audit found two-thirds of the street repair projects scheduled to start before 2019 had not.
Jennifer Rollins, an attorney on the program's oversight committee, said auditors highlighted a program with growing pains. The bureau, she said, has since found its groove: they deliver reports to the committee monthly. City Council has since approved a slightly higher tax for big trucks. And the city has said all projects are expected to break ground by the year's end.
“The audit was pretty rough and I was kind of disappointed,” said Rollins. “But on the flip side, I do think it was fair and I do think that we learned from it.”
With a vacuum of organized opposition, an unlikely figure has become the point person for the ‘con’ side: a Portland State University economics and finance professor.
"I seem to be the only one," said Eric Fruits, who was invited to Willamette Week's endorsement video to argue against the measure. He's also set to appear in the Portland City Club's debate Friday on Portland ballot measures, where he will argue against both the measure on homeless services and the gas tax.
“Of course,” he said, laughing. “There’s no one else.”
As research director for the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute, Fruits said he’s not a huge fan of taxes in general. But a basic gas tax he could get behind: one where drivers pay for the road repairs that their car damages. His issue with the Portland gas tax is it goes far beyond that scope: allotting $4.5 million to expand the city’s network of quiet residential streets where bikes and pedestrians are prioritized, while only promising enough paving projects to fix what he’s calculated to amount to 7.5 miles of city streets.
“The program is called ‘Fix Our Streets.’ The idea is fix the streets, pave the unpaved roads, fix the paved roads that are all broken up,” he said. “That target got shifted.”
While a source of concern for Fruits, the wide array of projects funded through the gas tax has earned it the support of a broad coalition. A handful of parents and a Portland Public School board member submitted an argument in favor of the measure in the county’s voter pamphlet, noting the $6 million that would go to projects intended to give Portland kids a safer commute. AARP also wrote in support, pointing to the investment in street lights and sidewalks that will make streets safer for older Portlanders. Even those who’d like to see less pavement in Portland have jumped on board.
“People always giggle when they see us supporting measures like this,” said Ted Labbe, a board member for Depave, a local volunteer group that deconstructs paved spaces — often parking lots — and turns them into green spaces. “We’re not so neanderthal that we want to remove payment everywhere, as much as we believe Portland is over paved and that we have too many impervious surfaces.”
This measure, Labbe continued, would make the most of the impervious surfaces Portland already has. By expanding the city’s network of quiet residential streets where bikes and pedestrians are given priority, Labbe said he believes Portlanders would be encouraged to ditch the car and hop on a bike or walk. He said he’s particularly excited about the projects planned for East Portland, an area of the city where Portlanders are especially dependent on their cars due to limited transit and poor infrastructure for walking and biking.
It might explain why the measure fared so poorly there last time around. According to Willamette Week, no East Portland precinct voted for the tax by more than 44%. As the campaign manager told the outlet after the measure narrowly passed, "it's time to build some trust."
Citywide, the city’s seen some success in this area. According to an October poll conducted by DHM Research to gauge support on the measure, 54% felt that they have received a good value for the tax and almost as many said they supported renewing it (that number went up to 58% after respondents were read pro and con statements).
According to the analysis, this was at the low end of what a campaign would want to see at the onset. However, the report notes, renewals are much more likely to pass than measures that increase taxes or create new ones.
John Horvick, who helped conduct the poll for DHM, said, even with the city in the midst of a pandemic, he suspects there’s still significant support for the measure.
“Most everyone's endorsing it, there's no opposition, people aren’t spending a lot of money right now, and gas prices have declined,” said Horvick. “For all those reasons, my best guess is it is successful at the ballot — with the heavy pinch of salt that we’re in uncharted territory.”
The tax, if it passes, would begin next January as the previous one sunsets. The bureau had initially expected the tax to bring in $74.5 million over four years, but that number may need to be revised if COVID-19 keeps people off the roads into next year.
The bureau said it is expecting to fall $3 million short in gas tax revenue for this year as a result of the pandemic. As of the end of March, the tax had brought in $62 million.