A new audit out Wednesday from the Portland City Auditor’s office shows oversight of the city’s Fixing Our Streets Program has been largely ineffective and many projects have not been completed on time.
Three years ago, voters approved a temporary 10 cent per gallon gas tax to fund the street repair and traffic safety program. That gas tax expires next year, and according to the audit, transportation commissioner Chloe Eudaly plans to ask voters to renew it.
The audit shows that multiple issues need to be addressed in the meantime. Specifically, the program’s revenue goals and many street repair project timelines have not been met. It also needs better oversight.
In conjunction with the gas tax, Portland City Council adopted the Heavy Vehicle Use Tax to ensure that larger vehicles pay into the Fixing Our Streets Program.
Since heavy vehicles, over 26,000 pounds, buy gas at truck stops that are mostly outside of city limits, the heavy vehicle tax was put in place to collect that vehicle-specific revenue.
However, the Portland City Auditor found that city council did not require heavy vehicle owners to pay their share of costs.
In the first year of taxes, heavy vehicle owners paid nearly $1 million under the revenue goal. City code required that the tax rate be adjusted if it raised more or less than its goal of $2.5 million, but city council eliminated that requirement in November 2018, citing concerns that more businesses would ask for exemptions and that it would be an unfair burden to those paying.
Along with a lacking amount of revenue from large vehicles, the audit found that many street repair projects were delayed.
Two-thirds of the Portland Bureau of Transportation projects scheduled to start before this year had not.
There were 59 original projects, with 38 of those scheduled to start before 2019. Only 12 started before this year and only eight were completed before this year.
The eight completed projects were $900,000 over the budget communicated to voters.
“Bureau staff said the budgets were only estimates subject to change,” the audit said.
According to the audit, “Bureau staff said the schedules were not realistic and that it took longer than anticipated to break ground because the scopes of individual projects were not yet well-defined.”
Bureau staff also told the auditor that they did not fully plan out project designs in case the tax failed before voters.
Despite the issues highlighted in the audit, some street repairs have taken place.
The bureau committed to doing almost $9 million worth of repairs to replacing the asphalt and rock layer foundation of Portland streets. The bureau had spent $5.5 million on base repair by the end of 2018.
Eudaly told the auditor’s office, “In 2019, the bureau is on track to finish 20 projects and break ground on an additional 21.”
The city auditor says the program’s oversight has also been lacking.
The program’s oversight committee, made up of volunteers, received “incomplete, inconsistent and outdated” financial reports and project lists from the Bureau of Transportation.
The committee, scheduled to meet quarterly, also did not meet for five months due to delays in replacing members.
The oversight committee in turn did not provide annual reports to council in 2017 and 2018 or advise council.
Portland City Council also did not obtain annual audits from the Fixing Our Streets Program.
Overall, the audit recommends that the Bureau of Transportation do a more thorough job of tracking and publicly reporting street projects and that city council ensure that heavy vehicle owners pay their fair share of the tax.