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Street projects bump into cuts

Most city gas tax funds dedicated to regional projects
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT City officials are proposing to prioritize maintenance of thoroughfares that carry multiple forms of transportation called Streets of Citywide Significance.

Almost three years ago, the City Council told the Portland Bureau of Transportation to reduce its maintenance of neighborhood streets and concentrate on larger arterial streets connecting different parts of town. Mayor Sam Adams and all four current commissioners voted for the resolution, which said PBOT was facing a budget crisis caused in large part by declining state gas tax revenue. Now, even though the state gas tax increased six cents a gallon in January, city transportation officials are looking at restricting street maintenance activities even more. PBOT Director Tom Miller wants to concentrate maintenance on what he calls Streets of Citywide Significance, which he defines as only those streets that carry automobiles, transit, freight trucks, bicycles and pedestrians on adjacent sidewalks. “It’s a prioritization tool,” says Miller, noting that exceptions could be made as needed. According to a preliminary map prepared by PBOT, qualifying streets account for only about 600 miles of the 4,700 miles of streets. They would include Sandy and Martin Luther King, Jr. boulevards on the east side, and the portion of the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway in Portland on the west side. Heavily traveled Columbia Boulevard would not be included, however, because it primarily carries freight traffic. Unlike the resolution approved by the council on Jan. 28, 2009, Miller does not plan on asking for a formal vote on the new policy. Instead, he believes the council can ratify it by approving spending priorities set in the draft budget he will submit to Adams by the end of next month. According to Miller, the reasons for the new policy are the same as they were four years ago: PBOT is facing a budget crisis, caused in large part by lower-than-expected gas tax revenue. State transportation officials confirm gas sales are about two percent below projection, primarily because people are driving less than expected because of the poor economy. Miller says his agency must cut $16 million in costs next year to balance its budget. But Miller also is proposing the policy because the city committed much of its expected gas tax revenue increase to two regional projects — the replacement of the Sellwood Bridge and the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line. Portland has committed $73.5 million to the Sellwood Bridge and $55 million to the Milwaukie light-rail line, not counting interest. Most of that money is expected to come from state gas tax revenue. “We are planning to honor our commitments,” Miller says of the two projects. Eastside meter plan ends Despite a strain on the PBOT budget, Portland expects to directly benefit from both the regional projects. Although the Sellwood Bridge is owned by Multnomah County, it is in the city and used each day by many Portland residents, whether commuting for work, shopping and recreating. Groundbreaking is set for Friday, Dec. 16, on the estimated $268.8 million bridge project. Funding partners include Multnomah County, the state and the federal government. The light-rail line also is expected to be heavily used by people who live and work downtown, and it is expected to spur development along its route through Southeast Portland. The Oregon University System and the Oregon Health and Science University already have begun construction on a jointly owned, $160-million building at the west end of the new transit bridge that will carry trains and buses over the Willamette River. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry already has acquired adjacent property for development once the new rail line opens. But there’s no doubt the commitments will reduce the amount of city money available for other projects. That is largely because state gas tax revenue are a large part of the most flexible kind of city transportation funds — general tax revenue, which also includes money from parking garages and parking meters. According to the most recent PBOT projections, general tax revenue funds are expected to total $97.9 million in the current budget, and grow to $108 million by fiscal year 2016-17. The $10.7-million difference is expected to be more than offset by regional commitments, inflation and other predicted cost increases. Much of the other transportation money available to the city has strings attached. For example, the federal government is paying $75 million for most of the construction of the eastside Portland Streetcar extension. That money cannot legally be spent on anything else. Now PBOT must find the $1.3 million needed to operate the eastside streetcar extension when it opens next September. Transportation officials had planned to raise the money from parking meters installed along the route. But that plan has been shelved, because many eastside business owners fear meters will keep customers away, especially given the sour economy. Cuts to programs PBOT is finalizing its budget recommendation to Adams. Among other things, Miller says he is considering recommending a 29 percent cut to the bureau’s planning department and a 31 percent cut to its business services department. Other possible cuts include a $50,000 cut to the popular Sunday Parkways program. “I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but that money matches private funds raised for the program. Kaiser Permanente is the biggest sponsor, giving $100,000 a year,” says Miller. Internal PBOT documents show that the agency still hopes to fund a wide range of projects, however. About 30 percent of the work is targeted for maintenance, including the significant citywide streets. Another 30 percent is designated for safety improvement, 20 percent for public health and livability projects and another 20 percent to support businesses and employment. After Adams receives the recommend PBOT budget by the end of January, he will work it into the overall 2012-13 budget to be recommended to the council early next year. The public will have a chance to weigh in on the budget, including the recommendations for PBOT, before the council formally takes it up in April. The council must approve the budget by late May for the Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission to review and approve it before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.