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Foes of street tax reach for brakes

• Ted Wheeler and Sam Adams make push for transportation funds
by: JIM CLARK, The day before city Commissioner Sam Adams presented his street fee to the City Council, he staged a news conference at the Multnomah County Bridge Shop with supporters (from left) Sandra McDonough 
of the Portland Business Alliance; Susan Kubota, whose niece was killed on her bicycle; county Chairman Ted Wheeler; and state Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches.

A small but determined faction of lobbyists is gearing up to throw cold water on city Commissioner Sam Adams' proposal for a new tax to tackle the $422 million backlog of street repairs.

The City Council heard three and a half hours of testimony on the Safe, Sound and Green Streets plan Wednesday, mostly supportive. But some critics said they didn't think the proposal was fair and equitable. And some told the Portland Tribune they were poised to refer the issue to the May primary election ballot for a public vote.

'We're working on raising the money to do it,' said Danelle Romain, who, along with her father, Paul Romain, is representing the Oregon Petroleum Association in the fight.

'I think the public doesn't support this issue. The city is awash in money right now. It's whether there's a need for this money, and whether it would be used for the purpose it's supposed to.'

In the interest of full disclosure, it's interesting to note the 30-year-old Romain is stepdaughter to Len Bergstein, who is campaign manager to Sho Dozono, Adams' biggest rival in the mayoral race.

Romain said the relationship is in no way motivating her position.

'I have a very political family,' she said. 'It has nothing to do with what we're doing in our business. I've grown up around politics. I wasn't turned away from getting into the political world.'

But the opposition to Adams' plan would not only endanger the funding of the transportation projects, it probably would hamper Adams' campaign at a time when he needs to garner as much public support as he can.

Getting the City Council to support his proposal 'would be a strong feather in his cap,' said Jim Moore, a political analyst and government professor at Pacific University. 'It would show he could unite the disparate factions in this city to raise taxes and fix the infrastructure.'

The council could enact the plan Wednesday. If it does, the opponents will have to collect a required 18,170 signatures by Feb. 15 to place a referendum on the May ballot.

It might seem like a large task, but some of the same critics have done it before. After former Commissioner Charlie Hales pushed a similar plan through the council in 2001, opponents threatened to refer it to the ballot, prompting the council to withdraw it.

A public referendum now undoubtedly would 'muddy (Adams') campaign,' Moore said. 'If that happens, it may not be a negative for him, but it means that he'll simply be running for mayor and doing the referral campaign, which will make him seem like he's just (about) one issue.'

'There's a huge price to pay'

Council members on Wednesday expressed early support for the plan, as did the slew of community members who came forward to plead for safer roads.

'There's a huge price to pay here,' said Susan Kubota, a Portland anesthesiologist whose niece, 19-year-old Tracey Sparling, was killed Oct. 11 on her bike at the intersection of East Burnside Street and 14th Avenue.

'She was riding in the bike lane, legally, and got crushed by a cement truck on her way to class. No one likes to pay taxes at all,' Kubota said, 'but I don't want any other family to have to go through this.'

Supporters say the proposed monthly fee (an average $4.54 for households and $83 for most businesses) is a small price to pay to fix traffic signals at 31 intersections where a high number of crashes occur and build 20 miles of sidewalks on arterial streets, 47 new pedestrian islands and 114 miles of bike- and pedestrian-safety corridors.

The 15-year tax would generate $24 million in revenue each year and also offer 'green' discounts for people who drive fuel-efficient cars and employers who offer carpooling incentives and TriMet passes.

Kevin Spellman, a member of the 89-person stakeholder group Adams convened seven months ago to collaborate on the plan, said it was his job to 'peek behind the curtain' and take an outside look at the transportation budget to see if the picture really was as dire as it's been painted.

'Sadly, it is,' he said, noting that he examined audits and found that the maintenance backlog is real and only will get worse if ignored.

Spellman, a retired commercial building contractor, said he looked at efficiencies within the bureau but found 'nothing remotely on the scale required to tackle this problem.'

The stakeholder group includes several industry groups such as the Oregon Restaurant Association, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, various neighborhood groups and just about every public agency in the region. Steve Clark, president of the Portland Tribune, also served on the committee.

Adams initiated the current effort after proposing, and then withdrawing, a gas tax, which is unpopular statewide. The gas tax, the city's only revenue stream for street maintenance, last was increased in 1993. The city receives 40 cents of every dollar of gas tax collected in the city.

'It's not often the business alliance, or any business organization really, comes together to back a fee increase,' said Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance and also a member of the stakeholder committee. 'We do not do so lightly.'

She said that after much discussion, alliance members backed the proposal because of the enormous impact transportation infrastructure has on the economy. An 11-member oversight committee would be appointed to make sure the money is being spent as indicated.

Not every stakeholder member endorsed every part of the plan, however. When he testified before the council on Wednesday, Corky Collier, executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association, questioned the plan's low-income and sustainability discounts because they 'reduce the available revenue.'

$35 million surplus spent

The tax also would increase automatically by 3.5 percent each year, another point critics don't agree with.

'It goes up as the cost of living goes up,' Paul Romain said. 'But what if it (the cost of living) goes down - there's a recession? It doesn't go down. For businesses, that's a real concern. … There's too many unanswered questions.'

Critics also claim that the city is 'awash in money' and shouldn't be asking taxpayers to bail it out. They ask where the city surplus of $35 million went last spring, and why it's not being used to patch roads.

City budget manager Casey Short said the funds were doled out to about a dozen different bureaus, going toward housing efforts, city planning, new emergency dispatch computers, and putting more police and fire crews on the street.

The largest chunk, about $11 million, went to capital maintenance for parks and transportation. Transportation received $2.5 million of that for bike and auto safety improvements and streetlights.

The gas and convenience store lobby says the tax will be passed on to customers.

'The average convenience store earns about $2,700 monthly pretax profit,' said Richard Kosesan, lobbyist for the Oregon Neighborhood Store Association, which includes about 450 small convenience stores in the Portland area. 'Take that, add another $100 to $200 as a tax or fee liability, and I think that goes a little past a hindrance.'

Paul Romain, of the petroleum association, originally was part of the stakeholder group but dropped out after attending one meeting, he said, because 'it started looking like a way to get everybody co-opted into the program. … It was basically a cheerleading squad for this street maintenance fee. A lot of people used it as a way to negotiate a good rate.'

So far, lobbyists for 7-Eleven Inc. and the Taxpayer Association of Oregon also have said they'd be part of the push for a referendum.

'Portland has really suffered from a rash of bad transportation decisions,' said Jason Williams, executive director of the taxpayer association. 'They've spent millions of dollars on everything except roads, like light rail and bike paths. That's sucked up a lot of federal money on things drivers don't use. At the end of the day, taxpayers are at the end of the list.'

Supporters, meanwhile, commend the city - as well as the county and state - for coming to the table.

On Tuesday, the day before the council hearing, Adams staged a news conference along with Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler and state Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, to emphasize that the plan is a three-legged one that county and state leaders are committed to tackling as well.

Wheeler blamed a 'lack of political leadership' on the issue in the past and is working to refer a vehicle registration fee to the May ballot, which would go toward the county's ailing bridges.

Metsger said that when the 2009 legislative session begins, he's committed to pushing 'the most comprehensive transportation plan to protect not just today, but the future.'

'We can't sit here and cry about what other people aren't doing any longer,' he said.

Others agree. 'The solution can't rest just with a new fee on homeowners and businesses,' said Ann Gardner, government relations manager for Schnitzer Steel. 'There is nothing sexy about road maintenance, but there is nobody that can do anything about it besides the city. This is what government is supposed to do.'

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