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A fee for a fix

Oregon City is proposing a new trip fee that could add $1.5 million to repair damaged streets. The fee would charge homeowners a flat fee. There is a trip-generation formula for businesses.
by: Matthew Graham, City leaders hope a new transportation fee will raise money to fix potholes like this chasm at the intersection of 7th and Polk streets.

The city's streets are falling apart. Cracks and potholes are prevalent, especially on roads like Division Street or Leland Road.

And, because of a lack of money coming in from the state, the city hasn't been able to do anything about it.

'The roads are deteriorating and if we don't do anything we're going to get to a point where the roads need to be replaced,' said Lynnette O'Dell, of the Oregon City School District.

But with a new street fee the city plans to implement, streets will, if not greatly improve, at least not continue to degrade.

'[For] revenues to local jurisdictions, the primary source is through the state gas tax,' said John Ghilarducci, of the FCS Group and a consultant on the city's project. 'There hasn't been an increase in that since 1992.'

But revenue and costs haven't just remained stagnant sine then; more cars have joined the road and construction prices have risen. Ghilarducci said the fee woul generate around $1.5 million.

'Asphalt, cement have gone through the roof, cars on the road have increased, so the needs are increasing, the costs are increasing but the sources of funding are staying static,' Ghilarducci said.

Mayor Alice Norris said increased fuel-efficiency has lowered gas sales, as well.

'Since autos have gotten more efficient that also has helped revenues to decline,' she said.

And she said if the city doesn't find a way to maintain streets, they will continue to get worse.

'The pavement would continue to deteriorate,' she said. 'We currently have funding to pay for [maintenance of] less than a mile of the city's 150 miles [per year]. That's really unacceptable for us to maintain the investment we've put in all these years.'

'We have over 120 miles of streets in Oregon City and their overall asset to the city is over $1 million and we really need to protect that,' said Don Slack, of the city's transportation advisory committee.

So the city put together a citizens committee to look into options for local funding.

'We looked at a variety of different ways of funding,' said Slack. 'The process was very in-depth and there were participants from all different parts of the city.'

Norris said they'd looked at other options, but decided the user fee was the best way to go.

'They looked at vehicle registration fees, a gas tax, because that's what some other cities have done, they've used a combination,' she said. 'Our committee zeroed in on this as the most practical. It's essentially a user fee.'

The new fee would be $11 per month for a residential property, $6.90 per month for an apartment, condo or townhouse and would vary for commercial, industrial and other non-residential facilities. For those other facilities, the formula is somewhat complex, involving rounding the facilities' average daily trips to place them in a category or 'bin' which has an average trip count for a variety of similar businesses; then that averaged number is multiplied by the facilities' square-footage.

Under this formula, Fred Meyer will have to pay about $335 per month, Willamette Falls Hospital around $610 and Home Depot about $170, according to city projections.

The fees would be phased in over five years, so residential fees would start at $4.50 per month this July if the plan were approved and would climb over five years, while apartments would start at $3.16. The plan also allows for inflation-based increases of no more than three percent per year.

Members of the committee consisted heavily of local business owners and, although a few had their squabbles with the implementation of the plan, all agreed that Oregon City needs such a tax.

O'Dell, of the school district, said that although she didn't agree with the school district's trip generation number, she supported the plan and the aspects of it that allow recourse for people who feel it's unfair. 'I believe that the appeal process is there for a reason and people will use it if they don't feel it's fair.'

Commissioners also said there is a low-income adjustment available.

'We will be passing a hardship waiver so that people on a particular income level can petition for a credit,' Norris said.

The new fee won't allow the city to improve streets much, going only from a level 68 out of 100 to 69 on the pavement condition index, but will allow for maintenance, which will save a lot of money by keeping the city from having to do much more costly reconstruction work.

Tom Hurt, of the Oregon City Evangelical Church and a member of the committee, said he supported the fee, but was concerned about the bin mechanism for charging businesses. He argued that by averaging people into bins, businesses that are rounded up pay more than they should, while those rounded down pay less.

But Ghilarducci said they tried to avoid that as much as possible.

'We were careful that very few of the trip generation numbers were rounded up to put them in a bin,' he said. 'Almost everyone was rounded down.'

One member of the committee also asked why this shouldn't be done at the county level.

City Manager Larry Patterson said the county had tried to implement such a plan five years ago, but had taken it to the voters and it had failed. Patterson also said with a regional system, one couldn't be sure the city would actually get the funds it needs.