Spend road cash appropriately


Many citizens will say that government has all the money it needs - it just spends those dollars incorrectly. As it turns out, that assumption might be especially true with funds intended for road projects in the city of Portland and Multnomah County.

As two recent stories on the Portland Tribune's daily Web site (www.portlandtribune.com) have reported, money that the public would have expected to be spent on local roads and bridges has been diverted both by the county and the city to other priorities over the years.

In Portland's case, the city was supposed to direct 28 percent of its utility license fees to road projects for the past 20 years. Instead, the City Council routinely used those funds for other causes and helped create a $422 million backlog of poorly maintained or inadequate city streets. Today, the city's transportation office receives no dedicated funding from the utility fee.

That's why a recent transportation-funding plan proposed by Mayor-elect Sam Adams and adopted by the City Council sounds so eerily familiar. The city once again is pledging to use utility-license fees - this time, $4.3 million a year for the next five years - on transportation.

Adams says things will be different with the new plan, which eliminates an escape clause built into the previous mandate. However, the city's credibility on the matter is suspect; the public has seen that when money gets tight, transportation is the first to lose.

An unrelated, but similar issue has arisen for Multnomah County, which receives revenue from a tax on rental cars. State Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Mount Hood, recently obtained an advisory opinion from the Oregon legislative counsel that says the state constitution requires that any tax on cars must be spent solely on roads and highways.

The county says it has legal rationale for why it can continue to divert $14 million a year in rental-car taxes away from roads. But we believe those arguments will sound hollow or even evasive to the public.

The bottom line is this: The city of Portland has miles upon miles of unpaved, unsafe or poorly maintained streets. Multnomah County has hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of deferred maintenance it must perform on county-owned bridges that, in some cases, are in terrible shape.

These transportation projects will require a huge influx in funding. But until the public is certain that every public dollar intended for transportation already is being spent appropriately, the chances are slim that many taxpayers will agree to pay even more.