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Troutdale focus group prefers gas tax to street fee

Based on an initial focus group, it appears residents of Troutdale are open to — and may actually prefer — a gas tax.

Barney and Worth conducted a focus group after the city contracted with the consulting agency in January to pursue a local street-fee option.

“We can talk about this for many years and we keep getting the same story,” said Mayor Doug Daoust in January. “We’re going to have to do something.”

The city wants to find a new revenue option to maintain the streets as current funding levels will only sustain maintenance projects for the next two or three years.

The potential street fee options included a utility fee, increased vehicle registration fees and a local gas tax. Clark Worth, Barney and Worth vice president, said based on the focus group a utility fee would not be well received.

“There is no appetite for a street utility fee,” Worth noted.

The group prefers a gas tax, however, as does the Troutdale City Council.

The timing of a potential ballot measure is the next step — alongside continued public education efforts.

The May special election was under consideration, but based on the focus group results, Worth noted, that is not enough time to reach out to the public.

“For May, we would need to approve the ballot measure by March 10,” he said.

Other options include November 2015, May 2016 and November 2016. The councilors’ preferences were split between all three dates. For now, Worth said the good news is the next deadline isn’t until July 28 for the November 2015 election, so the council has time to decide when to move forward.

The next phase in the project is public outreach.

After Barney and Worth finish investor interviews, they will begin outreach and public education on the options and why they are needed. Worth said this is vital, because while residents are currently happy with the streets, future maintenance and needs are not a “top of mind” issue.

“They don’t know who maintains the streets. They also have no idea how road maintenance is currently funded,” Worth said, of the 20-person focus group. “That’s really important.”

The other issue is informing the public that adding a local gas tax may not change the gas price.

“You could impose a gas tax of five cents and the price at the pump could not change at all,” he said. “There’s no direct link, given the way the tax is collected.”

The tax is collected on the commercial level, meaning the increase does not add on to gas prices. Commercial vendors could increase prices as a result, but that is not a guarantee.

After a ballot measure is approved, it will be up to a grassroots effort to promote the ballot measure.

“(Troutdale) is small enough that you don’t need that many votes to pass a measure,” Worth said. “It’s possible with a grassroots campaign to pass a (measure) at a special election.”

Councilor Dave Ripma was concerned with the effectiveness of a grassroots campaign for a gas tax.

“There’s a lot of difference in organizing a grassroots campaign for a new police station that’s clearly needed,” Ripma said. “Who’s going to run a grassroots campaign for a gas tax? It’s not the same animal. People aren’t going to get diehard behind it.”

As the council could not come to a unanimous decision regarding an election date, councilors decided to just move forward with the outreach process and see how the city responds.

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