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Clackamas voters to decide fate of fuel tax

County would get 60 percent, cities split 40 percent, for road work.

Clackamas County residents, according to a survey taken earlier this year, listed road and traffic conditions as their top issue.

County voters Nov. 8 will decide Measure 3-509, which would impose a tax of 6 cents per gallon of gasoline sold countywide during the next seven years to raise millions for road work.

Proceeds would be split 60-40.

The tax would start in March.

The county’s share is estimated at $5.4 million annually. County commissioners say they will commit that share to 47 maintenance projects specified around the county.

Cities will split the other $3.6 million, based on population, and can spend their shares on any road work in the right of way. Among the largest recipients, based on 2015 figures for Clackamas County portions: Lake Oswego, $602,588 annually; Oregon City, $588,881; West Linn, $444,263; Milwaukie, $355,775; Wilsonville, $355,272; Happy Valley, $303,810; Canby, $277,784; Gladstone, $199,619; Sandy, $180,360;

Molalla, $155,115; Estacada, $53,527.

Based on average fuel use as calculated by the Oregon Department of Transportation, the tax would cost the average motorist $22.56 annually.

“That’s pretty cheap” for what needs to be done to reduce the large backlog of county road maintenance needs, said board Chairman John Ludlow.

Ludlow and the other four county commissioners paid for a supporting argument in the county voters pamphlet, but only a few city councils have passed supportive resolutions.

There is no organized opposition, and no opposing arguments were filed — but a tax measure is always difficult to pass.

Pay now or pay later

When he joined the county board in 2013, Ludlow said, public support was less than overwhelming for any money-raising alternative for road work, including a local vehicle registration fee and a special-purpose district.

“We have kicked the can down the road for a number of years. We did that because the polls did not look good,” he said to Pamplin Media Group editors. “So we are going out with this measure mindful that we are dropping $17.5 million in disrepair every year.”

The county Department of Transportation and Development rates 54 percent of the 1,400 miles of paved roads in fair or poor condition.

Reconstruction of damaged roads would cost far more — by a factor of 10 or greater — than routine maintenance.

Ludlow said it’s like the 1960s commercial for an oil filter: “You can pay me now or pay me later.”

Ludlow said Measure 3-509 would raise $5 million annually for specified projects, based on pavement conditions and traffic usage. He said if people see actual progress on fixing roads, voters may be more inclined to renew the tax in seven years.

“We are going to gain their trust by keeping our word,” he said.

“Too often the public thinks it’s a sinking hole — that government won’t use the money for what it promised. Our poll numbers, with that information in there, are much better.”

Clackamas County now relies on its shares of the state fuel tax, vehicle registration fee and truck weight-mile tax for road work. The county used to get millions in federal timber payments, but that source of money has dried up.

Mike Bezner, deputy director of transportation and development, said county residents pay about $4.25 for road upkeep annually, far less than city dwellers who are subject to transportation utility fees usually charged per household. Counties lack authority to charge such fees.

A new choice

Earlier this year — before the commissioners opted for a fuel tax — the same survey that flagged road and traffic conditions as a top public concern also indicated 52 percent strongly supporting or leaning toward more money for road work, but 43 percent opposed.

But by a 68 percent majority in the May 17 primary, voters passed an advisory measure that urged commissioners to pursue “voter-approved funding” for road work.

“However, that is a lot different question than how much it is going to cost you,” Ludlow said.

The commissioners had leaned initially toward a local vehicle registration fee of $25 annually — collected every other year with the statewide fee of $43 — but shifted to a fuel tax at the urging of city officials after the advisory vote.

However, the board chose to refer a 6-cent tax, rather than the 8-cent backed by city officials. Commissioners did so to raise about the same amount as the now-shelved local registration fee.

Multnomah and Washington counties have small fuel taxes, as do more than two dozen Oregon cities, including Canby, Happy Valley, Milwaukie and Sandy.

New or higher fuel taxes require voter approval under a 2009 state law. A few have passed since then — Portland voters approved a four-year, 10-cent tax on May 17 — but Sandy voters rejected a 3-cent increase in the same election.

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For more information, including a list of county projects and a breakdown of funds by city and county under Measure 3-509: